This blog post is going to be a bit on the long side as it combines different topics and news pieces I had wanted to write about separately but decided ultimately to put together into this one post.
I am finally going to write about a topic I have mostly skirted around the edges of thus far but have not specifically addressed: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I will be writing on whether I believe there will be a solution to the conflict in the near future. While both sides’ roles in perpetuating the conflict will be analyzed, this post will spend more time discussing Israel’s role in perpetuating the conflict than the Palestinians’. This is mostly due to my greater familiarity with Israeli politics than Palestinian politics. However, as I will explain, I do also believe Israel has far more influence over the state of the conflict than the Palestinians. Unfortunately, I am very cynical about the prospects of a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us break down the reasons why.
There are numerous proposed “solutions” to the conflict, the main ones being a “one-state,” “two-state,” solution or some form of confederation which would combine elements of both.
A one-state solution can take the form of complete Israeli sovereignty over all historic Mandatory Palestine, with or without granting citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians, or the reverse. However, we are only considering just and equitable solutions, thus issues such as the rights of citizenship are non-negotiable. We cannot consider such “solutions.” A just solution under a one-state model would entail the creation of a single binational state over all the land with full equal rights for all citizens without favoritism for Jews or Palestinians. Guided solely by the principle of equality and giving all inhabitants complete access to all the land, in my opinion this is the most democratic solution. However, it is also the most unrealistic. For Jewish Israelis, such a solution would amount to politicide and end Israel’s status as a Jewish state. For Jews, it would require giving up the security and protections against antisemitism that the State of Israel was founded in large part to provide, and to live with a people who they see as driven by hatred towards them. For Palestinians it would mean giving up on the struggle to “liberate Palestine” and replacing it with some other entity. More fundamentally, it would require living with and trusting a people they see as colonizers who have destroyed their communities and committed human rights abuses against them for generations. Such a solution would require a long and intensive process of reconciliation, healing, reparations, and reeducation before it could be implemented. Only roughly a tenth of Israelis and Palestinians support such a proposal (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research 2020, 6). It is not happening.
The two-state solution entails the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, established alongside Israel which would be confined to its pre-1967 borders, pending land swaps and other agreements made by the two parties. It remains the favored solution by the US and the UN (UNSC Resolution 242) and served as the basis for the Oslo Peace Process in the 90’s. While it continues to be the solution with the most support among Israelis and Palestinians, an increasing majority of each oppose it (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research 2020, 3). At this point, only a minority of Israelis and Palestinians consider this solution to be viable (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research 2020, 5). Many experts consider the two-state solution to be “dead” (Beinart 2020). This is for several reasons.
1. Israel’s policies of occupation and apartheid pose the greatest obstacle to peace and they are not going anywhere.
Israel has continued to expand illegal settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem since its military occupation of these territories began in 1967. By the signing of Oslo I in 1993, there were roughly 105,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories, and after the failed Camp David Summit in 2000, the number of Israeli settlers reached 192,000 (Tessler 2009, 771, 820). Today that number stands at over 620,000 and continues to grow (B’Tselem 2019). The expansion of these settlements, which are illegal under international law, comprised the biggest Palestinian complaint throughout the development of the peace process (Tessler 2009 771). This is because they consume land designated for the Palestinian state. Furthermore, these settlements are often constructed in critical locations, such as over water sources, hilltops, or standing in between major Palestinian population centers, such as the Har Homa settlement which stands between East Jerusalem and the Palestinian city Bethlehem (Lazaroff 2021). These illegal settlements directly undermine the foundations upon which a sovereign Palestinian state could be built.
Another form of Israeli land-theft is its explicitly settler-colonialist policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories, this is especially so in the Occupied East Jerusalem. In the East Jerusalem Palestinian town of Sheikh Jarrah, Israel is forcibly evicting its Palestinian residents who have lived in their homes since the Nakba in 1948 and allowing Jewish settlers who engage in violence in the local community to move in (El-Kurd 2020). Even the deputy mayor of Jerusalem Aryeh King proudly admits this is a policy of installing “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem (Kingsley 2021). While these settler organizations claim property rights under Israeli law which entitles Jews to reclaim property lost during the 1948 War of Independence, it is important to remember that East Jerusalem is occupied territory (UNSC Resolution 2334). This means not only does Israel have no legal basis to apply such law in East Jerusalem, such action possibly constitutes a war crime (TOI 2021). Such policies only serve to inflame the conflict and unalterably change the facts on the ground that make a two-state solution less likely.
While Israeli security interests and disputes over the issue of right of return for Palestinian refugees were notable issues of disagreement during the Oslo process, it was the presence of these settlements that led to Arafat rejecting the offers proposed by Israeli negotiators at the Camp David Summit (Tessler 2009 802). The Palestinian negotiators, who already regarded the recognition of Israeli sovereignty outside the OPT as a major concession (effectively relinquishing their claims to over 78% of historic Palestine), justifiably balked at the Israeli proposal to claim an additional 24% of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem (which was supposed to be the Palestinian capital (Tessler 2009, 801-2). Even Hamas, which denies Israel’s right to exist, has stated it would accept a two-state solution based only on complete sovereignty over all of Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem (Middle East Eye/Hamas 2017). It is my belief that unless the political will emerges for a significant withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank and negotiation over East Jerusalem emerges in Israel (an unlikely proposition at best as I will discuss next), a two-state solution will be impossible.
