2018 has been a packed year on the Israeli-Palestinian and American Jewish fronts, with massive changes in U.S. policy on aid to the West Bank and Gaza and the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, fighting in Gaza and the first ever direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, and the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history among the biggest stories. In the year ahead, as Israel goes to elections and the U.S. enters presidential primary season, here are five things to watch that will reverberate beyond the next twelve months in ways big and small.
A new Palestinian direction
Palestinians have been only lukewarmly enthusiastic about two states for some time, but the most recent Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research poll from Khalil Shikaki is an alarming harbinger of where things are headed. Palestinians – long fed up with the Palestinian Authority’s corrupt despotism – are turning away from the PA and what it represents in larger majorities. In a hypothetical election between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, 49% of Palestinians would vote for Haniyeh to 42% for Abbas, a shift from the last poll three months ago in which Abbas was on top. 53% of Palestinians describe the PA as a burden on Palestinians, and a much lower percentage of West Bankers say they can criticize their governing authority without fear (35%) than Gazans say about theirs (48%). Equal blocs of 34% support a peace agreement with Israel and armed struggle, versus 40% who supported a peace agreement three months ago, and 44% think armed struggle is the most effective means of establishing a Palestinian state against 28% who see negotiations as the most effective, juxtaposed against 33% and 39% respectively three months ago. Palestinians are pretty quickly moving in a more radical direction, which used to characterize a minority of the Palestinian population but may soon characterize a majority of the Palestinian population. This is going to have consequences in all sorts of areas, from intra-Palestinian politics to how Palestinians engage with Israel, and it is time to start reasonably asking how much longer the PA itself will survive.
A much less stable West Bank
The news out of the West Bank of the past few weeks has been unsettling, with a noticeable uptick in Palestinian shootings of Israelis and Israeli price tag violence against Palestinians. A number of factors are converging that may make 2019 the most violent year in the West Bank since the end of the Second Intifada. Hamas’s presence in the West Bank has been growing, as it has developed a strategy around keeping Gaza quiet while trying to sow whatever chaos it can in the West Bank. Israel has busted up over one hundred more Hamas terrorist cells in the West Bank this year than last year, and has disrupted over 530 attempted terrorist attacks in the West Bank, up from 400 last year. The cessation of all American aid and infrastructure projects in the West Bank is going to land in the upcoming year as projects are canceled, unemployment is up, and NGOs are shuttered. Multiple Fatah would-be successors to Abbas have started building private militias that are bound at some point to tangle with each other and with the PA security forces. And those PA security forces, which are so critical to keeping things quiet and coordinating on anti-terrorism operations with Israel, may be about to lose all of their American funding and training due to the passage in October of the Anti-Terrorism Act Clarification Act, which opens up the PA to personal jurisdiction in federal courts and certain bankruptcy if it continues to accept security assistance from the U.S. Essentially, every observable trend points to increasing chaos in the West Bank, with the few remaining brakes on the system having been undermined by various parties at every turn.
A shift in Haredi politics
Israel’s Haredi community is transforming by the day, and long-held assumptions about Haredi society and its political preferences, involvement, and power are proving wrong, but too few are paying close attention. I wrote last month about the split between the Ashkenazi Haredim reflected in the Jerusalem mayoralty race, but it goes far beyond that. In Beit Shemesh, Haredi voters helped elect a non-Haredi female mayor, and there is evidence across Israeli municipal elections of split voting within families and an erosion in blindly following the dictates of Haredi rabbis in how to vote. Shas, which represents Mizrahi Haredim, is at serious risk of not making the threshold for the next Knesset and is still being torn apart by the feud between current head Aryeh Deri and outcast former head Eli Yishai. Moving beyond politics, Haredim are integrating into wider Israeli society in unprecedented numbers. It was striking that both soldiers shot and killed outside of Givat Assaf last week were members of the Haredi Netzach Yehuda battalion. My best educated guess is that the sum total of these trends will mean greater Haredi influence in Israeli politics and society, but in a far less monolithic way than it has meant for decades; whatever the practical outcomes are, they will be potentially revolutionary.
