Israel’s New Coexistence Plan: How the Media Responded

Israeli Defense Minister Liberman (Photo Credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)

On August 17, 2016, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman held a press conference in Tel Aviv, announcing a “carrot-and-stick approach to Arab terror” in Judea and Samaria (collectively known in Hebrew as “Yosh”). The principle is simple: reward Palestinian towns that eject terrorists from their midst, and punish those that host terrorists.

Among others, the Jerusalem Post reported Mr. Liberman’s summary of the plan’s goal: “Its purpose is to continue to give benefits to those who desire co-existence with us, and make life difficult for those who seek to harm Jews.”

In concrete terms, 15 Palestinian Authority towns which have not harbored terrorists and which have maintained peaceful relations with Israel will be given preferred treatment: increased work permits and Israeli-funded improvements like medical centers, sports fields and industrial parks. The 15 towns which have the largest numbers of residents involved in terrorist attacks will be denied work permits in Israel and come under a stronger security watch, with prompt arrests of anyone suspected of terrorist ties. Leaders advocating incitement will have their VIP status (allowing easy passage through Israeli territory) revoked.

In addition, a new online media source in Arabic will be established as an alternative to the constant anti-Jewish incitement of PA-controlled media. Last but not least, in Yosh areas B and C (which are jointly or completely administered by Israel under the Oslo agreements), Israeli meetings with local leaders will take place without permission from Mahmoud Abbas, who until now has unaccountably controlled all Israel-Palestinian interaction.

While other countries can talk of rewarding peaceful behavior and punishing violent behavior as common-sense discipline, Israel’s announcement sparked instant controversy, beginning in local media.

The Times of Israel noted that Mr. Liberman viewed both Israelis and Palestinians as the winners: “No one wants a Molotov cocktail thrown at them in the middle of the night, and no one wants [soldiers] coming into their house in the middle of the night for searches and arrests.” But the report also worried that plans to bypass the PA in dealing directly with Palestinian residents would “weaken” Mahmoud Abbas, following the popular line that Mr. Abbas’ survival depends on Israel.  

The think-tank Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs challenged that fear, noting that only a year ago Mr. Abbas (now in the 11th year of his 4-year term as President) was threatening to quit anyway. In 2014, he openly vowed to dissolve the PA and return its residents to Israeli control, but never followed through.

The leftwing Ha’Aretz offered an analysis that bashed the entire idea. Journalist Jack Khoury echoed the PA’s response that Mr. Liberman’s proposal to create negative consequences for supporting terror was “racist and colonialist”; it demoted bloodthirsty Palestinians to the status of “animals”. As for the proposed rewards for living peaceably, Mr. Khoury (an Israeli citizen whose coverage of the Arab community earns him a steady income and global attention) predicted that his Arab brothers will only sneer at the economic opportunities which he enjoys: For Palestinians, “making a living is no alternative to independence and self-definition.” In a follow-up piece, Ha’Aretz condemned the plan as “collective punishment”, despite documentation that terrorists do depend on villages to shelter them after attacks, and that some villages do collectively celebrate acts of terror.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has reportedly approved Minister Liberman’s plan, but complaints were duly logged elsewhere in the Knesset. Leftwing objections came from the Zionist Union party, vacillating between pessimism about its success and expressions of loyalty for the two-state solution (rejected by the PA eight years ago). Rightwing colleagues (Likud, Jewish Home) objected for different reasons: they demanded equal “carrot” incentives for peaceful Jewish residents of Yosh – namely a thaw in the unofficial building freeze on settlements. Curiously, nothing at all was heard from the self-identified Palestinian MKs of the United Arab List.

The coverage abroad, except for Jewish news outlets, was thin. The big media names (BBC, Fox, CNN, European and US networks) skipped the story altogether. The Algemeiner reprinted a Jewish News Service report of the bare facts; while the UK Daily Mail, Yahoo News and numerous Asian outlets all repeated the Agence France-Presse’s garbled version, which insisted on describing terrorists as “attackers”, and Palestinians supporting coexistence as “others”.

