מיכאל מילשטיין
Michael Milstein
The funeral for Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza, Nov. 2019

Israel must fight urge to meddle in Palestinian affairs

Opinion: The decision-makers in Jerusalem have to learn from the state's less celebrated actions throughout its history, especially as the Palestinians in particular are experiencing a period of weakness

Michael Milstein |
Published: 02.05.20 , 23:48
Every now and then, and especially when our neighborhood shows signs of weakness, Israel develops an appetite for influencing the setup in the region in order to improve its own strategic position.
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  • Sometimes this appetite is sated with mere thoughts, sometimes it needs tactical moves and sometimes it hungers for strategic changes that are not necessarily easy for Israel to digest.

    הלוויתו של  בהא אבו אל עטאהלוויתו של  בהא אבו אל עטא
    The funeral for Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza, Nov. 2019
    (Photo: TPS)
    A recent example of how such appetites can be problematic is the assassination of radical Islamic jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata, who was killed in a November 2019 IDF airstrike in Gaza.
    The assassination, while a tactical success, was dressed in strategic commentary that described al-Atta as the major obstacle to an arrangement with Hamas for calm in the Gaza Strip.
    But the ongoing security tensions with the Gaza Strip demand a critical understanding not only of what drives Hamas and whether it is indeed ready for an agreement, but also of Israel's own ability to "settle affairs" between its enemies.
    A look at the history of the state shows examples of overreaching that Israel probably prefers to forget.
    There is the "Bad Business" of 1954, when Israel carried out a false flag operation in Egypt in an effort to exacerbate tensions between Cairo and the West. This was followed by the First Lebanon War in 1982, which was essentially an effort to reconstruct Lebanon in particular and the Middle East in general.
    This leads us to the idea of a decade ago to advance political negotiations with Syria, including a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, with a view to driving a wedge between Damascus and Tehran and Hezbollah.
    IDF troops and tanks in Beirut during the 1982 First Lebanon War IDF troops and tanks in Beirut during the 1982 First Lebanon War
    IDF troops and tanks in Beirut during the 1982 First Lebanon War
    (Photo: David Rubinger)
    All of these past events demanded a great deal of caution and a hint of humility, along with knowledge of the culture, language and history of the region. And this is where Israel fell down, applying Western logic to strategic games in the Middle East.
    Some of the incidents in Israel's past, which caused complications and damage, must be used as lessons for the challenges facing the country today.
    One of the most prominent examples of this issue is what happens once Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is no longer in charge. This is a complex external issue in which Israel both has profound influence and will be directly impacted by the outcome.

    אבו מאזןאבו מאזן
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends an Arab League summit in Cairo, Feb. 1, 2020
    (Photo: AFP)
    Israel cannot afford to show complete indifference to the reality that will unfold in the West Bank or define it solely as "a matter for the Palestinians." It must prepare to respond to serious situations, first and foremost a takeover of the region by extremist elements.
    Israel must move very cautiously, avoiding involvement in Palestinian power plays, respecting their decision-making while refusing to accept the development of threats that may have strategic implications.
    On a wider front, the Middle East will continue to be characterized for the foreseeable future by chronic instability accompanied by internal battles and tensions.
    Israel cannot give in to the temptation to meddle in neighboring countries that are plagued by instability and internecine fighting.
    As such, it would be advised not to succumb to hubris and try to reshape the Palestinian leadership, which seems weaker than ever in light of the Trump peace plan.
    Israel would be best served by focusing on identifying and neutralizing threats - as it successfully did along the northern border - and avoid trying to change the face of the region, which will only lead it into another quagmire.
    Michael Milstein is head of the Palestinian Studies Forum in the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University
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