2. Looming political change in Israeli and Palestinian politics is not cause for hope, but cause for concern.
Both Israel and Palestine are potentially approaching a major turning point in their politics. Israel is in a moment of political crisis having just had its fourth election in two years and appearing on track to enter a fifth. The cause for this upheaval centers around one man, Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. Netanyahu faces charges for corruption (mentioned in a previous post) and trial proceedings have recently begun. Netanyahu is under pressure to remain in power to pass legislation which would protect him, as sitting Prime Minister, from criminal indictment. Recently, he illegally attempted to install a loyalist justice minister (Ravid 2021). Israel is split down the middle on whether he should continue as Prime Minister, or if his reign should end.
For Palestinians, Hamas and Fatah announced plans to hold elections for the Palestinian Authority legislative council (and later president) for the first time since 2006. New successful elections would provide an opportunity for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to unify and re-legitimize their government, putting them into a better position to enter new peace negotiations with Israel (UN News 2021).
If Netanyahu is dethroned and the Palestinian elections do go forward, we could see new leaders emerge who may be willing to pursue peace where others have failed or refused. However, I would not hold my breath for two reasons.
[Update: At time of writing Abbas has announced the postponement of elections over Israel’s barring of Palestinian East Jerusalem residents from voting (Reuters 2021)].
First, it is no guarantee that such change will transpire.
Election after election, even when unable to form a governing coalition, Netanyahu has consistently maintained a strong showing. While in this most recent election it is true that the opposition has more seats, it is made up of parties spanning almost the entire political spectrum. A coalition made up of the opposition would force Avigdor Lieberman, who said “disloyal Israeli-Arabs should be beheaded” (Ha’aretz 2015) to sit together with all four Arab parties. One Israeli I spoke with said that he was optimistic that the opposition will be able to put aside their differences and form a coalition together for the sake of ousting Netanyahu and restoring Israeli democracy. Opposition leader Yair Lapid ostensibly believes so (Horovitz 2021). However, bringing (and keeping) this divided group together would be nothing short of a miracle. While miracles do happen, it is best not to count on them. Without such a miracle, I believe Netanyahu will continue to cling to power and the peace process will continue to stall.
On the Palestinian side, Fatah head and PA president Mahmoud Abbas certainly has a strong vested interest not to let the elections carry forward. He has exceeded his term as President by over twelve years and has maintained an iron grip on power in the West Bank. There is a reason that elections have not been held since 2006. Abbas may simply cancel the elections altogether, especially since polling suggests a Hamas victory (al-Omari 2021).
Second, even if such change in leadership occurs, it is wishful thinking to assume that the new leaders would meaningfully pursue peace.
As previously mentioned, if a change in leadership in Palestine does take place, by all indications it will be Hamas that comes out on top. This is worrying news as Hamas has aggressively resisted peace with Israel since the First Intifada (Tessler 2009). Since it took control of Gaza in 2006, Hamas has demonstrated no interest in making peace with Israel. Instead, Hamas has targeted Israeli civilians with rocket attacks and other terrorist activity, often putting their own citizens in harm’s way (HRW 2012). While Palestinian casualties in Israel’s wars with Gaza have always far exceeded Israel’s, it takes two to conflict. So no, I do not expect things to change for the better if Hamas takes control of the West Bank, to say the least.
In Israel, while Netanyahu’s days may be numbered, the right-wing will continue to be the dominant force in Israeli politics for years to come. Despite Likud earning a commanding 30 Knesset seats in the recent election, four other right-wing parties (including the explicitly anti-Arab Oztmah Yehudit) made it into the government and together amassed a total of 26 seats, not including the 16 seats held by the religious Shas and UTJ parties. If the day comes that Netanyahu is evicted from politics and his Likud party crumbles, right wing Israelis will have no shortage of alternative right-wing parties to choose from. And make no mistake, there will always be right-wing Israelis voting for right-wing parties. There are two key reasons for this: First, young Israelis are predominantly right-wing (Adkins and Sales 2019). Israel will only shift further to the right with time as more ideologically diverse older voters die out and mostly right-wing younger voters take their place. Second, the settler community, already at several hundred thousand strong, continues to grow and is not going anywhere. While Ariel Sharon was able to force the few thousand Israelis in disparate settlements in Gaza to pack up and leave in 2005, to do so with the hundreds of thousands of settlers in the West Bank today would be unthinkable. Instead, a slim majority of Israelis supported Netanyahu’s 2020 plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank (Hermann and Anabi 2020). Even then-opposition leader Benny Gantz supported annexation provided certain conditions were met (The Times of Israel 2020).
