It’s Not an Intifada

Palestinians aren't ready to rise up -- yet.

Don't call it an intifada. Not yet, anyway.

Sure, violence has erupted recently throughout the West Bank. The injuries and deaths of Palestinian protestors continue to make headlines. Palestinian and Israeli commentators are warning of a return to chaos. Some are outright cheering for it. But officials from both sides of the Green Line are reluctant to call it an "intifada," for fear of letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle. Instead, they carefully wield such terms as "popular resistance," "rioters," or just "the situation."

What's in a name? The term intifada was popularized when the Palestinians launched their first uprising against Israel from 1987 to 1990. Translated as "shaking off," that Palestinian intifada was replete with rock-throwing, tire-burning, civil disobedience, and low-level violence against Israel in an attempt to gain independence. By contrast, the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005, was an all-out war, with Iranian proxies Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah's Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and other groups carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets.

These two campaigns to decouple from the Israelis differed greatly in tactics, but both were unquestionably embraced by the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people alike. We don't see that kind of cohesion today, and that, essentially, is why we won't yet call it an intifada.

In fact, according to a recent poll, 65 percent of Palestinians oppose a new intifada. And so does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has called upon his security services to keep a lid on the violence.

Abbas, however, has not entirely closed the door on a new uprising. The Jerusalem Post reports that he recently reached an agreement with the rival Hamas faction to keep things on a low flame. The two factions, whose leaders are generally prone to disagreement on just about everything, have apparently settled on the term "peaceful intifada."

This strategy apparently includes demonstrations against the West Bank security barrier, Israeli detention policies, and Israeli settlements, as well as more creative Palestinian civil disobedience, including the erection of "outposts" such as Bab Al-Shams in the disputed E1 area and others since.

The Israelis have called upon the Palestinian Authority to unequivocally end the unrest, but that may not happen right away. Abbas knows that, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the region in March, the uncertain security situation (not an intifada, mind you) is his ace in the hole.

Abbas's rationale for keeping the unrest on a low flame is simple. Rather than asking the Palestinian leaer for potentially painful concessions at the negotiating table with Israel, Obama might now come to Ramallah with one respectful request: maintain calm.

To this end, as one Israeli journalist claims, Abbas's government is purposely "staging media spectacles." But this could come at a price. As past uprisings have shown, it's very hard to maintain a low level of unrest without the risk of things getting out of control. Abbas's predecessor, Yasir Arafat, learned this the hard way in 2001, when the intifada he endorsed imploded on the Palestinian Authority, wreaking economic havoc and fomenting deep internal divisions that linger to this day.

Abbas should be concerned for one other reason. Now four years past the end of his presidential term, the Palestinian leader had better hope the unrest doesn't turn against him in Arab Spring fashion -- sparking what we might call an intra-fada.

The key to keeping a lid on the current situation is the Palestinian Authority's security forces. They've been subduing the unrest independently, and together with the Israelis, at times. But do they have staying power? The Bethlehem-based Maan News Agency reported in December that security coordination with Israel was "in a constant state of deterioration."

This is bad news for the Israelis, who locked horns with Abbas over his recent PLO mission upgrade at the U.N. in November. Since Abbas's maneuver, there has been a notable uptick in unrest. This includes stone-throwing, an attack on an Israeli military base, attempted kidnappings, and even an axe attack.

To be sure, the security implications are troubling for Israel. But so is the timing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long known that President Obama would be coming to him next month with a list of demands to help resuscitate the peace process. And he knew that Obama's ask was likely going to be another settlement freeze. But now, there is likely a list of asks to help quell the protests. Among other things, Obama will probably ask Bibi to release prisoners from administrative detention, allow for greater ease of movement in the West Bank, and make other concessions to the Palestinians. All of this comes at a time when Netanyahu is politically vulnerable, struggling to form a government coalition a month after Israel's election.

To put it mildly, this was not what Netanyahu was hoping for. Bibi has been looking forward to addressing Israel's top strategic concern: Iran. That potentially includes U.S.-Israeli military cooperation on a strike against Iranian nuclear targets, or at the very least, a "shopping list" of ordnances needed to neutralize Iran's illicit nuclear program. The current unrest will now force Netanyahu to address the Palestinian portfolio in greater depth than he likely wishes. And that probably means less time, effort, or focus on Iran.

