When nothing works

Following the shocking murder of four civilians and one Druze police officer at the hands of two East Jerusalem Arabs Tuesday, TOI editor-in-chief David Horovitz wrote a passionate article that affirmed the enduring Israeli spirit in the face of tragedy, and emphasized the “sheer pointlessness” of these violent acts which have divided the city in recent weeks.

“Palestinian terrorists, and those who incite them and support them, should know”, Horovitz stressed, “We are not going to be shot and stabbed and bludgeoned out of here…For this is the homeland of the Jewish nation, the only place we have ever been sovereign or sought sovereignty…we will not be driven from it.”

Horovitz also noted the religious fervor behind this wave of terror, and the damaging effect of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s declarations.

He is right. Palestinian terror – even today’s manifestation, which Yossi Klein Halevi calls “the terrorism of neighbors” – won’t work. It failed to drive Jews from the land a century ago, and it fails to drive Israelis away today. Violence only reinforces the engrained values of survival and perseverance.

However, Horovitz fails to mention that Israeli deterrence and counter-measures don’t work either. Fences and walls can be circumvented from above and below. Demolishing the homes of terrorists has had little impact on preventing future violence. Arming Israeli citizens isn’t going to strike fear into those who are willing to give up their lives for a cause.

The conflict is indeed an irresistible force paradox, where every action precipitates an equal but opposite reaction and neither side shifts from its seemingly entrenched positions. Worse, there are troubling signs that the conflict is returning to its darker origins.

So where does that leave us?

There are essentially two options: either to fall back into the familiar tropes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to think outside the box.

At times it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. Although at face value Prime Minister Netanyahu’s suggestion to Barack Obama that Israel would seek to strengthen its relationship other Arab states in order to push Abbas towards a deal sounds like an original approach, it is actually a rebranding of traditional Likud policies towards Palestinian independence. Menachem Begin took a similar approach when negotiating peace with the Egyptians in 1978-79. This path would only undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian moderates and strengthen the position of extremists, as it did then.

Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett’s positions are equally dangerous. Unilaterally transferring Israel’s Arab population into a Palestinian state is a violation of their rights as Israeli citizens, regardless of how vehemently they protest the government or how little they may identify as Israelis. Similarly, annexation of the West Bank would be a direct violation of the Oslo Accords, which recognizes the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”. If either of these concepts were executed, it would subvert the fundamental values and principles upon which Israel was established and expose the Jewish State to unprecedented levels of international condemnation and isolation.

That doesn’t mean that Israel should be doomed to carry the burden of Oslo like some leaden albatross until the United Nations says “dayenu“. But walking away from the peace process would do more damage to Israel than to the Palestinians, who, since 1993, have managed to achieve quasi-state status and are gradually being accepted into most of the major international institutions. With each passing week, more European countries are recognizing Palestine as a state. Going back to square one may not afford Israel the same leverage it has today.

As gloomy the forecast may appear, change may be just around the corner. Netanyahu and Abbas, two leaders depressingly similar in their unwillingness to take risks, are facing stiff challenges to their authority and plummeting domestic popularity. Yet even this is unlikely to alter their positions. So rather than asking what they will do, the real question should be what path their successors will choose: to abandon the Oslo process, maintain the status quo of intermittent fighting mixed with half-hearted negotiations, or actively pursue a comprehensive accord to end the conflict?

If the answer is to bring the conflict to an end, then Israelis and Palestinians need to address Jerusalem’s fate. The longer the city’s status remains in question, the longer extremists will continue to believe in the sanctity of their cause. The longer East Jerusalem residents feel inferior in their own city, the more resentment they will harbor towards the Jewish neighbors whose homes they built, whose streets they clean, whose food they cook. And as long as the Palestinian Authority refutes the Jewish People’s historical and religious connection to the City of David and the Temple Mount, many Israelis will continue to perceive it as an aggressor rather than a partner.

But if the two sides succeeded in finding a(n undoubtedly painful) compromise over the holy city, it would defuse the conflict’s increasingly religious undertones and mark the most transformative moment since Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn.

Israelis and Palestinians must come to recognize that for too long they have enabled leaders who endorse failed policies while evading the conflict’s most polarizing issues. Rather than continuing to kick the can down the road, the time has come to empower those creative enough to tackle the largest hurdles, before the cries of the extremists are too loud to overcome.

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.