A Looming Crisis in Israel/Palestine

Israeli repression of the Palestinians and Palestinian resistance toward the Israelis have laid the groundwork for another possible outbreak of disorder, a new intifada, which would present challenges to both sides and to the Obama administration, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Conditions seem to be as ripe as they have been for some time for the outbreak of a new Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in territory occupied by Israel. A hunger strike by several Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis has been building suspense over what will happen when striking prisoners die.

Then over the weekend was the death of a different 30-year-old Palestinian in Israeli custody. Officially the cause was a heart attack, but Palestinians charge that an autopsy shows he was tortured. Israelis do not dispute at least some of the observations made during the autopsy but say that “fractures in the ribs” of the dead man “could be testimony to resuscitation efforts.”

Israel Defense Force soldiers patrolling Nablus during the Second Intifada in 2002. (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

In a clash between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops outside an Israeli military prison in the West Bank, several demonstrators were injured, by rubber bullets, not live ammunition, say the Israelis.

The best answer to the question of whether we are on the eve of a new intifada is: nobody knows. This is not just a cop-out, because any such outbreak is much more likely to be a basically unpredictable spontaneous happening rather than the product of anyone’s conscious decision.

Previous intifadas involved more spontaneity than was often perceived, because perceptions got shaped by spinning of the story to direct blame. Palestinian and Israeli leaders are already doing preemptive spinning in anticipation of a new uprising.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday, “The Israelis want chaos and we know it but we won’t let them.” Meanwhile, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to assign responsibility for keeping streets calm to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

The government released some of the Palestinian tax money it had been withholding (as punishment for the Palestinians getting their status at the United Nations upgraded last fall) so that, as an envoy of the government explained, the Palestinian Authority “won’t have an excuse not to enforce calm on the ground.”

Any analysis of how a new intifada would affect the interests of the leadership on each side is apt to yield mixed results. Probably there is ambivalence and internal disagreement on both sides as to likely costs and benefits.

For the Palestinians, unrest in the occupied territories has always drawn international attention to their plight in ways that diplomacy and lobbying alone cannot. One can fairly question whether the Oslo peace process of the 1990s would ever have happened without the first intifada, which began a few years earlier. Letting off steam against Israel in the streets might also help to divert, for a while, dissatisfaction with Abbas and his quasi-government.

The costs and risks for Palestinian leaders of an uprising are, however, substantial. They can themselves quickly become, along with the Israelis, targets for any mass letting off of steam. The Palestinian Authority would either take blame for stirring up the uprising or be shown to be impotent in its inability to control the Palestinian street.

Unrest would be inconsistent with the diplomatic and political direction Abbas set with his campaign for upgraded status at the United Nations. And any uprising would surely bring an Israeli response that would entail multiple negatives, including making the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians even more difficult than they are now.

For the Netanyahu government, a new uprising would have the attraction of offering a fresh argument for why it should not be pushed into a serious peace process. How do you expect us to try to negotiate an agreement, it would say, when all that we see on the other side is disorder and violence?

Any intifada, even one that began with mostly peaceful demonstrations, would inevitably spawn excesses that the Israelis could point to as evidence of malevolent Palestinian intent.

On the negative side of the ledger for the Israeli government, international reaction to an intifada would begin from a base that involves much more sympathy for Palestinians than it does for Israel. A new intifada would distract attention from Netanyahu’s drum-beating campaign of alarmism about Iran. And there would be the risk that some in the international community, and most importantly the U.S. administration, would see the unrest as all the more reason for reviving a peace process.

For the United States, the first thing to do is to be ready with a well-thought-out posture before a new intifada begins. The Obama administration cannot allow itself to look like it is scrambling to put together a position.

Then when (and “when,” rather than “if,” there is more unrest is the right formulation, even if the timing is unpredictable) an intifada begins, one major theme of such a position should be opposition to violence in all forms, whether the perpetrator wears a kaffiyeh or a military uniform.

Another theme should be that the unrest is indeed all the more reason to pursue vigorously a peace process, because the ultimate cause of the mess is continued occupation and denial of Palestinian political rights.

And then, don’t just stop at uttering themes. Use a new intifada as the occasion for abandoning past ineffective inertia and actually doing what is necessary, including exerting the necessary U.S. leverage, to resolve the underlying problem.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

11 comments for “A Looming Crisis in Israel/Palestine

  1. Peter Loeb
    March 5, 2013 at 07:56

    If any “sctivist”/”liberal”/”progressive”/democrat at any time supported Barack
    Obama there should be no surprise that he will not alter his eternal pledge
    of support for Zionist and Israeli concerns. He has sold himself to Israel most
    probably for the financial support for his various campaigns. Or to put it more
    charitably to avoid defeats. There never was a “dear Mr. President…” to
    consider the concerns of Palestinians or of other Muslim states with the exception of those from whom the US receives benefits (sometimes called “interest”).

