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.