Now that a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas has been in effect for several days, all sides are concentrating on highlighting their achievements, minimizing their failures, licking their wounds, and trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. The flow of emotions continues to simmer: the human losses, the devastation, the anger, and the fears are still palpable. As mutual accusations and demands fill the airwaves, the resumption of familiar pre-war routines is seen as a way to calm raw nerves and to begin necessary steps towards psychological and physical rehabilitation.
But is it really possible to go back to the way things were just a few weeks ago? Is it desirable? The answer is a resounding no. If previous experience is any guide, such a move will only constitute a prelude to yet further escalation, which will lead Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the international community precisely nowhere. A much more level-headed political approach is needed.
All the ingredients for a paradigmatic change that can reconfigure the longstanding conflict and lay the foundations for its just resolution exist today. Anything else would prop up either a precarious stasis or lead to a frightening slippage into anarchy. The question, therefore, is whether there is the will to pursue such a course and the political wherewithal to see it through in the current climate of recrimination and acrimony. That is the key challenge facing all parties to this age-old dispute.
A new and constructive paradigm rests on four already visible elements. The first relates to the scope of the conflict. Since 1948 — marking Israeli independence and the Palestinian Naqba — conflicting claims over the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have taken on different forms. Until 1967, the 1949 armistice agreements defined the lines of the conflict. Since then, several distinct arenas have emerged. In this century, these now number four: Israel proper (within the Green Line), Jerusalem (including the annexed eastern part of the city and its environs), the West Bank, and Gaza. It was convenient for successive Israeli coalitions — and especially for the Netanyahu governments of the past decade, to treat each separately. For Palestinians under occupation, these distinctions are a matter of extent rather than substance.
The events of the last few months have highlighted the pitfalls inherent in the divide-and-rule approach. The tendency to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority ignored the commonality of Palestinian identity that unites these territorial segments (not to speak of the Hamas-PLO rivalry that transcends the geographic divide). The separation of Jerusalem from the West Bank, and with renewed force, the Trump-backed declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, heightened divisions between Palestinians and Israelis in the city, with all its religiously-charged connotations. And the progressively unequal treatment of Israel’s Palestinian community (21 percent of its population), culminating in the avowedly discriminatory “nation-state law,” further anchored the differences between Jews and Arabs within the country.
The background to the recent conflagration, with strong roots in rising clashes in and around Jerusalem, yielded not only 11 days of Israeli-Hamas military exchanges, but also horrific clashes inside Israel (especially in its mixed cities), widespread unrest in Jerusalem, and constant eruptions (albeit to a lesser extent) in the West Bank. If anything, these occurrences made it clear — despite what many would have otherwise — that it is truly impossible in this digital age to separate between these various arenas. They are increasingly interconnected, as Palestinians are reasserting their shared struggle. From this perspective, like in the early years of the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians, wherever they reside, are now pitted against each other.
Under these circumstances, a reversion to the separate arena policy with its strong military underpinnings only promises increased violence and the continuation of what has become a balance of horror. A shift to a more civilian-based approach, which recognizes the complex historical, cultural, ethnic, and religious aspects of the conflict, and seeks to explore ways of living together is in order.
The second aspect of the emerging paradigm relates to the structure of power. Since 1967, Israel has ruled directly or indirectly over the territories it occupied at that time. At the same time, despite some socioeconomic progress in the Arab community inside the country, its members still suffer from systemic discrimination, reinforced by the ongoing exclusion of its representatives from the decision-making nexus.
During the past few years, as Israel’s Likud-led governments moved from a policy of conflict management to one of increased control over the West Bank, which not only encouraged Jewish settler expansion beyond the Green Line, but also pointedly bypassed the Palestinian Authority, this power asymmetry widened. The same has held true for Gaza, whose Hamas government has been sustained while its population has been effectively held under siege.
The overall power asymmetry that exists has not, however, necessarily increased Israeli control. Israel’s ability to oversee events in the West Bank and Gaza has been limited, while local trust in the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas has contracted. The postponement of the Palestinian elections — one of the triggers for the latest round of violence — merely upped the Hamas-PLO struggle for political supremacy without suggesting ways for improvement.
