‘The last chance before the explosion’ — Analysis
2021 was an extremely bloody year, even considering the often gruesome nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to data from United Nations, violence occurred in West Bank “reached a five-year peak,”With at least 79 Palestinians dead and three Israelis injured in various bombings and encounters. In the other Palestinian territory of Gaza, over 230 Palestinians were killed during the devastating 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, while 12 people died in Israel – not to mention injuries and losses of property. Last year was the deadliest since 2014 and an ominous sign of what is to come.
Since talks stopped seven years ago and there is no sign of a formal peace process, frustrations and anger are building and there’s little hope for a permanent diplomatic solution. This situation could be described as a fragile tinderbox and it can spark another round in fighting and clashes. UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland has warned that, “if left unaddressed, the festering conflict drivers will drag us into yet another destructive and bloody round of violence.”
It was clear that the situation could get worse and it would be repeated with more devastating tit for tat attacks. The Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met Mahmoud Abdul Abbas, President of Palestinian Authority in Rosh haAyin in late December 2021. It was notably “the first time the Palestinian leader held talks with a senior Israeli official in Israel since 2010,”Gantz’s description of “a necessary step” made this step possible. “deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence – for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.” Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh labeled this dialogue as “the last chance before the explosion and finding ourselves at a dead end.”
But even as the Gantz-Abbas meeting triggered a wave of international optimism that it may be the first step for reviving a dialogue process and bringing the two sides back to the table to work out a formula on the world’s most intractable conflicts, a political firestorm broke out in Israel. Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, representing the conservative New Hope party, thundered in disapproval that “I wouldn’t have invited to my home someone who pays salaries to murderers of Israelis and also wants to put senior IDF [Israel Defense Forces]In The Hague, officers are held in prison [at the International Criminal Court].” Livid cabinet ministers were quoted as grumbling that Gantz’s initiative “doesn’t contribute to the stability of the government.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads an unwieldy and ideologically fragmented eight-party coalition government, and whose right-wing Yamina party is closely associated with hawkish Jewish settlers opposed to yielding even one inch of the biblical Judea and Samaria (corresponding to today’s West Bank), was left in a precarious position and had to admit that Gantz hosted Abbas after his approval. Bennett said that talks were intended to enhance security coordination, economic interactions and not restart the peace negotiations to cover his tracks.
Under pressure from within his own party, and desperate to ensure that his contradiction-filled coalition government does not collapse, Bennett had previously dissociated himself from any revival of peace negotiations with the Palestinians:
“My perception is different than that of the defense minister, although we work in harmony. While I support a Palestinian state, I believe it would be an error to import the Gaza model Hamas that fires rockets at Israel and then turn the West Bank over to this Hamas-led entity. I see no logic in meeting Abbas when he’s suing our soldiers in the Hague and accuses our commanders of war crimes. In my opinion, the Palestinian Authority is a failed entity.”
The coalition government’s other side is represented by Foreign Minister Yair Lepid, a leader of Yesh Atid who believes that Israel must reopen the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Citing an “intelligence-based assessment” that campaigns for international ostracization and designation of Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ could fructify in 2022, Lapid has publicly advocated a moderate stance:
“Without diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians, this [the threat of Israel being designated an apartheid state]The situation is only going to get more dire. Be cautious about a world that claims the Palestinians want to promote diplomatic talks with Israel. It is disgusting to claim Israel is an apartheid country. These are a group of anti-Semites, but I don’t take them lightly.”
Still, such is the shaky political environment in Israel that Lapid, who is supposed to take over by rotation from Bennett and become the next prime minister in 2023, has been forced to assure his detractors that he would keep aside his own beliefs and stay away from dialogue with the Palestinians to preserve the coalition:
“Even after a coalition rotation, I will remain with the same people and the same disagreements … I plan to stand behind the agreement I made with my partners. There is no reason for me to delude the Palestinians and open a diplomatic process that doesn’t have a coalition behind it … That would damage our credibility, which is important.”
The difficulty of any diplomatic route forward is evident when the most prominent liberal politician in Israel must keep his horse while being aware of the blowback effects of an unstable status quo regarding the Palestinians. The obstacles come not only from the mood of the political class in Israel, where the mainstream discourse is largely ‘securitized’ and based on fear of granting any concessions to the Palestinians, but also from increasing social polarization.
An opinion poll in December 2021 suggested that a slim majority of Israelis are in favor of a direct meeting between Prime Minister Bennett and President Abbas, and that 49% of Israelis even want their government to have “direct, open talks” with Hamas – an entity designated a terrorist organization by the governments of Israel, the United States, and the European Union.
But such barometers of what Israeli people want are deceptive and not indicative of policy-making, because the country’s electoral math is divided up according to vote banks. The former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lost power after failing to create a right-wing coalition at the Israeli Knesset, is still an impressive force. Bennett, along with other rightists within the coalition want to surpass Netanyahu and show a tougher approach in fighting terror by Palestinian terrorists. Following four unsuccessful general elections, Israel is now in more chaos and uncertainty than it was before. Gantz and Lapid have not yet made concessions to this rightist environment.