  2. charles sereno
    February 28, 2013 at 17:28

    I hope that Mr. Pillar would lend his expertise to analyzing in depth the rationale behind the disparate responses of the US to the North Korean and Iranian “nuclear threats” when, superficially, North Korea would seem to appear the first logical target.

    • F. G. Sanford
      February 28, 2013 at 18:14

      I’m not an expert, but I think I can provide the analysis you’re looking for. How about…there aren’t enough Israelis in South Korea? South Korea doesn’t have any oil? North Korea doesn’t have any either? The Chinese live next door? North Korea’s entire GDP is one third the aid package we give to Israel? (Yep, believe it or not the whole country has an annual budget of only $1 Billion) How about…they’re not Muslims? Those are just a few of the reasons. An expert would no doubt be able to come up with more.

      • F. G. Sanford
        February 28, 2013 at 18:32

        Oh…and I forgot the most important reason! North Korea actually does have a nuke, and Iran doesn’t! After we got our asses kicked by a bunch of illiterate opium growers, you don’t think we’d tackle a nuclear armed country with an infantry, tanks and artillery, do you?

        • charles sereno
          February 28, 2013 at 21:26

          I enjoyed awakening your comic streak. I KNOW I’m not funny but I keep trying. How’s this: 1) We send an agent over with a trigger for their nuclear material (No, not Rodman); 2) We convince them to explode a demonstration bomb in the Pacific as a warning; 3) The test fails and we double Homeland Security’s budget.
          PS I think it’s about a country with a name beginning with “C.”

  3. TheAZCowBoy
    February 28, 2013 at 13:59

    Let’s keep it simple fplks. Financing Jeiwh terrorism will be the downfall of thge Great Satan and this American can hardly wait. The US learned nothing from WTC-1 and the Jews learned nothing from Holocaust !

    One more time Pilgrims: “Let’s take it from the top. One 3 kiloton nuke in NYC harbour in a shipping container (comming right up folks!) or shall we do it in Tel Aviv’s harbour where it will create the ‘world’s deepest harbour’ (Purr-fect for our Nimitz class carriers that get past Iran’s ‘nuclear capable’ Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missiles; which I read can take a Nimitz class carrier (with its 5,000 men crew) to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in about 12 minues, (if the magazine stores are hit directly). Ohhhh well…..

  4. Ronald Thomas West
    February 28, 2013 at 13:04

    I’ll round out my initial comment for you, with more useful information than was in the entire article, in one paragraph:

    So long as Netanyahu can cling to power in alliance with the ultra-orthodox parties via a policy of ‘annexation creep’ by settlement, any ‘peace process’ will be a charade, whether when showing [artificial] life or merely alluded to. There is no sincere movement, and there will be no sincere movement so long as America’s ‘Christian Dominion’ (neo-con) community is a part of the equation. That element of the AIPAC alliance is going to be ultimately murderous to all parties, inasmuch as the ‘Christian Dominion’ element is based on a theology of literal Armageddon. People had better wake up to this, a good place to begin is looking into Mikey Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org

  5. Ronald Thomas West
    February 28, 2013 at 12:47

    Going from an agency that, among other less than honest things, specializes in information operations (deceit), to a professor at an ivory tower, is hardly any qualification to disseminate useful information. It never ceases to amaze how the facts on the ground (my background is military special operations intelligence) seldom stack up accurately in academia. 28 years experience behind a desk qualifies for ‘skimming over the surface’, I’ll grant you that.

  6. Hillary
    February 28, 2013 at 12:35

    Paul R. Pillar is good but obviously has to tread lightly.

    In his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts.
    The history of the CIA is nothing we can be proud of.
    So many times the CIA has “got” it wrong as with the fall of the USSR.when “Robert Gates” pushing for more US Military Industrial spending to counter the “imaginary” USSR power.

    After getting it so wrong , what happened to Mr. Gates ? He was promoted “of course”,.
    Not to mention Iraq or 9/11.
    It all seems like the “same old, same old”
    However Paul R. Pillar is good but obviously has to tread lightly.

  7. Ronald Thomas West
    February 28, 2013 at 10:36

    Much ado about surface symptoms and no cutting to the underlying cause. Netanyahu’s policy is ‘annexation creep’ by settlement and clinging to that policy is clinging to power with the ultra-orthodox religious parties. No one in their right mind (no one who’d served 28 years in the CIA could possibly be in their right mind) actually believes the peace process stands a ghost of a chance with AIPAC uniting Christian and Jewish zionist alike, the peace process is a charade when it is showing signs of [artificial] life and it is a charade when it is pontificated upon.

    Some worthwhile reading on the subject (unlike Pillar’s articles) would be Eyal Weizman ‘The Least Of All Possible Evils’ [2011] on “Humanitarian Violence” and failed American & Israeli policies, and the psychology behind the failures.

    • gregorylkruse
      February 28, 2013 at 11:51

      I agree with your second sentence, but the rant against Pillar is as unnecessary as it is unpleasant. Pillar may be skating over the surface in this article, but suggesting that he is insane, pontifical, and unworthy makes you sound like an angry egotist.

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