Reflections on AIPAC: is Israel Sleepwalking into the Third Intifada?

Whilst pundits everywhere scramble to analyse the impact of this year’s AIPAC (America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference, the crucial question is actually what was missing. The rhetoric itself was relatively unremarkable, pullulated with the usual affirmations of US-Israel ties and the ‘special bond’ between two peoples.

What changed this year was the absence of the Israel’s usual co-belligerents; whatever happened to the Palestinians? Apparently, Iran has usurped them for the dubious honour of being this season’s pariah people. A cursory glance at the Israeli press would suggest that, despite recent Gaza-based tensions, the Palestinians have been losing ground for the battle of the news cycle, submerged by the ‘Iranian threat’ of nuclear escalation.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at this year’s AIPAC event, he neglected to even mention the Palestinians, a rarity for Israeli leaders in recent years. Suddenly, the Israel-Palestine conflict has morphed into the countdown to an ‘inevitable’ Israel-Iran showdown. This is surely reassuring for Israeli decision-makers; Israel has always fared better in state-level conflicts (think 1967) rather than the strategic and political quagmire of an increasingly ethno-national, asymmetric conflict for overlapping pieces of land (see the First Intifada).

Lacking a concessionary consensus towards the Palestinians in his right-wing coalition, Netanyahu has opted for the easier route of emphasising the inherent dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Israeli policy-makers of both left and right agree that this will be a disaster. Facing an election year and frayed ties with the influential ‘Israel lobby’, President Obama also has stands to gain from pushing Iran, substituting Israeli-American tensions on the Palestinian issue for a comparatively ‘united front’ against a nuclear Iran. This represents a disappointing climb-down from Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009, where he set historical precedents for his right-wing Likud Party, explicitly endorsing Palestinian statehood. Following AIPAC’s 2011 Netanyahu explicitly re-iterated his support for a two-state solution before the US Congress. Netanyahu could have been the first Likud Prime minister to accept and implement the necessary realities of Palestinian statehood. By pursuing an ‘Iran first’ policy, this looks increasingly less likely.

This paradigm shift is deeply dangerous, marginalising the Palestinians regionally and internationally, especially when combined with the increasing clamour for ‘Third Palestinian Intifada’, inspired by two game-changing but bloody previous uprisings against Israel. Regrettably, historical analysis infers that violence and unrest can serve rational, utilitarian goals in the Middle-East.

The ‘First Intifada’ (1987-1993) was underlined by nationalistic fervour and fears of irrelevance: a 1987 Arab summit in Amman failed to even mention the Palestinians whatsoever. Thus, Palestinians felt that their passivity had stymied international attention and signalled to Israeli voters and decision-makers that the occupation was ‘low cost’ and ‘manageable. Resultantly, they successfully used civil disobedience and limited violence to re-assert their claims on the international arena, damaging Israel’s reputation, but forcing Israel’s hand, leading to the 1993 Oslo Accords and tentative steps towards peace.

By contrast, the Second Intifada (2000-2005) emerged out of a frustration with the lack of progress made since Oslo and the rise of rejectionist, clerical-fascist Islamist groups, leapfrogging on the perceived failures of the moderate, ruling Fatah. Instead of protests, this was the era of the suicide bomb and the rifle. Israeli and Palestinian citizens paid in blood for the short-sightedness of their leaders.

Both these conflicts claimed thousands of lives, increasing ethno-religious polarisation and political extremism. Further still, both demonstrate that deadlocked negotiations and the sidelining of the Palestinians has worrying historical precedents. Turning to violence or civil disobedience, whilst bringing high human costs, were politically successful, engendering the internationalisation of the conflict, external pressure on Israel and Israeli concessions. Similarly, moderate Palestinian groups become increasingly sidelined when they are perceived as ineffective ‘collaborators’ with the Israeli occupation.

Hence, in downplaying the Palestine issue, Israel risks sleepwalking into a third intifada. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently assessed this claim, whilst others postulate that it may already be beginning. Though Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has ruled out an intifada, Palestinian political organisations started neither the first nor second intifada, instead ‘bandwagoning’ on what were spontaneous social movements.

Instead of tactically emphasising an ‘Iran first’ policy and downplaying the Palestinian issue, Israel must combine these security issues, facilitating a deadlock-breaking synergy. With Iran isolated, the Iranian proxies and rejectionist Islamists of Hamas have recently vacillated regarding whether they would remain neutral in an Iranian-Israeli showdown. Syria, Iran’s regional ally, is embroiled in civil war, distracted from scuppering negotiations. Similarly, comprehensive Israeli-Palestine peace could garner legitimacy on Israel, further solidifying consensus against a nuclear Iran

The ‘Third Intifada’ has yet to commence and is far from a foregone conclusion. However, intifadas, like the ‘Arab Spring’, are rarely foreseen. Netanyahu must pre-empt violence through negotiations leading to comprehensive peace. History may have taught that intifadas yielded results, but neither of these uprisings was inevitable. Regardless, an ‘Iran First’ strategy is likely to herald few prospects for a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, making the possibility of localised violence more likely.

About the Author
Rob Pinfold is a PhD Candidate in War Studies at King's College, London, studying the topic of Israeli withdrawal from territory. He has been living in Jerusalem for two years, where he worked as an Israel Research Fellow, and currently works as a Research and Teaching Assistant at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.