Israelis and Palestinians play risky game

Withholding of tax funds to Palestinian Authority was predictable as pre-election ploy

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending this week’s cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem. Photograph: Reuters

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending this week’s cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem. Photograph: Reuters

 

As he desperately searches for an agenda on which to fight the March election, the rapidly-deteriorating diplomatic battle with the Palestinians may be just what Binyamin Netanyahu needs to secure a fourth term as Israel’s prime minister.

With the opposition blaming Mr Netanyahu for the stuttering economy and Israel’s growing global isolation, the prime minister was quick to portray himself yesterday as the leader who would defend Israeli troops against Palestinian attempts to drag them before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

“IDF soldiers will continue to protect the state of Israel with determination and strength, and just as they are protecting us we will protect them, with the same determination and strength,” he told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting.

Sweet words

Hamas

Of course, such a scenario was foreseen by US secretary of state John Kerry and a number of European leaders, who urged the Palestinians to delay unilateral moves against Israel, at the UN or other international bodies, until after the March election, warning that such moves would play into the hands of the Israeli right-wing.

But to no avail.

The Palestinians insisted on a late December vote at the UN security council on a resolution demanding a negotiated settlement within a year and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank within three years.

If they had only waited another week, their chances of securing the required nine votes would have significantly improved after pro-Palestinian Venezuela and Malaysia joined the council.

The Palestinian leadership followed through on their promise to seek membership of the ICC in response to the diplomatic defeat at the United Nations.

Israel’s decision to withhold the transfer of tax funds to the Palestinian Authority was predictable. Israel has applied similar sanctions in the past, usually releasing the funds after a few weeks in response to international pressure.

Risky move

The economic difficulties of the Palestinian Authority are real enough and without the tax revenues, which account for about two-thirds of president Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank budget, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would come sooner rather than later.

Security co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces remains the key element in maintaining quiet in the West Bank and the last thing Mr Netanyahu needs ahead of the election is to be forced to send troops back into Palestinian cities such as Nablus and Hebron.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, aware of Israel’s dilemma, warned last night that the Palestinian leadership would meet in the coming days and call on Mr Netanyahu to resume full responsibility as an occupying power.

Brinkmanship on both sides, proving again that a diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East is a dangerous scenario.

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