In the Arena

What is Israel’s Game?

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Under normal circumstances, as our colleague Andrew Butters reports here, the assassination of Hamas arms supplier Mahmoud al-Mabhouh would be seen as Middle East tradecraft as usual–if a bit clumsily done, since the assassins used the passports of actual Israelis with British, Irish and French dual citizenship and since the Mossad clearly underestimated the sleuthing capacity of the Dubai police. Mabhouh was a legitimate target, the killer of many Israelis…but one has to wonder about the timing.

Why kill Mabhouh now, at a moment of relative tranquility between Israel and the Palestinians? No doubt, the opportunity to kill your enemy’s arms supplier doesn’t come along that often–but this hit may well occasion a violent reaction from Hamas, which is feeling increasingly frustrated under the yoke of the Israeli siege in Gaza, breaking the cease fire that now exists between the parties (although, Palestinians could argue, with justification, that the assassination did precisely that).

And then there’s this: Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that two historical (actually, mythical) landmarks on the West Bank, in Hebron and Bethlehem, would be added to Israel’s official register of historic sites. The announcement caused some rock-throwing in Hebron yesterday…and one has to wonder why, with the West Bank Palestinians making a good faith effort on security, governance and economic development, would Bibi want to poke this finger in their eye at this particular moment? It is redolent of Ariel Sharon’s 2000 walk on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which provoked the Second Intifada. And in this case, since the landmarks are well within Palestinian territory, it is an illegal international encroachment–sort of like Greece naming the ruins of Troy, which are in Turkey, as a national historical site (although, in fairness, the Arab refusal to acknowledge Jewish historical sites like the Western Wall and other abundant evidence of Jewish presence in the region dating back at least 3000 years is infuriating and ridiculous).

The choice of Abraham’s alleged burial place in Hebron seems a purposeful outrage. The Tomb of the Patriarch is revered by Muslims and Jews alike; it was the site of a famous massacre of Muslim worshipers, carried about by a Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein in 1994. And Hebron remains the site of the most egregious Israeli settlement–400 fanatics, many of them Americans, plopped in the middle of an Arab city of 500,000, guarded by 4000 Israeli soldiers, their presence causing roadblocks that force some Hebronites to detour as much as 8 kilometers to get from one side of a central neighborhood to the other.

Israel is in a commanding position at the moment. Netanyahu is without any significant political opposition. The Palestinians are divided, between Hamas–which was crushed in the Israeli campaign against Gaza last year–and Fatah, which controls the West Bank. But it is an interesting moment as well: the Palestinians have pretty much ceased aggressive actions against the Israelis. For the first time in the 30 years that I’ve been following this story, the Palestinians are making a good faith effort to govern themselves effectively–the subject of my print column this week–on the West Bank. Which means that the Israelis–who have made most of the good faith efforts toward peace in the past–are increasingly seen as the primary obstacle to a two-state solution, especially given the presence of right-wing fanatics in Netanyahu’s government who are completely opposed to any sort of deal.

And so, the question: Are Bibi’s recent actions calculated to provoke the Palestinians? Does he want to prove to the world that you still can’t trust those volatile Arabs? I mean, if he were really caught up in historicity, he might propose a tripartite commission–Muslim, Christian and Jew–to establish the mutual designation of historic sites on both sides of the green line. But I have a sneaking feeling that this isn’t about historicity at all.