One of the more disheartening aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is how static it often seems – how so very little seems to change. Every month and year bring more of the same, in what tends to feel like an exhausting cycle of recurring themes and familiar scenarios. Recent events only serve to strengthen this overwhelming impression: The 1929 Hebron Massacre in which 133 Jews were slaughtered was instigated by rumors that Jews were planning to seize control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – while the recent wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Jews throughout Israel is being fueled by similar rumors of an Israeli conspiracy to destroy or desecrate the same site. This past month Israeli authorities demolished the home of a Palestinian terrorist (who gunned down a civilian couple in a car, their four children in the back) – a policy established by the British in Mandatory Palestine in 1936, attempting to quell the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt (in which they destroyed some 2,000 Arab homes). Whether starting from 70AD, 1881 or 1967, a common observer can’t be blamed for asking – does anything here ever change? Are we condemned to constantly watch history repeat itself?
Despite such impressions, the conflict has of course seen varying degrees of change over its long history, usually gradual and at times dramatic. However, the past fifteen years of the new millennium have been particularly and crucially transformative. A series of events has fundamentally altered the reality in Israel and Palestine, meriting renewed evaluation of one’s perception and understanding of the conflict. While the conflict’s history and origins are a popular focus for inquiry and debate, recognition of the most recent developments is vital to any meaningful comprehension of the current situation, and is imperative for the formulation and execution of any solution. An assessment that does not take such developments into account is inherently flawed. Regrettably though perhaps unsurprisingly, many of those contemplating the conflict remain ignorant of these radical changes or are unaware of their significance. To mark the ending of 2015, the following is offered as a reflection upon these critical changes and a review of their overall cumulative effect on the conflict today.
1. The Gaza Strip. Gaza was occupied by Egypt in 1948 at the termination of the British Mandate, then by Israel in 1967. After almost forty years of occupation, in 2005 Israel did the unthinkable (to some), or the obvious (to others) – it unilaterally “disengaged” from the Gaza strip, withdrawing all military forces, and forcibly relocated over 8,000 Israeli civilians living there, dismantling their homes and communities, transferring them to Israel-proper (the majority originally sent to Gaza by consecutive Israeli administrations). The controversial decision constituted a radical departure from any previous Israeli position or policy. The Israeli public watched closely to judge the consequences of such a unilateral withdrawal. Many saw this as a hopeful opportunity for the Palestinians to administer the beginning of an independent state in Gaza.
But a swift succession of events made short shrift of such hopes. In 2006 the Islamist terrorist group Hamas had won a disputed election in the Palestinian Authority. In 2007 the ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, were overthrown in Gaza in a violent coup by Hamas. Following increasing indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, Israel instated a blockade of the Gaza Strip, in the attempt to halt the flow of weapons into Gaza (the blockade was declared legal in the UN Palmer Report, and Egypt joined the blockade in 2008). Since then, over 9,500 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, out of a total of 12,300 since 2001. For the subsequent decade the situation has remained much the same – Hamas in power, an Israeli blockade on Gaza, and occasional military conflagrations, notably in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
The sobering effect these events have on the Israeli public cannot be overstated. After all, some ask, why would a withdrawal from the West Bank turn out differently? Many Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state in the West Bank must now contemplate the very familiar prospect of a radical coup and ensuing rocket attacks as the result of such a state, or a similar outcome. While perhaps the Gaza Strip was never going to be the French Riviera, the Palestinians missed a historical opportunity to demonstrate to Israel and the world what an independent Palestinian state could look like – or perhaps they did so a little too well. Either way, the Gaza withdrawal is now a major watershed in Israeli strategic policy and public opinion, and has pushed a two-state solution further away than it has been for years. Unabating rocket attacks from Gaza serve a constant reminder to Israelis of the risk in creating an independent state in the West Bank, not 6 miles from the international airport and 13 miles from Tel Aviv and Israel’s major urban center.
2. Proposal Rejections and Negotiations. In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected Israel’s Prime Minister after running on an unambiguous ticket of negotiating a solution with the Palestinians involving major Israeli concessions. Barak, Yasser Arafat (head of the PA at the time) and President Clinton dug in for intense negotiations at Camp David, Maryland. In those meetings Barak made the Palestinians an unprecedented settlement offer, far beyond anything that had been previously offered or even considered, which included a Palestinian state in 97% of the Occupied Territories, a capital in East Jerusalem, control of the Holy Sites, and more. The offer essentially addressed most Palestinian claims and demands over the years. To the astonishment of Barak, Clinton and others at the summit, the offer was summarily rejected, with no counteroffer. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the Palestinians an even more comprehensive offer with greater Israeli concessions – the offer was similarly rejected by Mahmoud Abbas, who remains the current leader of the PA. In the words of President Bill Clinton, in his 2005 autobiography, “My Life”: “Barak’s cabinet endorsed the parameters with reservations… It was historic: an Israeli government had said that to get peace, there would be a Palestinian state… The ball was in Arafat’s court… Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes… Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Barak accepted it was an error of historic proportions.”
