By Yossi Alpher
The brutal murder some 10 days ago of five members of an Israeli family in the settlement of Itamar, presumably by Palestinian terrorists, has to be seen in several contexts. They seemingly form concentric circles of ramifications, beginning with the local and reaching the regional and even global.
The local context is one of ongoing settlement expansion and increasingly lawless behavior by extremist settlers, some of them from Itamar and the “illegal” outposts it has spawned, who attack their Palestinian neighbors. This, even as the overall security situation in the West Bank has improved immensely in the last few years thanks to the success of Palestinian security forces and close cooperation between them and Israel and the international community. The improved security situation explains at least part of the shock caused by the Itamar attack: not only was it unusually brutal; it was simply a rarity. Nothing the settlers had done could in any way rationalize it. The reactions of the West Bank press and “man on the street” interviews in Nablus underlined just how inexplicable Palestinians there found the attack. Only in Rafah in the Gaza Strip did we witness disgusting scenes of rejoicing.
Since the perpetrators have not yet been found, we cannot explain the specific genesis of the attack. But the next circle of ramifications takes us to two significant contexts. One is the total absence of a peace process: it is almost axiomatic that the status quo of relative peace and quiet in the West Bank cannot long be maintained in the absence of some sort of movement toward peace (although it must be acknowledged that progress toward peace also produces acts of terrorism on both sides).
The second context is intra-Palestinian relations in the shadow of regional revolutionary turmoil. Youth circles in both Ramallah and Gaza have been demonstrating in favor of reconstituting a unity government that embraces the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Fateh and Hamas. Moderate politicians on both sides have expressed an interest. Could the Itamar attack have been intended to torpedo these efforts by generating an escalatory spiral? Last weekend’s heavy mortar attacks from Gaza against nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim would seem to support that thesis.
Next is the broader regional and even global context. Not many people in the world care about the murders in Itamar when revolution is overflowing throughout the Middle East and the international community is transfixed by the natural and nuclear disaster in Japan. Against this backdrop, the attempt by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to leverage the Itamar attack into a frontal assault on alleged Palestinian incitement was pathetic three times over.
To begin with, while there is plenty of Hamas incitement to condemn, Netanyahu focused instead on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. There, with a few significant exceptions like tolerating the glorification of past terrorist “heroes”, huge strides have been made by a responsible leadership to silence incitement. And all the while, Israel’s right-wing government is rife with its own brand of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian incitement, disseminated mainly by supposedly respectable and even esteemed religious figures like Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and rabblerousing jingoists like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his associates.
So Netanyahu should clean up his own house first. But he should also recognize that, right now, the world is simply not interested. The lesson was repeated last week when the Israel Navy intercepted a ship carrying concealed Iranian weapons bound for Gaza and invited an indifferent and otherwise preoccupied international media to document the evidence. When the Saudis and other Gulf forces are entering Bahrain out of concern over Iranian inroads there; when demonstrators are killed daily in Yemen and Syria; when the western powers, with tacit Arab support, are attacking the Gaddafi regime in Libya — the world is preoccupied with other affairs.
Finally, while the Itamar attack renders a renewed peace process less likely, the truth is that it wasn’t likely before Itamar. Netanyahu is really not interested and his coalition is incapable of sustaining even minimal concessions. This factor, too, explains why the prime minister’s protests about incitement sounded so hollow.
Since Netanyahu has nothing to offer, it’s just as well the world is busy elsewhere.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.