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Violence and Iranian missile tests cause havoc in Israel

March 9, 2016 at 8:16 PM EST
Relatives of Palestinian Ahmad Aamer, 16, who the Israeli military said was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after he tried to stab them, mourn during his funeral in the West Bank village of Mas'ha near Salfit March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini - RTSA1YC
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GWEN IFILL: Vice President Biden met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders today amid a deadly spike in attacks in Israel.

Yesterday, an American war veteran and student, Taylor Force, was killed in Jaffa during a series of stabbings. Today, after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden condemned the attacks and the apparent celebration of the tactic by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ political party.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The kind of violence we saw yesterday, the failure to condemn it, the rhetoric that incites that violence, the retribution that it generates, has to stop. There can’t be — there cannot be unilateral steps to undermine trust that only takes us further away — further and further away from an outcome.

GWEN IFILL: The vice president also responded to Iran’s test launch of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. The Israeli government has strongly opposed the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal reached with Iran last summer.

Biden today said, if Iran were to break the deal — quote — “We will act.”

I’m joined now by Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, who’s covering the story for the Associated Press.

Daniel, we have seen months and months of these stabbing attacks, especially horrific. What’s behind them?

DANIEL ESTRIN, Associated Press: That’s a good question.

Palestinians say that it’s the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories, a desperation, that there seems to be no solution and no end if sight, and no hope for a future for them.

Israeli officials say that this is a Palestinian campaign of incitement and lies fueled by social media. And you see a lot, especially today on Twitter. The Fatah Party, the political party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, posted a photo of a cartoon basically extolling the stabber that stabbed the American student.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any concern that the latest attacks were coordinated to happen at the same time as Vice President Biden’s arrival?

DANIEL ESTRIN: There’s no sense of that here in Israel. And Israeli defense officials have said that this is just a part of the months of violence that we have seen here almost every day.

GWEN IFILL: We have watched carefully here in the U.S. the strained relations often between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government.

Does Vice President Biden’s strong words today condemning the Palestinians for failing to respond, does that go — was that designed, or can we tell, to heal that rift?

DANIEL ESTRIN: Well, it’s interesting.

Joe Biden mentioned today on the cameras that he has had a very long relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, going back decades. He said he wasn’t here in Israel with a certain plan, a certain peace plan, but he was here to speak with his good friend Netanyahu. His relationship is a lot better with Netanyahu than President Obama’s relationship is.

And so I think the idea here is that he is trying to see if there’s any chance of any opening on both sides to move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Is that complicated by this Iranian missile test? Obviously, Israel has no love lost for Iran, and the U.S., to Israel’s point of view, has accommodated them too much.

Did that — does that make for greater tension?

DANIEL ESTRIN: Yes, this is one of the main issues looming over the vice president’s visit in Israel, the Iranian deal and specifically what America is going to do for Israel now.

And America promised Israel after it brokered the nuclear deal with Iran that it would give it some kind of compensation, some kind of boost in military aid. And now there are negotiations between the two countries. The U.S. is offering a lower number than — a lower amount than the Israelis want. Currently, America gives Israel about $3 billion a year in military aid.

Aides to the prime minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have insinuated in recent weeks that Netanyahu’s attitude is, thanks, but no thanks, Obama administration. We will wait for the next administration.

And according to Israeli media today, the vice president told Netanyahu, take the deal. You’re not going to get a better one.

GWEN IFILL: So, the Israeli government reaction to the Iranian missile test has been what?

DANIEL ESTRIN: Well, it took the Israelis a long time actually today before they put out a statement just this evening here.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was dangerous, the testing of the ballistic missiles in Iran. They said these missiles not only can reach Israel, but they have the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead. And Israel said this is just another sign that Iran is not serious about curbing its nuclear program.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, as a backdrop to all of this, there has been a teachers strike, a Palestinian teachers strike, and children have not been in school for some time. Does that also add to the complications that we’re seeing?

DANIEL ESTRIN: It’s interesting.

These strikes that have been happening over the last month are some of the biggest strikes that we have seen in the West Bank in years. They’re about teachers’ wages, but they’re more than that. They’re about challenging Abbas’ rule and frustration about Abbas’ leadership.

There’s just a general malaise and frustration about where things are going in the West Bank. Abbas, the president, is not very popular at all in the West Bank, and this definitely adds a lot of complications, when Israel and the U.S. are asking the Palestinian leadership to step up and to condemn certain attacks.

The violence that we have seen over the past six months almost has a lot of support on the Palestinian street, according to polls here. And so Abbas is really in a tough spot. He’s against violence, but it’s hard for him to speak out against it.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem for the Associated Press, thank you so much.

DANIEL ESTRIN: You’re welcome.

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