American Jews are going to start fighting about BDS
For the most part, American Jews have been unified in their conviction that the BDS movement is using Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a cover to advance the larger anti-Semitic goal of erasing Israel entirely, and BDS has garnered precious little sympathy, defense, or support. But the campaign to stamp out BDS – a movement that has been laughingly ineffective at actually convincing any companies or universities to boycott Israel or Israelis – is now starting to provoke its own backlash due to overreach, and it is going to cause fissures among American Jews, who until now had no reason to view BDS activity as anything but unmitigatingly nefarious.
Aside from the reaction to the Airbnb decision to delist properties in West Bank settlements, which hit a discordant note in tarring the company as anti-Semitic and trying to delegitimize Israel despite thousands of remaining properties inside the Green Line, there are stirrings over both federal and state legislation that is being challenged on free speech grounds. Congress’s Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would prohibit companies from participating in boycotts of Israel led by foreign governments or international governmental organizations, is running into substantive First Amendment opposition from the ACLU and some members of Congress, but also procedural opposition as its sponsors try to tack it onto an end of year spending bill. A Texas anti-Israel boycott law is under fire after it was reported this week that a speech pathologist’s job in a Texas school district was not renewed after she refused to affirm that she did not and would not boycott Israel, and the district said its hands were tied by the law requiring the language in her contract.
American Jews do not like BDS, but they are not big fans of Israeli settlements and free speech restrictions either. As the BDS fight increasingly pits supporting Israel against supporting expansive free speech, or making support for Israel wholly contingent on support for West Bank settlements too, the BDS issue is going to become less black and white for American Jews than it has been.
The law of unintended consequences
The Trump administration has been unusually active when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues, but many of the things it has done have second order consequences that the White House and the Israeli government either do not anticipate or mistakenly dismiss as unlikely. When President Trump announced the embassy move, there was loud crowing that it was going to usher in a wave of international recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and a rush of embassy relocations. Not only has that not happened outside of Guatemala – and embarrassingly Paraguay, which moved its embassy to Jerusalem but then decided to move it back to Tel Aviv – it has created a reverse incentive to push back against Israel’s absolutist position on Jerusalem. On Saturday, Australia decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but it specifically only recognized West Jerusalem and declined to move its embassy until a peace agreement with the Palestinians is reached. Israeli officials reacted to this development with alarm, fearing that it will lead to copycat decisions and will undermine the notion of Jerusalem as undivided and solely the capital of Israel. If this fear is right, then the Trump move will ultimately be a counterproductive one in some ways from Israel’s point of view with unexpected consequences.
In a similar vein, the new law that will open up the PA to anti-terrorism lawsuits in U.S. courts was sponsored by a wide spectrum of Republicans and Democrats and signed by Trump. But nobody involved in the process seemed to consider that it put security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians at risk by making jurisdiction contingent on the Palestinians accepting U.S. security assistance, which is the only American assistance to the Palestinians that survived Trump’s draconian ax. The law was supposed to be about allowing victims of terror to have their rightful day in court, but if it ends up effectively defunding the PA security forces and destroying PA security cooperation with Israel, it will only end up being responsible for more terrorism against Israelis. The White House, tragically late to the party, has been frantically trying to get the already-passed law amended to avoid this very consequence, but the die has already been cast. And in an even more recent example, Trump announced yesterday that he is withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria because the “only reason” for being there – defeating ISIS – has been accomplished, which will sound foolish when the U.S. is trying to contain the fallout from an Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria or Lebanon that just became a lot more likely. The upcoming year may prove that the unknown unknowns are perhaps more knowable than some want to let on.
Finally, this is the last Koplow Column of 2018. For those who read this weekly column, whether you love it or hate it or are somewhere in between, thank you for reading and engaging me with your compliments and criticisms. I encourage you – if you have not done so already – to consider making a year-end contribution to Israel Policy Forum in support of our work, which calls attention to the above disheartening trends in the hopes of reversing them. If you are already a supporter of Israel Policy Forum, thank you for all you have done. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2019.