Former US President Donald Trump’s remarks that “I don’t think Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] ever wanted to make peace”With the Palestinians and that “he just tapped us along. Just tap, tap, tap,”This is the core issue. Barring a few left-liberals, the Israeli body politic is invested only in managing the Palestinian problem in terms of stopping terrorist attacks or throwing a few economic sops at President Abbas’ moribund and unpopular Palestinian Authority, not in resolving the conflict per se.
The much-talked-about ‘two-state solution’ of an independent Palestinian state coexisting beside the state of Israel, which was put forward as the final goalpost after the 1993 Oslo Accords, has lost traction amid a steady increase in what Israeli security officials themselves admit is a surge in Jewish extremism and ultra-nationalism.
In an August 2021 opinion poll, only 39.7% of Israelis favored the two-state solution. The most striking thing about the two-state solution group is that only 33.8% of those who clung to it were Jewish Israelis. While 68.8% of them were Israeli Arabs (citizens in Israel), the majority of whom identify themselves as Palestinians.
The internal schism between Jews and Arabs within Israel has widened significantly, mirroring the internecine feud between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah faction in the Palestinian territories. This is a major obstacle to any further progress on diplomatic initiatives. While there never were monolithic unanimous categories of ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’, the parallel processes of disaggregation of national identities and widespread public cynicism about the intentions and performance of the ruling classes on both sides have created a huge credibility vacuum.
Two willing, coherent and cohesive parties are essential for international negotiations to succeed. Each party must have domestic legitimacy as well as social consensus. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority do not have such solid foundations in their home countries.
‘Separate peace’ without Palestine
Another factor deterring any move by Israel for peace with the Palestinians is what can be called the ‘outside in’ approach Jerusalem has adopted to the Middle East as a whole. The Abraham Accords, facilitated by Israel’s principal international backer the US, wherein four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – formally recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations with it, have given Israel a sense of vindication without having to redress Palestinian grievances.
As Prime Minister Bennett put it in December, during his historic first ever visit to the UAE after the normalization of relations, there is “great optimism that this example, of ties between the two countries, will be a cornerstone for a wide-ranging network of ties throughout the region.” The Middle East has indeed traveled a long way from the 1967 consensus among Arab nations of the ‘Three Nos’ – “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”Israel has been declared persona non grata in many Sunni Arab states. They have made pragmatic deals with Zionist state, militarily and economically superior to Israel.
Understandably, Palestinians have lambasted the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords as unpardonable betrayals and treacherous stabs in the back of Palestinians by their fellow Arabs. But unlike in 1979 – when Egypt recognized Israel in return for the Sinai Peninsula without gaining any concessions on behalf of Palestinians, resulting in a torrent of Islamist anger that scalped the life of President Anwar Sadat – the chorus of outrage against the Abraham Accords has been muted in the proverbially radical ‘Arab street’. Evidently, Muslims around the world have had enough of carrying the weight of the Israel/Palestine issue on their shoulders.
International marginalization has allowed Israeli elites to feel that they can have both their cake and eat too. It is clear that the wider Arab-Israeli conflicts are melting away. So why bother with the more narrow Palestinian-Israeli dispute?
The Iran diversion
An interlinked development which has pushed resolution of the Palestinian question to the backburner is the ‘Iran threat’, which has reorganized coalitions and alignments in the region. Because Iran remains the leading power in the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel and the US – a grouping which includes Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi and Yemeni militants – Jerusalem views Tehran as its main national security challenge and enemy number one.
The laser-like focus that Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Arab states have kept on Iran’s nuclear programme and the ‘malign activities’ of Iran’s proxies are to an extent based on actual threat assessments and security incidents. The Iran-phobia discourse serves another purpose. It is used to dismiss the Palestinian issue as an insignificant matter, or a forgotten concern from an older era. This should not be a diplomatic move.
How long can you keep mowing the grass?
If Israel keeps kicking the can down the road and indefinitely sustaining the status quo of militarily occupying the West Bank (home to about 2.8 million Palestinians) and laying siege to Gaza (containing over 1.8 million Palestinians), even as frustration and desperation rise in these territories, is it not a recipe for wave after wave of uprisings, outbursts, and violence that could spill over into Israel itself, as was the case during the 2021 Israel-Hamas mini war? President Abbas’ repeated postponement of elections (Palestinian territories have not voted for their top leaders since 2006) and the rage that emanates from powerlessness and joblessness among Palestinians (average age of 20 years) could boomerang sharply on Israel.
Foreign Minister Lapid, who has expressed worries about whether Israel can remain Jewish and democratic if it permanently denies Palestinians their rights, has acknowledged that Israel’s government cannot afford to neglect the Palestinian issue “forever and ever.”
However, Jewish fertility rates have overtaken those of Palestinians in recent years, relieving old fears of Jews becoming a demographic minority in Israel and the occupied territories. This change, along with ever-splitting socio-political identities in Israel that skew policymaking towards hardline positions has weakened the argument for urgent action to reach an agreement with Palestinians.
Israel’s strategy of periodically ‘mowing the grass’, i.e. It uses superior military force to resist Palestinian jihadists and avoids a final solution. This strategy is probably the only viable path, even though it comes with terrible human- and economic cost. This perpetual war is a continuous conflict that has no end, except for a shift in Israeli political culture and public attitude or the acceptance by all parties of a unilateral peace agreement.