Coronavirus and Political Inaction on the Conflict

Balata Refugee Camp, as seen from Mount Gerizim

Israel’s response to the pandemic was commendable. If only it approached its existential crisis vis-à-vis the Palestinians with the same resolve.

Israel excelled in preventing the worst of the coronavirus outbreak by acting early and assertively. Its leadership starkly contrasted with that of US President Trump, whose failure in this crisis is akin to watching a shipwreck in slow motion. Such is the folly of those over the centuries who have gambled with a “wait-and-see” approach in the face of oncoming calamity.

But while Israel can stand tall in having risen to the challenge this time around, the fatally flat-footed response of less fortunate nations to the pandemic also bears a warning as to Israel’s inaction toward its own existential crisis—its decades-long rule over the Palestinians.

Israel can go on controlling another people without full rights, but not forever. The two-state solution remains the only democratic option to save itself from the slide into an inextricable one-state reality, increasingly brought on by settlement land grabs and now the prospect of West Bank annexation. Occupation and nominal Palestinian autonomy conjure but an illusion of a status quo, which no one does more to peddle to the Israeli people than Prime Minister Netanyahu. His “conflict management” policy is nothing but a fancy term for the wait-and-see approach.

With the coronavirus, the stakes for “waiting and seeing” were tens of thousands more deaths and an incapacitated workforce due to astronomical infection rates. As for the stakes of Israeli inaction on the Palestinian issue, the longer Israel waits on political separation, the direr the risks and the tradeoffs will be. The more entrenched Israel becomes in the West Bank, the more it will threaten the stability it has gained from probationary Palestinian self-governance and security coordination, the costlier and more politically infeasible it will be to withdraw, and the more opportunities spoilers on both sides will have to dictate the course of events.

The lure of the wait-and-see approach is, of course, that not acting now might save us from needlessly incurring tremendous costs should the warnings of impending doom turn out to be overblown. But it is the nature that with crises come great costs, as well as great risks. Otherwise they wouldn’t be crises.

The same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are immense costs and risks in taking action to end it because that is the toll of hedging off a crisis. The question becomes how to mitigate those costs, to offset those risks, and to compare them to the risks of doing nothing. In the case of an Israeli redeployment from the West Bank, options for negotiated, coordinated and gradual, easily reversible measures and a security mechanism in place the day after have already been extensively fleshed out and supported at the highest security levels. The cost of doing nothing is the one-state outcome, threatening far more upheaval, insecurity, and compromise on Israel’s very Jewish and democratic character, to which most Israelis remain categorically opposed.

In a similar vein, Trump’s volte-faces on the prospects for a quick cure and for restrictions to have been lifted by Easter come with a lesson about believing in magical solutions to crises that let us keep everything and not have to compromise. For this reason Israel must not be tempted by Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which fantastically envisions peace based on Israel annexing all of the settlements in the West Bank and maintaining sweeping security control over daily Palestinian life, in return for a cluster of sliced-up territory and stretches of desert. Nor must it be drawn to the bogus “solutions” proffered by the settler right, like Jordanian citizenship for Palestinians or waiting for mass Palestinian emigration. Such machinations reveal the delusions nurturing the wait-and-see mentality.

The pandemic further makes clear that mitigating a virus’ spread is not enough to overcome it. Ultimately, we need a cure, and for that we need to work toward discovering it with dogged determination. It has become a fashion among some intellectuals in Israel to speak of conflict mitigation, or “shrinking the conflict,” while expediently avoiding talk of a permanent settlement. While not without some merit, conflict mitigation alone cannot be a stand-in for proactive attempts to end the conflict. A peace process and confidence and security-building measures, with a clear end goal, remains the only recourse to definitively end Israel’s Palestinian quandary. The franker we are about it, the sooner we can start to work toward achieving it.

COVID-19 has laid bare the foolishness of responding only when crises become immediate. Before a crisis manifests, the cost of inaction can seem misleadingly small, absorbable, and manageable. Fortunately, Israel’s drift into the permanent one-state reality is not happening at a viral speed; we can still reverse course before it becomes too late to turn back. Then again, with both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz exhibiting symptoms of “West Bank Annexation Fever” ahead of the possible termination of the Trump presidency in January, the window to act may be closing sooner than we think.

About the Author
Brian Reeves is the director of external relations at Peace Now.
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