Before entering politics, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a career as an expert on terrorism, religious fanaticism, and nationalist extremism. He was elected prime minister of Israel last June on the promise that he would put Israel's security "first before anything else."
Mr. Netanyahu took office claiming to be a hard-headed leader who "knew" and "understood" the Arabs, particularly Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, better than Shimon Peres, the "naive dreamer" he defeated. As Likud party leader and as prime minister, he made it clear that he had not changed his belief that Arafat remained an unrepentant and untrustworthy terrorist, despite the Oslo peace accords.
It therefore should be very disturbing to both supporters and opponents of the Oslo accords that Netanyahu admitted he was "completely surprised and shocked" when Palestinian demonstrators rioted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinian policemen shot at Israeli soldiers recently. It also should be disturbing that Netanyahu admitted he was "completely shocked and surprised" that Arafat had used the Israeli opening of a tunnel entrance in Jerusalem as a pretext to incite the demonstrations that turned into violent riots.
Netanyahu first made these admissions at a press conference in which all of Israel's security and intelligence chiefs had stated that they had been regularly briefing the government about deteriorating political and economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They had warned that an explosive situation was building that would require only a spark to go off. Nevertheless, in a colossal miscalculation of Arafat, the Palestinians, and Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Netanyahu government provided the spark when it opened the second entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques in the middle of the night and under heavy guard.
From the first day in office
The pattern of casual myopia, which led to the Israeli government's total surprise at the violent events, started on Netanyahu's first day in office as prime minister when he was briefed by the director of the Shin Bet security agency. Israel's top security adviser made it clear to Netanyahu that Israel's security interests and future success in combating Hamas terrorism were best served by maintaining and strengthening close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat.
But Netanyahu ignored his own security chief, just as he proceeded to ignore the fact that Arafat, the Palestinian Authority, and 50,000 armed and poorly-trained Palestinian policemen now sat in Israel's backyard. For three months, Netanyahu shunned and humiliated Arafat. When he finally met with him, it was under pressure, with little accomplished and no follow-up. At the same time, as The Jerusalem Report editor Hirsh Goodman has pointed out, Netanyahu gave the Palestinians "words, words, words when it came to their interests, and deeds when it came to Israel's: more settlements, demolition of houses in Jerusalem, continued closure (of the borders to Palestinian workers), and continued dislocation of the West Bank from Gaza."
Government provides the spark
The incendiary and cumulative impacts of those words and deeds on the Palestinians went completely unnoticed by Netanyahu and his government. The Israeli government was also untroubled by the serious aggravating effects of Arafat's incompetent, corrupt, and autocratic rule, which multiplied the growing frustration, anger, and sense of helplessness among the Palestinians. By providing the spark, Netanyahu's government also unwittingly handed Arafat a golden, if short-term, opportunity to direct and release that growing anger from his regime toward Israel.
The good news about the recent tragic events was that only a tiny fraction of the Palestinian police were involved in shoot-outs with Israeli soldiers. Many of them actually tried to control the rioters. In some places, Israeli and Palestinian officers cooperated to reduce tensions and protect Israeli outposts. Palestinian medics even evacuated wounded Israeli soldiers in the middle of the fighting.
This happened only because of the hundreds of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officers, the thousands of joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols, and the cooperative relationships and trust that had been forged between Israeli and Palestinian security personnel in the three years since the first Oslo agreement was signed. It stands as a sharp rebuke to the Netanyahu government's record of stonewalling, humiliation, and provocation toward the Palestinians. That trust was a major casualty of the violence, and Israeli security has been weakened as a result. Clearly, Netanyahu has not kept his promise to put Israel's security "first before anything else."
It took a potentially fatal crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations, including the deaths of 75 Palestinians and Israelis and the wounding of hundreds more, before Netanyahu could meet with Arafat to, in Netanyahu's words, "establish a greater degree of mutual trust" and "discuss the issues openly and in a very cordial environment." Let us hope that Netanyahu, at least, has learned from recent events and will not be "surprised" again. Otherwise it may be said of this Israeli government, like the French Bourbon monarchy, "They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing."
*Mark Kagan is senior defense analyst at the Washington Information Group, and an expert on the Middle East.