These rejections baffled supporters of the Palestinians in Israel and around the world. Many were disappointed and deeply disillusioned. The rejections caused many to doubt whether the Palestinian leadership had any sincere desire for peace, or to wonder how the rejections could be reconciled with such a desire. Barak and Olmert’s offers had been groundbreaking, and the Palestinians could not reasonably expect a more favorable compromise. Some felt that the PA’s bluff had been finally “called” – they were more interested in perpetual conflict with Israel than in any genuine solution.
Since 2008 there have been no meaningful settlement negotiations, hardly surprising given the outcome of the last few rounds. Israel’s position is that they are prepared to commence immediate negotiations with no preconditions; the Palestinians demand that negotiations can only commence after a set of preconditions are met, primarily a freeze on Israeli settlement building. While the benefit of requiring preconditions may be questionable, in 2009 the Israeli right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu acquiesced and instituted a 10-month building moratorium in the West Bank – another unprecedented action by an Israeli government, to the chagrin of Netanyahu’s voter-base. The Palestinians refused to commence negotiations until the ninth month of the freeze, at which point it was politically impracticable for Nentanyahu to extend the freeze without a reciprocal concession from the Palestinians. Israel conditioned the freeze extension on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the condition was rejected, the freeze expired and negotiations broke down.
Both the rejected proposals and the failed negotiations (including the refusal to negotiate despite the freeze) have caused a majority of Israelis to doubt the good-faith intentions of the Palestinian leadership. When contemplating future settlement offers, as well as Palestinian preconditions to negotiations, the Israeli public and leadership have become wary and suspicious. Any understanding of the current status of negotiations (or lack thereof) must consider the rejected 2000 and 2008 proposals, the failure of the 2009-2010 settlement freeze, and their effect on Israeli public opinion.
3. The Separation Barrier. Since 2002, Israel has been building what is known as the Separation Barrier (or the “wall”) roughly along the 1949 Armistice Lines (also known as the 1967 lines, the Green Line, etc.), of which approximately 70% has been completed. The barrier is primarily constructed of a multiple fence system (90%-95% of the barrier), and of a concrete wall in limited urban areas. It runs with the Green Line with various deviations eastward into the West Bank, including some 9% of the West Bank on the “Israel” side. Construction of the barrier began at the height of the Second Intifada, in which thousands of Israeli civilians were killed in Palestinian terror attacks, and its stated objective was to impede the ability of such terrorists to reach Israeli population centers. In that respect, the barrier has been extremely successful.
The barrier itself is of major significance for a number of reasons. Throughout the conflict and since its inception, there has been no such physical demarcation of the 1949 lines – not throughout the decades of Jordanian occupation (aside some sections of Jerusalem), and not since the Israeli occupation. The Palestinians have opposed the fence on various grounds, primarily claiming that it serves as a de-facto annexation of parts of the West Bank. Israel rebuts that the fence is temporary, its course currently dictated by security and topographical constraints, and that it can be altered in any future settlement of the conflict (as Israel has demonstrated such capability and willingness in the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza). Certain sections of the fence were indeed overruled by the Israeli High Court of Justice as unjustifiably violating Palestinian rights (on the grounds that alternative fence routes were available). Israel also maintains that most of the West Bank territory west of the fence, is territory already agreed in principle by the Palestinians to be part of Israel in a future solution.
Technicalities and opposing claims notwithstanding, the barrier serves as a de-facto border and has had an immense effect on public perception of the West Bank. In the pre-barrier era political and ideological groups in Israel maintained that the territories were an integral part of Israel, with no distinction between the two; today such a case is much more difficult to advance, considering the very real physical partition between Israel and the West Bank. A generation of Israelis that had grown up with the fence is now reaching adulthood, and their view of territory “beyond” the fence as “ours” becomes less likely. Similarly, Palestinian objections to the fence may be seen as misguided or shortsighted, as the creation of physical barriers on their asserted borders confirms the Palestinian perception of their own “severability” (to borrow a legal term) and autonomy, and encourages similar Israeli perception of the West Bank as “separable” from Israel. The initial right-wing opposition to the barrier was based on such grounds.
Thus, while the barrier has geo-strategic significance for both sides, it constitutes an earthquake in terms of general policy and public opinion, and as opposed to the 2005 Disengagement, seemingly heightened the probability of a solution to the conflict.