For Obama, the West Bank disturbances might look like an opportunity to shift back to Middle East diplomacy after a hiatus following the failure of his first attempts. It was, after all, the desire to end the first intifada that opened the door for President George H.W. Bush to prod the Israelis and Palestinians to attend the Madrid Peace Conference, which opened the door to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

But Obama lacks now what Bush the Elder had in spades: good, old-fashioned American power. Back then, the United States was basking in its victory of the Cold War and its drubbing of Iraq in 1991. Obama's America hasn't enjoyed any victories of late, and it lacks the ability to project power in the region after limping out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Israelis and the Palestinians are keenly aware of this, making the prospect of a third intifada (it isn't one yet) a crisis that may be too soon to leverage for the cause of peace.



Ending the Syrian War

It’s time for the United States to do what is necessary to bring down Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Next month, the war in Syria will grind into its third year. This most tragic of transitions in the Middle East since 2011 has come at an enormous human cost -- more than 70,000 dead, 924,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and more than 2.5 million internally displaced, according to the U.S. State Department. With no clear end in sight, this conflict could evolve into a significant strategic setback for the United States in the region, unless we step up to provide training and equipment to carefully vetted opposition fighters who are facing down Bashar al-Assad's tanks, planes, and missiles. Inaction could have grave regional consequences and serve to empower Iran at a time of nuclear uncertainty and embolden Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that has proven its ability and intent to strike in and outside the Middle East.

The beginning of 2011 marked the beginning of a regional political earthquake, the tremors of which will be felt for generations. Syria has held the most promise for a democratic change that fell squarely within U.S. interests. Assad's downfall would remove a powerful regional bridge between Iran and Hezbollah and thus significantly weaken both. Degrading the influence of these two supporters of terror is a long-held U.S. policy objective that can still be achieved today in Syria.

But unfortunately, our window to gain influence with Syria's future leaders is quickly closing. While the United States has admirably led efforts to aid the victims of this war, we have done little to bring about its ultimate conclusion. And if these current trends continue, we will have few friends in a new Syrian government or among its people. If we help to bring about an end to this devastating conflict, the Syrian people can begin the long process of rebuilding their homes, their governing institutions, and their lives.

We are presented with a significant opportunity to renew trust with the opposition on Thursday at a "Friends of Syria" conference in Rome. At a minimum, the United States should be prepared to provide non-lethal equipment to vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army. I understand that opposition forces have directly requested body armor, communications equipment, and night-vision goggles, coupled with training on human rights and the laws of war. These are reasonable requests, which the European Union agreed to honor last week. This assistance will afford the EU a window into the inner workings of the armed opposition and establish key relationships that will be critical in the post-Assad era. The EU now has an important seat at the table. At the very least, the United States should match this obligation on Thursday.

Last December, I called for a more assertive approach in Syria, which included the use of force against Syrian military airplanes on the ground. Since then, the violence against the Syrian people has only escalated, and the regime now resorts to the use of Scud missiles against civilians. The United States and other countries have deployed Patriot missile batteries in southern Turkey and should consider repositioning those assets to intercept Scuds killing civilians in northern Syria. Degrading the regime's ability to execute massive air strikes against civilian targets will improve our ability to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid and give the Free Syrian Army space to make strategic gains.

The United States cannot afford further delay. We can and should do more to support the Syrian people and the armed opposition. There are democratically-oriented leaders among its ranks, which we should empower not only against the Assad regime but against the growing threat of radical Islamists in the country. Providing immediate non-lethal aid to the armed opposition would provide the United States with an enhanced understanding of the armed elements and could serve as the basis for a cooperative security relationship in the future. More robust U.S. engagement could also help to turn the tide of the conflict, forcing Assad to relinquish his tenuous grip on power and allowing the millions of displaced Syrians to begin rebuilding. Many of us in government, including the president's own advisors, have called for a more assertive approach. We should be prepared to deliver this Thursday in Rome.