Conventional wisdom in Israel, spearheaded by Benjamin Netanyahu and echoed recently by leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog, has it that the time is not ripe to move towards any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The “now is not the right time” mantra has apparently not reached the ears of a growing number of international actors, however. Francois Hollande continues his efforts to convene an international conference (his emissary Pierre Vilmont is here once again to explore possibilities). The Quartet has reassembled after a long hiatus for precisely this purpose. American Vice President Biden just left after a brief visit, during which he tested the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And even though the prime minister is avoiding a face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama, the US president is again reportedly weighing yet another move to promote the two-state solution. For such a seemingly inopportune moment, there’s a tremendous amount of movement in recent weeks.
Time has always been a critical, albeit exceptionally elusive, factor in efforts to bring about an end to what has become one of the most intractable conflicts in recent memory. Over the years, and especially since the turn of the century, continuous delays have widened the gap between the two-state option (which the majority on both sides still cling to) and the imminent prospects for its realization.
Today, those who express skepticism about the likelihood of progress and insist on yet another postponement are essentially giving in to the entrenchment of the status quo, however disturbing and destructive. For them, now is not the time for any initiative. Those who persist in advocating for a different and better future argue for urgently reviving the quest for accommodation. For them, this period of growing violence is definitely the right time to make every effort to get out of the debilitating deadlock. The procrastinators in the name of stark realism have become the new fatalists; the expeditors in the name of a belief in a just peace are the present-day pragmatists. The outcome of the current tug-of-war between the foot-draggers and the jump-starters will determine options for years to come.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, for very different reasons, spearheaded the delay game in the hope that procrastination would work to their benefit. The naysayers have indeed become locked into a symbiotic logic of their own making. When there has been a modicum of quiet and hope on the Palestinian side for some movement, there has been no incentive for Israel to move ahead. When violence erupted or continues to fester, as it has since this past September, then Israel has been reluctant to enter any kind of negotiations for fear of rewarding its perpetrators.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has reveled in the purported despair about possible progress expressed by some world leaders. To Angela Merkel’s great discomfort, he pounced on part of her statement at their recent meeting that “now is certainly not the time to make really comprehensive progress…” He called the French proposal for an international conference under present circumstances nothing short of “bizarre.” He also noted that President Obama, while hosting President Reuven Rivlin at the White House, seemed to make it clear that an Israeli-Palestinian accord was “not in the cards” at this time. Indeed, when opposition leader Isaac Herzog stated that “…right now it would be impossible to negotiate the two-state solution,” he practically gloated. “When I said it a year ago, everyone came out and attacked me. Today we hear the same thing from the leaders of the world, not only from Obama and Merkel. Even the leader of the opposition understands it now”.
Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, has also turned down a series of offers, — from those presented by John Kerry in his last round of talks to those aired by other interlocutors in recent weeks — in the hope of getting a better deal tomorrow. In the process, he has lost traction with most of his constituency and with his support base, thereby ironically making him even more dependent on defraying any overture at this juncture.
These serial postponements have strengthened those on the Israeli side who don’t want any change and those on the Palestinian side who believe that eventually time will favor their cause. These forces have combined in the past few years to create a rare Palestinian-Israeli consensus that progress towards a workable agreement today is futile. Their continuous delaying tactics have thus entrenched deadlock and further exacerbated what has become an increasingly intolerable stalemate.
Several factors lie behind the assessment that the time is not ripe to reengage on the Israeli-Palestinian front. First and foremost is the extreme volatility in the region and the spread of Islamic extremism, followed by the marginalization of the Palestinian issue and the ongoing spiral of violence that has cost 34 Israeli lives and led to the death of over 150 Palestinians in the past six months alone. With neither leader willing to bend, conditions seem inauspicious for any major initiative.
These very same factors, however, may actually be fueling a shift in sentiment both internationally and on the ground. There is a growing realization that no regional stabilization is possible — the fragile ceasefire in Syria notwithstanding — without some kind of movement on Israel and Palestine. The current disagreements over the role of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah reinforce this point. And the increasingly strong measures used by Israel against perpetrators in this third, individual, intifada, have failed to temper persistent threats to personal security. If anything, as a series of polls has highlighted, the sense of human insecurity has grown exponentially in recent months, along with mutual acrimony and internal divisions within Israeli and Palestinian society. The loss of hope has become a striking mark of the times, one that, if left untreated, threatens to undermine societal cohesion in both parts of the Palestinian-Israeli divide.
Certain leaders are well aware of the fact that time is running out. President Obama was eminently clear when he stated that, “although obviously this is a time at which prospects of serious peace may seem distant, it’s important that we continue to try.” Angela Merkel, too, when articulating her doubts about forward movement, hastened to add: “We believe, on the other hand, that we have to advance a process of peaceful coexistence and this, according to my opinion, is ultimately built on the two-state solution.”
That is why they, along with others, are actively examining a range of possibilities not merely to improve realities in the short-term (as the Herzog plan lays out unilaterally) or to devise new means to manage the conflict (as Netanyahu and his advisors would have it), but to promote an internationally-backed, comprehensive and durable two-state solution to the conflict now.
Israelis and Palestinians are beginning to experience a new normal, which is totally abnormal from every conceivable human perspective. If they succumb to the passivity and inaction of their leaders by going along with their penchant for even more procrastination, they risk compromising their respective aspirations for just self-determination and along with it, their yearning for a safe life replete with hope and human dignity.
Despite the many difficulties involved, this is not the time to give up. As Hillel the Elder so wisely asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”