However, for the sake of argument, let us say that the Israeli center-left experiences a rebirth. Even then, according to the statements of current opposition leaders, they would not be able to make the concessions neccesary to achieve an agreement acceptable to the Palestinians. Israeli centrist and left-wing leaders have never supported withdrawing from the major West Bank settlement blocs, and forget about respecting Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, both of which are essential for a viable Palestinian state (White 2019; Jessen 2019). As the 94% of Palestinians who rejected Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research 2020) have demonstrated, Palestinians will not agree to a “solution” in which Israel annexes even more Palestinian land.
Change or no change, there does not appear to be a strong force in Israeli or Palestinian politics ready to engage in serious negotiations or make the necessary concessions to achieve peace.
- Neccesary international pressure on Israel has been insufficient and ineffective.
As previously mentioned, the Palestinian political elites in the West Bank and Gaza have incentives not to engage in negotiations which could threaten their grip on power. However, because Israel has de facto control over the entirety of historic Mandatory Palestine, it both has the greatest responsibility to end the conflict, but also the least incentive to make the concessions neccesary to achieve an equitable two-state solution. Any gain in Palestinian sovereignty amounts to a diminishment of Israeli control. I do not mean to imply that resolving the conflict is a zero-sum game. Israel certainly has numerous incentives to peacefully end the conflict such as: diminishing the security threat Palestinians pose to Israel; improving its international relations; and recovering its democratic ideals which have degraded after maintaining a policy of apartheid for decades. However, these interests alone have been insufficient to “push” Israel to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians in good faith, at least since the end of the Oslo Peace Process in 2000.
The answer to this problem has been to create that “push” externally rather than internally; To enlist other states, multinational organizations, and the broader international community to pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to pursue peace. In the leadup to the Oslo Process, starting with the Madrid Peace Conference in the 1990’s there was a great confluence of international pressure on Israel to pursue peace. In the wake of the end of the Gulf War, Arab states, the US, and the UN all sought to pressure Israel to engage with the PLO to find a peaceful solution to the conflict (Smith 2016, 274). However, that push ultimately failed. Since then, the occupation has only become more entrenched and the international campaign opposing it has become a shadow of its former self.
The Pan-Arab adherence to the League of Arab States’ historic “Three No’s” policy forbidding peace, recognition, and negotiations with Israel pending a resolution to the conflict has only diminished. Just last year, Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, and Morocco reached normalization agreements with Israel despite fierce Palestinian opposition (Mahmoud and Shehada 2020). Historically, one of the main drivers compelling Israel to pursue peace with the Palestinians was to improve its relations with the Arab world (Bickerton Klausner 2018). If Israel is able to reach these normalization agreements without addressing the Palestinian issue, it greatly diminishes the pressure on it to do so.
The nonviolent Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, modeled after the divestment movement that was crucial in ending South African apartheid, is the most prominent example of this idea put into practice. However, unlike in the case of South Africa, the BDS movement has been ineffective, and roundly shunned under accusations of antisemitism (Schwammenthal and AJC 2019). Whereas the US Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 in response to South African apartheid, today, 35 US states have passed legislation opposing BDS (Jewish Virtual Library 2021).
Prominent Israeli and international human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have made statements this past year condemning Israeli human rights abuses as acts of apartheid (B’Tselem 2021; HRW 2021). However, these pronouncements have failed to generate meaningful changes in Jewish-American views towards Israel. By and large, American pro-Israel and pro-peace organizations have responded predictably to these announcements. The Israel lobby has lambasted the criticism as mere antisemitic demonization of Israel and even anti-occupation groups have objected to the usage of the term “apartheid” (Weiss 2021). It is true that support for Israel is decreasing among younger progressive Americans Jews (Maltz 2018; Waxmann 2017). Nonetheless, overall American support for Israel has changed little over the past two decades (Saad/ Gallup 2019).
US Congresswoman Betty McCollum recently introduced a bill that would ban the substantial military aid the US gives to Israel from being used to abuse Palestinians in the OPT. This bill has gained support from prominent progressive congressmen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and others (McCollum 2021). However it will almost certainly not be implemented as President Biden has explicitly refused to support conditioning military aid to Israel (Kestler-D’Amours Stepansky 2021). In fact, the Biden administration, likely not wanting to repeat the tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, appears to have no interest in engaging in any serious effort to solve the conflict (Toosi 2021).
International pressure has been and always will be crucial in not only bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table but pressuring them to actually commit to the process. While there continues to be a loud international voice calling for peace and for additional pressure on Israel, it is not as strong as it once was. If the international pressure in the nineties was insufficient to achieve success in the Middle East Peace Process then, it is certainly insufficient now.
None of this is to say that I believe achieving a just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible or that it will never happen. I cannot predict the future, especially for a region as unpredictable as the Middle East. Most people, in the region and abroad would certainly like to see such a solution come to pass than for the conflict to continue endlessly. Given a major change in the circumstances of the conflict, the right Israeli and Palestinian leaders could succeed where their predecessors failed. However, I argue that without such a major change, as things currently stand, the conflict only serves to worsen and the Israeli occupation will only become more deeply entrenched.