Recent events have converged to disabuse two illusions about Israeli security: the idea that we can insulate one Palestinian arena from others, and the fallacy of the status quo. Can our leadership make the necessary policy change?

By Matan Vilnai | Channel 12 (Israel)

Recent events were unique in triggering multiple challenges on different fronts. Our security forces – whether caught off guard and forced to adapt on short notice or not – proved, once again, their ability to respond intelligently, decisively and with utmost professionalism.

Developments in Jerusalem, particularly regarding Temple Mount, proved highly challenging for the Police. So did the outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence in Israeli cities which necessitated the involvement of the Shin Bet (Israel’s Internal Security Agency). Escalation in the south, and the effort to prevent outbreaks of violence in the West Bank, tested the abilities of both the IDF and the Shin Bet. Concurrently, all of Israel’s civilian institutions – local authorities, Home Front Command, fire and police departments, and the country’s health services – joined forces in treating the physically and emotionally wounded, and assisting those who suffered loss of property in communities around the country.

It would be premature to relegate these events to the past and too early to draw all conclusions. We can, however, point to one major conclusion – and not for the first time: the State of Israel does not have strategies in place for dealing with each of these fronts and certainly no comprehensive approach that takes into account their interconnectivity.

Suffice it to examine two policy assumptions that have proven completely erroneous. The first is that Israel can successfully disconnect and insulate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, both of them from East Jerusalem, and all three form developments within Israeli society. Recent events demonstrated how easily a match lit in any of those fronts might ignite a conflagration across them all. They also exposed our failures in dealing with each of them.

Take the Gaza Strip, for example. After four major rounds of fighting punctuated by smaller scale hostilities – all within a decade – the government is still fixated on its “more of the same” policy, while refusing to consider alternatives. It insists that the only substitute for the present policy is an illusory ‘final blow’ to ‘finish off the Hamas,’ something that has been justifiably rejected for fear it would trap the IDF in a Gazan quagmire, with no exit strategy. All this points to either a fixed mindset or a desire to preserve Hamas rule due to concealed motives. Needless to say, the residents of the Gaza envelope [the Israeli towns that surround the Strip] pay the price for the government’s ‘more of the same’ policy, designed to enshrine separating the West Bank from Gaza. Large-scale escalation exacts a price from the rest of Israel as well.

A corollary of this erroneous assumption, and something incomprehensible in its own right, has been the government’s investment in stabilizing Hamas rule while undermining that of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Without the PA the IDF would have to manage – and Israelis to finance – the lives of millions of Palestinians. Moreover, routinely the Shin Bet and the IDF credit PA security forces with preventing terror attacks and saving Israeli lives. The fact that security coordination serves the PA’s own interests in no way detracts from its importance to Israel.

All this closely relates to the noted separation fallacy. Against the background of violence on the Temple Mount, in Sheikh Jarrah, from Gaza and within Israel’s cities, we once again learn that Palestinian security personnel face increasing street and peer pressure to abandon their posts and join the protesters, possibly with their weapons. The fact that we have witnessed this before, when Israel installed metal detectors on the Temple Mount, did trigger alarm bells within the Israeli security establishment. It did not cause the government to change course and internalize a basic fact: the ability of a Palestinian policeman to endure accusations by family, friends and neighbors that he is a traitor and collaborator is limited. Absent a political horizon, and when our government fails to stop Jewish extremists’ provocations against Muslim religious equities and symbols of Palestinian identity, it should come as no surprise that average Palestinians do not view the PA as serving their national aspirations, but rather as an outsourced arm that perpetuates the occupation.

Not everything is up to us. Israel does not determine the quality of Palestinian leadership. But we can refute the arguments of their opponents (Hamas and others): that the PA has no legitimacy, that it cannot improve the quality of everyday life for its constituents, and that it collaborates with Israel that is at best insincere and probably outright hostile to a negotiated two-state outcome. We can strengthen the moderates, not the extremists; those who fight terror, not the terrorists.

The second governing error is the illusion of the status quo. It involves two false assumptions.  First, that we can undermine the S tatus Q uo regarding Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – the world’s most sensitive site – with impunity. Like all his predecessors since 1967, Netanyahu defined the Status Quo clearly: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” This commitment, however, has been inexorably whittled down, including by Jewish extremists, who are convinced that provocative demonstrations of Israeli sovereignty on the site are worth risking the outbreak of ethnic strife. Lately, Israeli authorities have held these extremists in check, but not before they triggered a major crisis.

The second false assumption within the illusion of a status quo is far broader. It was manifest in the backdrop to the last outbreak of violence on all four fronts. It can be best summarized by a mindset whereby ‘when things are calm – why bother’, but ‘once violence breaks out – one doesn’t capitulate under duress.’

The example of the West Bank is telling: here, what is referred to as status quo is actually a trend of ongoing de facto annexation. It was creeping; it is galloping now. It comprises a range of measures – legislation, construction, evictions and much more. Ostensibly disconnected, cumulatively they have brought about fundamental changes on the ground.

Taken in isolation, each of these measures has its story and might even seem justified. Viewed comprehensively, they make separation between Israelis and Palestinians, and keeping the door open to an eventual two-state solution, much more difficult.

The recent four-front crisis provided us with a taste of what one, bi-national state looks like. All who are committed to Israel’s future as the strong democratic home of the Jewish people must jettison the illusions of a status quo, that what happens on one front has no effect on others, and that Israel can continue its failed policies. Time for a major change in strategy, and over 300 CIS members, all retired senior security officials, will have the government’s back when it does.

The writer, Major General (Ret.) Vilnai, was the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, Deputy Minister of Defense, member of several cabinets and Ambassador to China. He is Chairman of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS)