The abominable Israeli–Palestinian conflict
21 Jun 2021|

The two-state solution for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a yeti—often talked about, but rarely sighted. And like the Himalayan snowfields, its habitat is shrinking.

A familiar combination of domestic Israeli and Palestinian political dynamics, international failures and worsening relations between the two sides created conditions for the outbreak and the continuation of the most recent bloodshed. Those circumstances still apply.

Two decades after the second intifada marked the effective end of the Oslo Accords, there is once again a widespread view among political audiences, on both sides, that the Palestinian–Israeli relationship is existential and zero-sum.

Like love and roses, the latest fragile ceasefire will last while it lasts, nothing more. The coalition that was created to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power in Israel also faces serious challenges to its durability.

Meanwhile, the political clout and credibility of the Palestinian Authority, already in poor shape before the conflict, has suffered further serious damage. Thanks to its own ineptitude (notably the cancellation of elections), Netanyahu’s drive to survive by accommodating the extremist right, and the failure of the US administration to act quickly and decisively at the outset of the fighting in May, recourse to violence, which the Palestinian Authority is obliged to eschew, has become re-legitimised in the minds of popular audiences on both sides.

Whatever the damage Israel is doing to its support base abroad (and recent polling and US congressional responses indicate that the damage is substantial, including among younger US evangelical Christians), Israelis suffer no pangs of conscience (according to the respected commentator Yossi Klein Halevi) over the deaths of more than 240 Palestinians, including around 60 children, in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.

Israeli opinion seems to have no problem, either, with the decimation of employment-generating civilian infrastructure in Gaza—ranging from bookshops to ice-cream factories—and the damage, collateral or deliberate, to homes and medical facilities.

Palestinians applauded the same indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, ignoring the fact that they cannot make effective appeals for justice when the primary media focus is on missiles and allegations of war crimes. Nor did they advance any other Palestinian interest by doing so.

Three key questions arise from the current situation.

Israel remains unaccountable, but for how much longer?

Can Israel rely, in the US context, on receiving exceptional treatment as a (supposedly) reluctant occupier—based on arguments about foundation myths, the Holocaust and security concerns—in an era of Black Lives Matter, protests against police violence, articulate liberal voices ranging from Bernie Sanders to Peter Beinart, anti-apartheid sentiment and real-time imagery of civilian suffering?

And will those arguments—and the Iron Dome—that suffice for now be enough to satisfy Israelis themselves as time goes on?

Will Israelis be prepared to put the safety of their children, conscripted to serve in the West Bank and elsewhere, at risk when Palestinians both in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel feel disempowered, marginalised and stripped of rights, freedoms and security?

Will they double down on preservation of the identity of Israel as a Jewish state—and the privileges they enjoy within that state—when Palestinians on both sides of the ‘green line’ see no prospects for redress through the existing system?

Will they be willing to do so when the primary beneficiaries of a refusal to countenance fundamental questions are the rabidly racist elements among Israeli settlers whose behaviour is an affront to the values of Judaism and the majority of Israelis?

Can the Palestinians restore international focus on issues of their rights and dignity—which pose existential questions for the future of Israel as a Jewish state—when global media attention is driven primarily (if not exclusively) by the clickbait of violent imagery?

The violence of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians has shaped political culture on all sides. As one Palestinian blogger said, ‘My sister was 8 during the 2008 war, 12 during the 2012 war, 14 during the 2014 war, 18 during the march of return, and now she’s 21 during this.’

But far from encouraging a process of conflict resolution, that violence has, in turn, enabled a deflection of Israeli and international focus on the issues underlying the conflict itself into a sterile discussion of Israel’s security needs.

Among the most infuriating aspects of Hamas’s criminal intervention in the latest conflict was the fact that it stifled a nascent discussion, as a result of the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, of Palestinian rights (as distinct from interests). A discussion that needs to be had, for the sake of future generations on both sides, about the fact that Palestinians are denied the rights that are accorded to Jewish citizens of Israel to return to property they possessed before 1948 has once again been avoided.

And, in the nature of the news cycle, further non-violent Palestinian resistance to the next round of dispossessions, and the demands of Palestinians for dignity and for justice, will probably be accorded little attention.

Since the two-state solution, like the yeti, is unable to be found, what can replace it?

It is the absence of any recognisable path forward that should be of greatest concern for both sides.

There are no credible advocates among Israelis, let alone political machinery on either side to challenge—as needs to be done—the political and diplomatic infrastructure supporting the convenient fable of a two-state solution.

A one-state approach would require mobilising political support for a fundamental rearticulation of the political, security and social apparatus and identity of Israel. That’s surely less likely than a further shift to the right among Israelis fearing for their future.

Most thinking Israelis abhor it, but the language of racism has become part of Israeli political discourse. Racist demonstrations receive government approval and police protection. And while transactional relationships with regional Arab states, brokered by the United States, are celebrated, they are not affecting Israeli behaviour and attitudes toward Palestinians under their control.

The Palestinian Authority will not relinquish its role, patronage and security networks; and it is unlikely that Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset will withdraw from Israeli politics either.

Meanwhile, Palestinian activists who were born after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 are less responsive to calls for restraint. Ten years after the Arab Spring opened political horizons, and in a more supportive international climate, they are now telling their own story. And Palestinian civil disobedience is now operating across the 1948 line.

The Biden administration will be tempted not to expend political capital by addressing underlying issues which now show even less prospects for resolution, even as they become more dangerous to both parties. It has more far-reaching strategic issues, including the question of relations with Iran, to address with Israel’s supporters in Congress.

But yielding to that temptation would be unwise. The talking points about two states that worked for Washington (and Canberra) in the 1990s no longer apply. And the uncharted direction in which Israelis and Palestinians are heading must make even the yeti ponder its future.