As extremists in Israel and the West Bank come to the fore, in many ways feeding off each other, hopes of any kind of solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict are naïve at best and completely divorced from reality at worst. The emergence of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and the growing dominance of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have left the two sides more polarised and antagonistic than ever before.
As things stand, a two-state solution is practically inconceivable, a one-state solution for the birds and the only relative certainty is years of cyclical violence that will harden positions and make dialogue and compromise even harder than it is now. While a severe, prolonged escalation in the current tit-for-tat violence cannot be ruled out, both sides understand how devastating that would be and have become adept at de-escalation.
What we have now is an almost unbearably tense stand-off, with right-wing Israelis and extremist Palestinians goading each other, the former, it has to be said, doing most of the goading. So why after decades of peace negotiations are we here – essentially a frozen conflict? Some blame Israeli intransigence, others Palestinian rejectionism. In truth, the two bear responsibility for the current impasse, and apportioning more blame on one than the other is self-defeating. There is so much distrust, bad faith and increasingly mutual hatred that expecting either party to make substantive concessions is almost out of the question.
Sure, Israel has offered the Palestinian deals that would give them a state with most of the West Bank, but it has continued to build settlements there, even under left-wing governments. And yes, the Palestinians say they want a two-state solution, but in truth they could never agree to one unless their refugees were allowed to return, turning Israel into an Arab-majority state. The narrative of return remains central to the official Palestinian cause. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad won’t even countenance an Israeli state, whatever its composition. And things are only getting worse.
In Israel, the centre-left, which retreated into a bubble after the Second Intifada, has now finally woken up to what it sees as the nightmare of Israel’s subsequent shift to the right. To their credit, liberal Israelis have protested in their hundreds of thousands against what they see as an attempt to neuter the Supreme Court and potentially push the country toward becoming a de facto dictatorship. Judicial reform plans have been paused in the face of the mass demos, but the government seems determined to have its way. If it does, the country could see serious political violence.
It’s hard to imagine how things will play out but what is clear is that the centre-left, though still able to mobilise, is in decline and has been for years as a prolonged occupation poisons Israel’s body politic and higher birth-rates swell the numbers of ultra-religious Haredim, who have long allied themselves with the right. As Israeli liberals try to save Israel, some in government have their eye on a Greater Israel, emboldening hard-line settlers.
At the same time, continued occupation has fed Palestinian extremism, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad now rivalling the Palestinian Authority, seen by many on the West Bank as self-serving, corrupt and collaborationist. Israeli tries to root out militants in response to attacks on civilians and soldiers in Israel and the West Bank. That inevitably leads to retaliation. The seemingly endless cycle of violence strengthens Palestinian radicals and weakens the old-guard. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has been in power for donkey’s years. He won’t call elections because he knows Hamas will come to power. He reluctantly works with the Israelis because they help to keep him in place.
Many Israelis argue that patience with the Palestinians is running thin, pointing to the willingness of Gulf states to normalise relations. But that’s beside the point. The point is that whatever Israelis think of the Palestinians, it’s ultimately in their interest to somehow come to an accommodation with them because the occupation and the fanaticism it spawns is destroying Israel from within. Indeed, Hezbollah, Hamas and co have been gleefully watching the country’s political crisis unfold, rejoicing at the prospect of Jews tearing themselves apart and, what they hope, will be the end of the Zionist project.
Israelis and Palestinians need to be saved from themselves. With hundreds of thousands of settlers on the West Bank and an associated infrastructure that makes a Palestinian state unviable, a two-state solution, for now, makes no sense. And with a resurgent Hamas calling the shots and vowing to wipe Israel off the face of the Middle-East, why should Israel even consider a Palestinian state. As for a one-state solution? That’s just a recipe for apartheid, as repellent as it was in South Africa. Some suggest a confederation, but that would require the kind of reasonableness that just does not exist at present.
Now is not the time for solutions. But that’s not to say we can’t prepare the ground for meaningful negotiations in the future. As a matter of urgency, the US, the European Union, and possibly even Israel’s new best friend the UAE, should invest heavily in the economies of the West Bank and Gaza to give the Palestinians dignity and hope. Concurrently, Washington and Brussels must become much more closely engaged in the region, promoting substantive cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians on economic, energy and cultural issues. And, if needs be, sanctioning those responsible for violence. Sustained prosperity and calm might in time isolate the extremists, providing a space for serious dialogue over refugee issues and the contours of a Palestinian state.
Dr Saul Zadka is the former Europe correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Yigal Chazan is the former managing editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.