Israeli-Palestinian relations did not take even a momentary time-out during the Jewish holiday break of the past month. If anything, the gap between the sides has only widened, highlighting the lethal trajectory inherent in the current standoff. The return to a regular schedule, therefore, holds the promise neither of normality nor of quiet. Since the conflict cannot be put into deep freeze and its escalation is disastrous for all concerned, the challenge of finding a way out of the deadlock is ever the more urgent.
The new Israeli government, as diverse as it is precarious, has survived its first 100 days by sidestepping contentious issues and focusing on dealing with immediate tasks both domestically and internationally. The second hundred days will not be so kind. Israel-Palestine, like it or not, is back on the agenda. This is apparent not only in the rise of violent clashes, but also in the ongoing resistance to Israeli efforts to shrink the conflict by offering individual rather than collective benefits to Palestinians in return for greater security for Israelis. Yet the issue comes up regularly in talks with Egypt and Jordan, as well as with the partners to the Abraham Accords and beyond. It is pivotal to Israeli ties with the Biden administration and the critical item on the agenda of Israel’s increasingly troubled relationship with American Jews. It is now at the forefront of discussions at the UN General Assembly.
The systematic disregard of national Palestinian aspirations has meant that the present Israeli leadership does not plan to make any significant changes in the balance of power that has prevailed since 1967. Nothing has made this stance clearer than Prime Minister Bennett’s three no’s. For the past month, he has repeatedly stated that Israel under his leadership has no intention of: 1) annexing areas of the West Bank; 2) promoting a Palestinian state alongside Israel; or 3) entering into peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas or the Palestinian Authority. This begs the question of what he intends to do. His answer, to date, is more of the same: precisely that mix of oppression and repression which has led to the tightening of Israeli overrule in the occupied territories with no prospects for change in sight.
Naftali Bennett and large portions of his government, concerned with cementing the stability of the coalition, have perhaps forgotten the equally problematic three no’s issued by the Arab League in August 1967 in Khartoum and their consequences: 1) No to peace with Israel. 2) No to recognition of Israel. 3) No to negotiations with Israel. These blunt negatives laid the foundation for Israeli entrenchment in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. It also paved the way to the 1973 war several years later.
On the Palestinian side, the floundering Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen), have lost most of their legitimacy. According to the latest survey conducted by the veteran Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, 78 percent of respondents would like to see Abbas resign, although they do not give his Hamas rivals a majority over Fatah and undecided voters.
The PA apparatus is falling apart and, in the absence of a renewed mandate at the polls, garners little trust. Attempts by some Israeli officials, notably Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, to shore up its capacities have done little to enhance its credibility. With few diplomatic options open at this time, it has become increasingly difficult to either curb dissent (attempts to do so by force have served to foster even more criticism) or to control widening violence. Abu-Mazen’s address to the UN General Assembly last week only served to highlight his predicament. With few choices other than to appeal to a sympathetic yet reluctant international community and to once again call for jump-starting negotiations, his grasp domestically is fast dissipating.
The naysayers on both sides seem to have the upper hand. For many Israelis, it is convenient to hold onto what is familiar, thus suppressing signs both of rising violent unrest and deteriorating internal solidarity. For most Palestinians, however eager to ease Israeli restraints (a majority, according to Shikaki, still welcome such moves), the quest to end the occupation remains dominant. The parties are on a collision course.
This is a bleak, if not calamitous prospect. It can, however, be redirected by the vigorous introduction of a series of positive moves before it is too late. The first measure is to step up exchanges between Israelis and Palestinian to explore different ways to advance just and equitable approaches to sharing the land. These range from general calls for a negotiated solution (supported by often amorphous people-to-people programs) to several in-depth, jointly conceived, plans for implementing concrete arrangements sensitive to mutual concerns (redesigned two-state options, various confederal as well as rights-based proposals developed in common working groups during the past few years fall into this category).
Lately, for the first time in years, semi-official initiatives of this sort have begun. Israeli ministers (Nitzan Horowitz, Tamar Zandberg and Issawi Freij) have met with Palestinian counterparts. Professionals in government agencies and civil society are interacting more than in the preceding decade. Especially on matters of health, the environment and social welfare, a few, albeit insufficient number of, programs have been launched. These contacts, however, still lack a political adhesive. If developed, they can not only begin to change the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians, but also generate some workable alternate designs with broader connotations.
A second set of positive steps, much harder to put in place, requires direct government intervention. Israel, as the dominant power, needs to enhance its protection of Palestinian civilians from encroachments on their lands and wellbeing, especially by renegade settlers. Failure to do so not only sets the stage for rising acrimony, but also undermines Israeli security (this is also why similar protection should be extended to human rights activists). Such moves have, regardless of pushback in certain circles, the added advantage of isolating militant extremists.
On a totally different level, Israel and the Palestinian Authority should seriously consider taking the crucial step of enabling Palestinian elections (including, as in the past, in Jerusalem). However improbable this might seem and whatever trepidations have blocked such a move in the past, it is essential for both sides. For the Palestinians, it sets the groundwork for the realignment of power and for possible national reconciliation. For Israel, it provides credibility for its contacts with duly elected leaders. For both, it offers a basis for the resumption of serious negotiations.
The third group of measures looks outward. For far too long, Israel in particular, but also Palestinians at certain junctures, have found it far more useful to drum up international support rather than to deal with each other. Ironically, they have operated on the assumption that external forces will provide a solution to their conflict. Today, however, it is increasingly evident that such an international deus ex machina is not forthcoming.
This does not mean that international involvement is unneeded or not useful. To the contrary, foreign support for positive non-violent moves on the ground is absolutely vital in present circumstances. In an era of fluidity when everyone is talking to everyone, that is why Israel’s improving relations with a variety of countries in Europe and the region is so important (it is also why its resistance to the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem is so curious, especially since the Palestinian Affairs Unit of the Embassy in Jerusalem, housed in the old consulate building, operates as a de facto mission to Palestine). This is also the reason why Palestinian diplomatic interchanges both at home and abroad can play such an important role in backing some of the constructive measures put in place on the ground.
Too many “don’ts” are on the table; their impact can be countered by setting in motion some tangible “do’s.” This is the task not only of governments, but of the citizens who put them in office. Since, ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis are destined to live together, those who continue to strive for a better future for all should begin to meet the challenge before they become the ultimate victims of those who reject the other and their collective rights and threaten to dominate their being.