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A plague on both your houses

Signs that the US may simply give up on Israel are a call to action for two-state supporters

The Israeli-Palestinian question is no longer a central item on the global agenda. Eclipsed by ISIS, Ebola and ongoing economic turbulence, the attention of the international community is moving elsewhere, thereby realizing one of the greatest fears of all those involved in what is probably the most intractable conflict in recent history. After having done virtually everything to facilitate a just solution, most of the world — and especially the West — are simply throwing their hands up in frustration and distancing themselves from the issue. This detachment reflects a deep-seated emotional and intellectual fatigue. It also has serious consequences for Israelis and Palestinian alike.

On the surface, nothing exemplifies this disappointment-turned-into-disinterest more than the reactions to the speeches of Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu at the General Assembly a couple of weeks ago. While the Palestinian President’s well-attended presentation was considered belligerent and provocative, that of his Israeli counterpart — no less bullish — was delivered before a half-empty plenum and scarcely evoked commentary beyond the cheering section imported for the occasion. Both leaders clearly chose to use this august podium primarily to address their home audiences. The rest of the member states responded in kind, proceeding to debate what they consider more pressing matters of mutual concern.

The growing disaffection with discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is, however, far more profound. During the Jewish holiday season, in the majority of congregations around the world, Israel was notable by its absence. Rabbis addressed issues ranging from personal introspection, shame, communal identity, education and social justice to democracy, global terror and anti-Semitism. Very few saw fit, scarcely a month after the long Gaza war of this past summer, to even mention Israel, let alone justify its actions. Those who did mostly went out of their way to talk about how unconditional love comes with a healthy dose of constructive criticism.

Festive dinner tables invited conversations on everything from family matters to affairs of state. Among those steeped in the Israeli scene and conversant with every twist and turn of the national scene, the extent of despair, disagreement and dissent was not far from the surface. Those younger attendees avidly connected to things Jewish tended to drift off first, eventually pulling what they view as an embarrassing conversation away to more topical (and less contentious) issues. For far too many proud Jews, the subject of Israel makes people feel uncomfortable. Avoidance seems preferable to outright aversion.

These trends mirror a more general sense of hopelessness and a rising distaste for the apparently endless conflict and for its key protagonists. The Obama administration issued stern rebukes to both Netanyahu and Abu-Mazen, making it abundantly clear that it found their words and their conduct eminently unhelpful to the prospects for the resumption of serious negotiations on a lasting solution to the conflict.

The most recent exchange of barbs between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister is indicative. Netanyahu’s statement that Washington’s condemnation of yet another grandiose construction tender in East Jerusalem is “…against American values…and it doesn’t bode well for peace,” was greeted with a scathing, barely veiled, US threat that such actions would distance Israel “even from its closest allies.” Behind these words is a sense that the normative tie that has bound the two countries together is unraveling. It is being replaced by a standoffish veneer, generously peppered with increasingly acerbic statements on Israeli policies and accompanied by a growing reluctance (Kerry’s current Cairo efforts notwithstanding) to venture once again into the Palestinian-Israeli quagmire.

Many in Israel are rejoicing at this turn of events, believing that this withdrawal will relieve pressure from Israel and allow for the unfettered continuation of the status quo. Their Palestinian counterparts may also think that the reduction of Washington’s involvement may hasten the attainment of their independence. Both sides are mistaken. The emerging disengagement is not confined to the United States: it is also evident in Europe and in other parts of the globe. Fed up with the failure of multiple efforts to broker a workable accord, many countries are signaling that they can’t be bothered anymore and are diverting their energies elsewhere.

The message being disseminated is crystal clear: the international community has done everything possible and more to resolve the conflict. There is a universal consensus that Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967 is unacceptable; that the settlement enterprise is illegitimate; and that the Palestinians have the collective right to self-determination beyond the Green Line — as does Israel in the pre-1967 boundaries. Sweden has indicated that it will recognize the Palestinian entity soon; Westminster is presently holding a historic debate on the topic.

The international community cannot, however, care more than the sides to the conflict. It is now stating unequivocally that it is up to them to make something happen. As those directly concerned, it is incumbent upon Palestinian and Israelis to figure it out for themselves: only they are responsible for their fate. Inaction will breed a further pullback; productive ideas will receive support in the global arena.

The implications of such an eventuality cannot be taken lightly. From an Israeli perspective, the absence of outside involvement — especially, but not only, of the United States — also spells the loss of all critical external support. Set adrift from the value-community of democratic countries and without its accompanying backup, an Israel left to its own devices cannot but slide down the slippery slope to complete international isolation. Such a prospect is a prescription for continuous conflict; it augurs ill for the maintenance of the country’s moral backbone; and it severely compromises Jewish solidarity worldwide. Ultimately, it leads to a violent one-state scenario devoid of liberalism or any semblance of harmonious coexistence.

From a Palestinian perspective, such a situation would make the goal of ending the occupation and achieving self-determination even more remote. Without substantial foreign involvement, it will be well-nigh impossible to break away from the yoke of Israeli overrule and realize Palestinian statehood in the foreseeable future.

Slipping into global oblivion is nothing short of a nightmare. The specter of international neglect could provide the most compelling incentive to date to move ahead with the task of ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But that requires that the still silent majority in Israel and Palestine — and, yes, according to the latest polls well over 50% of the population in both communities still endorse a two-state solution — make it unequivocally clear that they expect everything to be done and more to put an end to a conflict that only continues to unconscionably and needlessly immiserate their lives. Any procrastination, nitpicking or deviation from a full-fledged, equitable and lasting solution to the conflict will merely hasten the waning of international interest. And without the care of the global community, the future will be bleak indeed.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.