Analysis from Israel

While Palestinians were killing four Israelis in back-to-back terror attacks last week, I received an email lauding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his vital role in fighting such terror. This email was parroting a very popular myth: that Abbas deserves the credit for the past several years of relative calm. Yet in reality, Abbas had nothing to do with producing this calm and little to do with maintaining it. And a simple year-by-year breakdown of the very numbers his cheerleaders cite to praise him is enough to prove it.

The myth relies on one completely true fact: Israeli fatalities have fallen dramatically since the height of the second intifada, from 452 in 2002 to 6 in 2013. But those who seek to credit Abbas for this development overlook two crucial details. First, almost three-quarters of this drop occurred even before Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat as PA president in November 2004. Israeli fatalities fell from their 2002 peak of 452 to 208 in 2003 and 117 in 2004; a cumulative decline of 74 percent. Yet during those years, Arafat was still in charge.

Second, the remaining drop happened during years when Abbas was indeed PA president but had zero control on the ground because the Israel Defense Forces retook control of the entire West Bank in March 2002. Only five years later did they begin gradually returning certain areas to PA control.

When the IDF reasserted control in 2002, it launched a massive, years-long operation to defang the terrorist organizations that until then had used the PA as their home base. That’s why Israeli fatalities fell by roughly 50 percent a year during the last two years of Arafat’s rule, and why they continued to fall by roughly 50 percent a year during the first three years of Abbas’s rule – from 117 in 2004 to 56 in 2005, 30 in 2006 to 13 in 2007.

Only in late 2007, once terror was already down by 97 percent from its 2002 peak, did Israel begin returning control of major West Bank cities to the PA, starting with Nablus in November 2007 and then Jenin in May 2008. Thus by the time Abbas actually assumed security control, West Bank terror was already at the same low level it would maintain for the next six years (Israeli fatalities actually spiked in 2008, but due to an upsurge in terror from Hamas-controlled Gaza, leading to the first Gaza war that December).

Moreover, in the one territory where Abbas did exert security control during those years – the Gaza Strip – he didn’t lift a finger against anti-Israel terror. The IDF unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, leaving Abbas’s forces in full control for almost two years until Hamas seized power in a week-long battle in June 2007. During those two years, Palestinians fired thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza, including 1,123 in 2006 alone; yet Abbas took no action whatsoever against the rocket launchers, whom he deemed his “brothers.” By contrast, not one rocket was ever fired at Israel from the IDF-controlled West Bank.

Nor does Abbas deserve much credit for keeping the peace since 2007, because Israel learned from the mistake it made from 1995-2002 when the IDF’s scrupulous refusal to enter PA territory allowed terrorist groups to flourish. Since 2007, the IDF has conducted counterterrorism operations in the PA whenever it sees fit, sometimes almost nightly; and that’s the main reason terror has remained subdued. Indeed, the widespread view in the IDF is that were Israeli troops not present, Hamas would swiftly rout Abbas’s forces, just as it did in Gaza in 2007.

So given all of the above, why do IDF officers nevertheless routinely laud Abbas’s security coordination with Israel? Because the post-2007 Abbas does differ from both Arafat and his own pre-2007 self in one important respect: Following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza that summer, Abbas concluded that Hamas was a bigger threat to his own rule than to Israel, and since then, he has indeed cooperated in constraining Hamas in the West Bank. As noted, his role is strictly secondary. Moreover, the fact that he assumed it only after Hamas turned its guns on him shows that it stems not from any commitment in principle to fighting terror, but purely from self-interest. Nevertheless, a Palestinian leader who shares Israel’s interest in squelching Hamas is clearly better than one who doesn’t.

Yet even this benefit is largely offset by the fact that Abbas actively foments anti-Israel terror in other ways. Granted, he’s no Arafat; he doesn’t personally orchestrate terror attacks or smuggle arms. But he does engage in vicious, systematic incitement that encourages other Palestinians to kill Israelis, like accusing Israel of genocide (over a war whose casualties amounted to a mere 1 percent of those in Syria’s civil war), praising Palestinians who try to kill Jewish civilians as “martyrs,” or declaring that Jews who dare to set foot on Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, “desecrate” it “with their filthy feet.”

Moreover, he makes terror a financially lucrative business by paying generous salaries – four to seven times higher than the average Palestinian wage – to all terrorists jailed in Israel, including Hamas terrorists responsible for killing dozens of Israelis each. Indeed, the payment scale actively incentivizes lethal attacks, because the longer the prison term, the higher the monthly salary. These salaries consume some $144 million of the PA’s annual budget.

Thus while Abbas is undeniably better than Arafat, he isn’t enough better that Israel should care if he quits. After all, credit for the calm of the past several years belongs primarily not to Abbas, but to the IDF. And the IDF will still be there once Abbas is gone.

Originally published in Commentary on October 7, 2015

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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