Last month marked the 22nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Intifada. September 28, 2000 opened a period of one of the most difficult and tragic times in Israel’s history, with suicide bombs being the hallmark of these years. Looking back now, several elements stand out about this time for Israel as a nation and a people.
One of the elements that characterized the Second Intifada was that no matter how painful this period was, the nation largely stood in unity and in support of their leadership. The contrast to the First Intifada in this respect is stark.
The First Intifada, which began in December 1987 and lasted for four years, was not nearly as violent as the Second Intifada, but after an initial few months, the public in Israel became significantly divided about the conflict. Many in the center and left started to question Israel’s role. They argued that one couldn’t blame the Palestinians for turning to protest and violence since Israel, under the government led by Yitzhak Shamir, was not offering the Palestinians any options or hopes for the future. These divisions were a challenge for the country for these years, adding an internal dimension to the external.
The reason none of this happened during the Second Intifada is that it broke out immediately after the Camp David meeting where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a path toward ending the conflict and building a Palestinian state. No one could claim that the terrible Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians could be attributed to the failure of Israel to act. As a consequence, Israel was more united than in many years in countering the Intifada and eventually stopping the violence.
Connected to this was the reaction of the Israeli public after the violence was halted. These days, as the peace process has disappeared for a decade, there is much commentary about how cynical the Israeli public has become about any hopes for a larger move toward peace. Yet, after the Second Intifada, Israel went through a period where initiatives toward changing the dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian relations took place, and the cynicism and disillusionment with even talking about peace had not yet taken over the public.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Ehud Olmert’s expansive offer to the Palestinians in 2008 surely had their critics in Israel, but despite everything that had transpired earlier in the decade – the juxtaposition of Israel offering the Palestinians a way forward followed not by acceptance but terrorism — had still not soured the public on creative diplomacy.
Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, a contrast between the two Intifadas was stark, not only with the level of violence rising dramatically in the second uprising, but in what took place afterwards. The First Intifada was followed by a period of hope with the Oslo accords and the White House signing. However one wants to read those events 30 years later, it was the one time where Palestinians seemed to be moving in a constructive direction and the Intifada was read as an element in that transformation.
None of that surfaced after the Second Intifada. Hamas seized control in Gaza in 2007, the Palestinian Authority failed to respond to the Annapolis Initiative by Olmert, and a period of stagnation and disillusionment set in on the Palestinian side as well.
Finally there was the impact of the Second Intifada on Israeli politics. Barak had sought to realize the dreams that Yitzhak Rabin had projected of a final and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians. He was met with rejection and violence. But even as suicide bombers were raging across Israel, Barak saw a path to peace and offered the Palestinians an even more expansive solution than at Camp David in Taba in January 2001.
As much as the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of the second uprising, it was this initiative at Taba amidst the violence that led to the trouncing of Barak by Sharon in the Israeli election in February 2001, one month after the Taba meeting. It was as if the Israeli public, which was relatively supportive of Barak’s first offer at Camp David, could not understand the second offer at Taba, which seemed like an undeserved reward to the Palestinians for their rejectionism and terrorism.
And so, Israel elected Sharon, the man who most thought could never win over the majority of Israeli voters.
In sum, the Second Intifada left scars on the Israeli psyche, but nothing was inevitable in the direction the country went in afterwards because there were competing trends at work in light of these fraught years and experiences.