4. Shift to the Left. Contrary to conventional wisdom and the often-heard trope, Israeli policy concerning the conflict has shifted to the left over the past fifteen years – that’s right, to the left. Consequent right-wing election victories in Israel are largely an upshot of their adoption of formerly exclusively left-wing policies and positions – with the Israeli electoral center reflecting that shift. A prime example is the 2009 “Bar Ilan University” speech in which Netanyahu officially endorsed a two-state solution, which has since been Israel’s official policy; compare with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, leader of the Labor party and a left-wing government, who had made it clear that he was unequivocally opposed to a Palestinian state. Now consider that the 2005 Disengagement plan was initiated by a right-wing government led by Likud hawk Ariel Sharon; that the only ever Israeli building moratorium in the West Bank was adopted by a 2009 right-wing government led by Netanyahu; and that even the famous 2008 solution offer was made by a center-right government led by former Likud stalwarts, Ehud Olmert and Tzippi Livni.
This amounts to a radical departure from previous Israeli political distinctions, without the recognition of which, any analysis of Israeli current or prospective policy would be flawed.
5. Israeli Security vs. Regional Instability. Israel has become a safer place over the past decade and a half. Israel has gradually been under less extra-territorial threat for the first time since the founding of the state (Iranian nuclear ambitions notwithstanding), after withdrawing all troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, thus ending nearly twenty years of protracted fighting. This marked the last neighboring country that was actively engaging Israel in armed conflict – though it took another six years and the 2006 Second Lebanon War to further subdue the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group, Hizbullah. For nearly a decade Israel has enjoyed qualitative safety on all its borders in a manner not experienced throughout the state’s history. This has had the double effect of shifting more of Israel’s focus to the conflict with the Palestinians, and concurrently to the state’s welfare and prosperity.
Throughout this period, Israel’s security with the Palestinians evolved in two distinct stages. Until 2005, the Palestinians leadership was relatively unified and controlled to a certain degree by (former) Fatah terrorist Yasser Arafat. That era included Arafat’s rejection at the Camp David summit, the Second Intifada waged against Israel, and the subsequent Operation Defensive Shield that ultimately overcame the intifada. The Second Intifada was a fully-fledged armed conflict directed by Arafat and aimed to achieve Palestinian goals through use of force. Arafat’s death in late 2004 nearly coincided with the split between Hamas and the PA (Fatah), and with the end of the Second Intifada. Arafat’s death could be considered in and of itself a historic turning-point in the conflict, as Arafat had led the PLO from 1969 and Fatah since its founding in 1959.
From 2005 onwards, the Palestinians diverged in their attitude towards violence: the West Bank leadership (Mahmoud Abbas) had discarded direct violence as a means to achieve their political goals, a departure from Arafat’s historical policy; while the Gaza leadership (Hamas) continues to see armed conflict as their primary method of pursuing objectives (the “M” in the Hamas acronym stands for “Muqawame”, i.e. armed struggle).
Meanwhile, the sweeping changes in the Middle East have wholly altered the way in which most perceive the region and its connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab Spring, followed by radicalization (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), civil war (Syria) and complete geo-political upheaval (ISIS), has brought a great deal of perspective to the conflict. A full assessment of such effects is beyond the scope of this essay, though it is worthwhile mentioning a few points. First, the sight of unstable states imploding and/or being overrun or commandeered by radical Islam has a direct impact on support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and strongly emphasizes the need for solid security arrangements. Proponents of further withdrawals from the West Bank will have to provide credible guarantees that Israel won’t find ISIS on its doorstep, 6 miles from the Ben Gurion international airport and population centers. Second, the mayhem in the Middle East severely discredits previous popular beliefs that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the dominant destabilizing factor in the region, and that solving the conflict is a key to the entire region (a conviction once held by Jimmy Carter, Shimon Peres, and to a lesser extent, Barack Obama). Clearly, the vast majority of violence today in the Middle East has nothing to do with the conflict and would not be affected by any outcome.
Finally, the death toll and hardship endured by both Israelis and Palestinians, at the worst of times, pale in comparison with the absolute suffering and carnage inflicted upon many others in the Middle East. Recognition of this truth leads to the focus of more attention and resources on other parts of the region, and importantly, to measured regret following the decades that Western policy focused primarily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while neglecting the many neighboring brutal and oppressive dictatorships.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is unrecognizable in comparison with its year-2000 version. So much discussion of this conflict fails to account for the transformative past fifteen years and the impact these events have had on the public and leadership, on both sides. Part of the solution must begin by focusing not on the ancient history or the distant future, but rather on the recent past.
 Any eventual solution to the conflict will necessarily involve Israeli public opinion, as it is the public which will ultimately need to vote in favor of a particular political agenda, and will likely also need to authorize any solution by referendum.