Within Israel, growing frustration amongst Palestinian citizens of Israel, coupled with increased violence within Arab society, did little to calm rising dissatisfaction (regardless of the fiction of the economic integration of Palestinians as a panacea for political separation). The upshot has been an overwhelming loss of trust which, when emotions flared, led to resorting to greater coercion against Palestinian citizens of the country. This was well demonstrated by the lead-up to the last Gaza war, and ultimately by the ensuing riots, hooliganism, vandalism, and disorder.
A different paradigm rests on the assumption that the structure of the conflict cannot be altered without redressing the power imbalance. This means that Israel must strive to end its control over Palestinian lives externally while exploring various formulae for power-sharing domestically. This may prove to be the only way to reduce coercion and to fortify flailing state capacities and hence enhance legitimacy.
Such a move relates directly to the third component of the unfolding paradigm, its substance. Since 1967, Israel’s boundaries have been amorphous at best. The international legitimacy granted to the 1949 armistice lines has never extended to other areas under its prolonged rule. In recent years, the absence of any horizon for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, coupled with the Trump effort to re-write the rules of the game within the context of the Abraham accords, appeared to sanction a more permanent Israeli takeover of the bulk of the West Bank (area C). This shift — with very few exceptions strongly opposed by the international community including the Gulf states — has substantially changed the focus of attention from geographical boundaries to the nature of Jewish-Arab relations in the land.
This reframing points in one of two directions. In certain circles, mostly championed by extremists on both sides, it revives older zero-sum concepts that thoroughly delegitimize the other side. In the aftermath of the events of the past few weeks, proponents of this view within Israel and portions of the Palestinian territories have been particularly vocal, each seeking total control of the area.
In other quarters, the absence of firm boundaries has turned attention to a value-based approach which stresses equality, justice, freedom and dignity for all the inhabitants of the land. This latter trajectory has gained traction in segments of Israeli civil society (vide the many efforts to construct the foundations of a shared society even after the blows inflicted during the recent incidents, as demonstrated by the numerous gestures, rallies and demonstrations during the past few days). Palestinian counterparts, who have advocated such a course for some time, continue to press its advantages, not least of which is the promotion of a democratic bi-national state in the entire territory.
Both approaches have garnered growing external support at the civil society level and in some official circles. Never in recent memory have the options been so starkly polarized. A different paradigm would attempt to expand on common values while simultaneously reinstating the right to freedom and self-determination of both peoples. Such a reorientation involves both a redrawing of political borders and greater interaction.
This leads directly to the fourth facet of a reconciliation paradigm: the strategic one. No real lasting Israeli-Palestinian accommodation can be achieved without a remolding of the prevailing political architecture. Neither the failed, separation-oriented two-state solution which guided previous negotiations nor the various one-state formulations currently under consideration can begin to satisfy the basic beliefs and aspirations of both people.
The last round of Palestinian-Israeli violence has only magnified the weaknesses inherent in perpetuating or improving on prevailing approaches. What is needed is a different construct based on a combination of borders and interchange, thus addressing the necessity for boundaries while recognizing the impossibility of full separation or complete integration. Several serious proposals for open, cooperative, arrangements are now on the table. These include those proposed by Palestinians and Israelis in the “Land for All” movement, which suggests the creation of two collaborative states in one homeland, as well as a series of suggestions for other confederal formations, and even the possibility of a federal state with autonomous units under a common umbrella.
Intriguingly, all these proposals are based on an updated, value-based, significantly revised two-state foundation. They deserve examination, discussion and operationalization. If not pursued, the existing alternatives promise a slippage into darker versions of various conflict options.
It is as yet unclear who can lead such a change. Political instability in Israel and a veritable political vacuum amongst the Palestinians do not augur well for the current leadership on both sides, who are widely viewed as having lost this round. Distressed and frustrated youth, at the forefront of the riots, lack direction. Civil society groups can exert pressure, but real openness to change may have to await a generational leadership change which is now in the making. In the interim, however, the groundwork can be laid for something different.
It is by now a truism that crises, especially in this region, not only dim hopes but also offer opportunities. Every round of fighting in the past has been followed by paradigmatic adjustments. This past year, with its frightening pandemic culminating in a shattering, all-encompassing, spiral of destruction and human misery, is testimony not only to the depth of the helplessness but also to the immense potential for positive change ingrained in the ongoing impasse. Instead of repeating the multifold mistakes of yesteryear, now is the time to start thinking about how to build a stable, peaceful, and better future based on mutual respect in this troubled land and to draw up concrete plans for the realization of this common vision.