The current spiral of violence between Israelis and Palestinians is profoundly detrimental to all involved. The passions and actions it unleashes now radiate well beyond their point of origin in Jerusalem. By its very nature, this cycle defies deep-rooted assumptions and cannot be mitigated by the institution of methods employed in the past. It requires a thorough reassessment of by-now disproven guiding assumptions and the formulation of a new, and substantially different, approach. The alternative is a regression into uncontrollable clashes which will only wreak further havoc and engender nothing but anarchy.
The biggest — and least sustainable — illusion of the Netanyahu era has been that the status quo is durable and can be maintained indefinitely. This assertion has never been acceptable to Palestinians, who continue to reject Israeli overrule and insist on the right to determine their own future. Since 1967 they have pursued this goal by almost every means conceivable: from passive resistance, popular uprisings, terror and random violence to negotiations, diplomacy and repeated appeals to the international community.
Israelis, too, have lived with the ambiguity of their own creation without really believing that it can last forever. A good portion of the population (polls still point to a majority) seek an end to the conflict through the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel; others — heavily represented in the present government — have never really given up on the dream of a greater Israel. For all, the present is merely a necessary holding operation on the road to a more permanent state down the road.
It follows, therefore, that the notion of conflict management which has guided Israeli policy in recent years is thoroughly detached both from the aspirations of the two peoples and from realities on the ground. For many Israelis it is at best a convenient default option; for Palestinians it is a daily reminder of the challenges they face. It persists because it serves the short-term interests of the Netanyahu coalition: it allows it to continue to exercise control, to contain tensions as much as possible and, above all, to defer any serious attempt to find a solution to the conflict.
The major prop in the implementation of this situation has been the threat and, when necessary, the use of force. In lulls between cycles of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, various forms of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority or brokered understandings with the Hamas have bought periods of relative quiescence. When these have been punctured by violence, they have been met with strong-armed measures — set in motion to deter further escalation. Over the years the result has been a series of (ever-shortening and constantly rising) spurts of violent engagements.
The present round — emanating from Jerusalem but now spreading rapidly not only into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also into the heart of Israel — is on the verge of taking on more massive proportions. Propelled by extreme religious sentiments and by deep-seated frustrations stemming from the absence of any prospects on the negotiation front, it is nevertheless characterized by a shift from a spattering of random individual acts to a steadier, more organized, increasingly frequent and broader stream of outbursts which have felled a growing number of innocent victims on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide.
Raw nerves and heightened emotions frame the current storm. Many Palestinians have given up hope: some (especially the youth) are unwilling to resign themselves to this condition, lashing out not only against Israeli repression but against the passivity of their elders. Hatred, despair, idealism and honor intermingle to spur on violent action. Israelis, in turn, combine fear with uncertainty, a quest for security with a desire for retribution, paranoia with pride, and no small measure of arrogance with vengeance to fuel the flames. As more people are drawn into the maelstrom by their leaders and the engaged media, rational analysis and associated policy calibration have fallen by the wayside.
Nobody has emerged untainted from the events of recent weeks. Leaders on both sides have fine-tuned mutual provocations. Incitement is rampant: in official quarters, on the streets, in the press and, most viciously, on the web’s social networks. Abu-Mazen, the self-proclaimed champion of nonviolence, has fallen unusually silent. Netanyahu has declared an all-out assault on Palestinians — once again in the name of the need to restore a semblance of calm. The Old City of Jerusalem has been cordoned off to non-resident Palestinians and an effective closure of the West Bank has been imposed — backed by a stream of additional forces on the streets and the hilltops, massive administrative detentions, an easing of restrictions on the use of live fire, stepped-up house demolitions and expanded punitive measures. This is the stuff on which more violence thrives.
If the past is any indicator, today’s spiral will eventually subside when fatigue with the present human devastation sets in. The parties will pause, take stock, reorganize and then try again — a clear signal that the force of familiar habits — however destructive — will prevail unless a different logic is designed and implemented. It is harder to disentangle entire societies from the spell of their operative truisms than perhaps anything else. But this is undoubtedly, more than anything else, what is needed at this juncture.
The starting point for such an undertaking is a cold, clear-headed, revision of working assumptions. The first — and by far the most vital — is the jettisoning of the adversarial premise of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in favor of the rather counterintuitive yet systematically manifest understanding that the two peoples are locked in a binding symbiotic relationship. What happens on one side of the equation affects the other; a mutual dependence (too often of a destructive nature) underlies their very existence. Recent history has been replete with multiple instances of lose-lose situations.
This does not mean, however, that a win-win formula cannot be found. Acknowledgement of the mutual dependence between Israelis and Palestinians is a precondition for the resurrection of hope — that elusive ingredient so necessary for halting the inexorable pattern of ongoing confrontation. Along with hope must also come its essential corollary: a commitment to the resolution of the historical conflict between the peoples who — almost in equal numbers — reside on the land. No amount of management in the short or long-term can begin to relieve the profound animosity that exists. With the opening of a realistic, time-bound, equitable possibility of a restructuring of the relationship, it might just be possible to set out on a new course.
This is the foundation for the creation of that restraint which is so absent under present circumstances. The vehicle for its realization is a non-violence pact (to which both Abu-Mazen and Netanyahu are ostensibly committed) which could facilitate the launching of a workable diplomatic process under a reconstituted international umbrella consisting not only of the Quartet, but of regional actors as well.
This is not a pipe dream. It is an imperative that depends on the courage and conviction of true leaders and the backing of all those Israelis and Palestinians who — above all else — aspire to live normal lives and give themselves and their offspring that predictability which will enable them to survive and to thrive. It also rests on the capacity to abandon the winner-takes-all mentality that has polluted the air and replace it with an understanding that if both sides don’t benefit everybody will suffer. A studied, determined, principled reorientation is the best way to avoid further violence and avert a descent into frightful chaos. It can be put in place now. The alternative is unspeakable.