Honorable mention goes to the spunky Irish Times, which offered original reportage with fair and factual coverage of both sides. At the other extreme was Iran’s Press TV in “occupied Ramallah” [sic!], which told viewers that “Palestinians known to oppose Israeli forces” would be punished with “punitive actions”, and that this proposal is “sabotaging all prospects for the peace process”, which was sabotaged by the PA president in 2008.  

Relatively little media energy was devoted to the key question: will the plan bring peace?

The US-policy advisors at the Washington Institute expressed cautious optimism about this “interesting precedent” which came as a “surprise”. Their reservations about its success revolved around how Israel’s Defense Minister might handle a new wave of violence, as well as “alarm” over the thought that perhaps Israel “wants to hold Area C indefinitely”… intending to share the Biblical heartland with the Palestinians rather than surrender it. This genteel horror is fueled by the stubborn myth that Israeli settlements in Samaria and Judea are violating international law.

The above-mentioned analysis in Ha’Aretz described the Liberman plan as simply a revival of the 1981 “Village Leagues“, predicting that it would fail as the older initiative did. The comparison is misleading; a look at media coverage of that earlier proposal reveals significant differences. Back then, West Bank clan leaders, the original power base before Arafat’s arrival, expressed the desire for peaceful collaboration with Israel, but they refused Israel’s condition: boycott the PLO and eject that terror group from their midst. Instead, they naively named PLO leader Yasser Arafat as their representative. They never imagined that the PLO would smother their authority under a monolithic police state, whose goal was not statehood but personal enrichment (a policy continued by his lieutenant, Mahmoud Abbas).

Today, PA residents are wiser, more sober, and even nostalgic. Anti-Israel media recently lamented that “an increasing number of Palestinians say their life under Israeli occupation was better” than self-government under the PA. Actually, this sentiment was expressed openly by Palestinians for the past 10 years or more, but none of the global peacemakers were interested. Unfortunately, Israel ignored them as well. Today’s plan is therefore a belated repentance, and an admission that we in Israel are finally ready to give independent Palestinians the voice we denied them as far back as 2000.  

In that context, the one really new element in Mr. Liberman’s plan was highlighted in Hebrew-language news reports (such as the Channel 2 Mako site): Israel is officially declaring that Mr. Abbas is an obstacle to coexistence, and that it’s time to build a Palestinian peace process without him. Mr. Liberman will be appealing directly to Palestinian business owners, academics, and community leaders known to be disillusioned with both the Fatah-controlled PA and its rival Hamas. The Mako report added that the experiment will be evaluated after six months, in consultation with Israeli intelligence and the IDF.

The i24 news site was one of the few sources that relayed this important information to English speakers:

The [Israeli Defense] ministry also prepared a list of Palestinians that it said were aligned with neither Abbas nor Hamas. “These are a few dozen of prominent, influential figures, people who want coexistence and to live together,” said the minister.

“Abu Mazen [Abbas] is an obstacle on the road to an agreement and I want to speak with everyone who is willing to speak with me,” he said.

Abbas advisor Ahmed Majdalani immediately responded by prematurely condemning any future participants as “violators of the law” in the police state. Will Palestinians who are fed up with being abused be silenced by more threats of abuse? Or will righteous anger overcome the traditional fears and cause them to find strength in their growing numbers? These are points to pray over.

Another question that strikes closer to home: Will Israel be faithful to support the Palestinians who accept Israel’s offer? In years past, those few Palestinians who condemned terrorism had to oppose the Abbas regime’s support of it on their own, and those who dared to cooperate with Israel in actively fighting terror have often been abandoned by Israel. We need to pray that our government will keep its promise to stand by those Palestinians with the courage to trust this new initiative.

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Hannah Weiss lives in Israel with her husband Hillel, their three children and two grandchildren. Besides writing on issues relevant for followers of Yeshua, she also works as an English writer, editor and translator for Israeli exporters and academics. Hannah is part of a small home fellowship, Restorers of Zion, which serves the Body of Messiah by focusing on neglected or dysfunctional areas of Scriptural teaching and practice.