Both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered terrible bloodshed in the last few days, and fears are growing that the situation will spiral out of control. Thursday was the deadliest day for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in nearly two years, followed by a shooting near a Jerusalem synagogue Friday night, which Israel has deemed one of its worst terror attacks in recent years.
Even before the latest flare-up, the trip was expected to be prickly, as Blinken’s first visit to Israel since the installation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – widely considered the most far-right and religious in Israeli history.
Now hope hinges on the arrival of the US top diplomat on Monday to help cool the rising temperatures on the ground.
Security coordination crisis
Aside from trying to calm the situation through dialogue, one of Blinken’s main priorities will likely be to try to restore crucially important security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The PA announced it was severing the coordination on Thursday, following a deadly Israeli military raid in the West Bank which killed 10 people, among them militants and at least one civilian woman, according to both Israeli and Palestinian officials. The US immediately said ending security cooperation was not “the right step to take at this moment.”
The coordination is seen by many Israeli and American officials as a vital part of maintaining some level of calm, as it involves sharing of intelligence on militant activity, and also links between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Without that coordination, Israel may not be able to tell Palestinian security forces where and when they will be operating in the West Bank, which could lead to dangerous mistakes or clashes between the two.
But the PA has been under pressure for months to cut off the coordination, often seen by Palestinians as forcing them to do Israel’s bidding on occupied territory. It has taken such steps in the past, in 2020 severing coordination for six months when Israel announced ultimately unfulfilled plans to annex parts of the West Bank, and in 2017 briefly after Israeli police placed metal detectors at the entrances to the Haram Al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, known to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem.
“This security coordination is both humiliating and ineffective,” Nour Odeh, a former spokeswoman for the PA, told CNN. “The PA right now is losing, not just losing control, but losing face. It has no money to pay salaries. It has no control, no ability to protect its citizens, and yet it is expected from the world to protect the occupier and coordinate with them.”
Retired Israeli Col. Michael Milshtein, former head of the Department for Palestinian Affairs in Israel Defense Intelligence, said he hopes Blinken will “leverage or pressure the PA to renew the security coordination,” adding that it would be even better if the “Egyptians and the Jordanians put their pressure on (PA President Mahmoud) Abbas.”
Milshtein said resuming security coordination would not only “reduce the general tension,” but send a signal to Palestinian militant groups that rival the PA.
“It’s also going to signal to other organizations, players like (militant groups) Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that there is no vacuum that they can get in and use it to promote their terror attacks. And that the old rules of the game are preserved,” he said.
But Odeh said pushing the Palestinians back toward coordination “won’t be an easy sell, because that will mean a loss… in the eyes of Palestinians.”
Pressure on Netanyahu
Blinken’s first stop is in Israel, where he will meet with Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials.
It’s during these meetings, both Milshtein and Odeh said, that Blinken should put the pressure on Netanyahu to resist the more extremist wings of his cabinet, some of whom have called for the dismantling of the PA, while others have called for the death penalty for those Israel accuses of terrorism.
The Israeli government, in response to two shooting attacks in Jerusalem that killed seven civilians and injured five, rolled out a series of measures including plans to demolish the homes of the attackers and drafting legislation to revoke Israeli identity cards and residency of families of those Israel has accused of terrorism, practices critics say are forms of collective punishment proscribed by international law.
“I know how complex is the current government, it’s not easy to promote strategy or promote even negotiations with the Palestinians. But in the end of the day, (Netanyahu) should understand that we’re standing between bad and worse alternatives,” Milshtein said.
Blinken should also demand Israel changes its policies toward the PA, Milshtein said, especially moves that negatively impact the economic health of the territories.
“I think that right now the PA is in a very fragile and very weak status, every punishment or economic punishment, will actually undermine and damage more the stability of the PA,” Milshtein said. “Although the PA causes a lot of problems to Israel… we have much more profits from the existence of the PA than from its vanishing.”
Odeh said Blinken needs to show Netanyahu that Israeli military operations in the West Bank, which have increased over the past year in response to a series of attacks targeting Israelis, are only making things worse. Last year was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and for Israelis, in nearly two decades.
“They can tell this government that this modus operandi doesn’t work. You can’t keep pushing Palestinians like that. You can’t have more than 30 Palestinians killed in less than a month [as has happened in January]. You can’t demolish homes – that will expel families – and [impose] collective punishment measures,” Odeh said.
“It won’t be long before Palestinians say, ‘You know what, we have to also organize and defend ourselves … nobody’s there to help us. So we’re going to do it ourselves.’ When you get there, nobody can put a lid on that,” Odeh said.
Hopes are not high that Blinken’s visit will dampen the smoldering embers in Israel and the Palestinian territories, especially as the Ramadan and Passover holidays approach, traditionally a period that has led to clashes in Jerusalem.
“Right now, the temperature, the atmosphere on the ground is very high. So you need only one spark to really bring a broad explosion,” Milshtein said.
Nic Robertson and Vasco Cotovio contributed to this report.