Israel and the Palestinians need international help to avoid another explosion.
Today’s appalling attack on worshipers at a Jerusalem synagogue that killed at least four people should serve as an urgent wake-up call to all those who take a nonchalant attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many different ways in which a wide variety of people are blasé about it, but a shrugging of the shoulders in response to the conflict has become unfortunately widespread. And it’s profoundly dangerous.
Some, especially friends of Israel, suggest that the problem of the occupation is just not that big a deal. They argue that even if it once was a decisive factor in the Middle Eastern regional strategic equation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly isn’t now. They point to the war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq, the meltdown in Libya and other dramatic and urgent crises and note that the question of Palestine just doesn’t have the cachet it used to in the Arab world, even two or three years ago. They say that the United States should not waste its limited and valuable resources on a fool’s errand of seeking peace where the parties are not ready, willing or able to compromise and it is simply not achievable, at least for the foreseeable future.
Others, including some in the Arab world, insist that Palestinian issues remain vital to other Arab societies and states, but that there are, perhaps, more urgent, although not necessarily more important, issues. The threat of violent extremism, as represented by but not limited to, ISIS, is most frequently cited as temporarily trumping the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But terrorism is not the only issue that has gobbled up political oxygen that otherwise automatically defaulted to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Concerns about Iranian hegemony and Turkish meddling in the Arab world, Qatar’s efforts to extend its sphere of influence by using soft power in support of Islamists across the region, instability in the most important Arab country: Egypt, and other dramatic developments are commanding the lion’s share of the Arab political imagination at the present moment. State policies are more focused on them. Political commentary, both print and broadcast, considers them more deeply and with a much more sustained attention than issues involving Palestine. It takes something as dramatic as the Gaza conflict this summer to return Palestine and the Palestinians to Arab headlines and daily examination in commentary forums.
So both Israelis and Arabs, and (their sometimes self-appointed) friends in the West, are just not as focused on Israel and the Palestinians as they used to be, even quite recently. As his term in office was winding down, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad frequently noted this troubling trend, which he correctly identified as downright disastrous for the Palestinians. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the present approach of many important external actors to the conflict has been “management,” rather than resolution.
Secretary of State John Kerry is mocked by some for his dedication to seeking peace negotiations, and even a potential agreement. It’s not just his “personalized,” and arguably self-centered or self-aggrandizing, approach that is the target for sneering. It’s the notion that attempting to resolve rather than manage the conflict that comes in for derision as naïve, quixotic or even absurd. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon notoriously described Kerry as “obsessed,” and, worse, “messianic,” not for his approach but rather merely for his commitment to seeking a peace agreement. “Messianic,” by the way, to all those who are not enthusiastically messianic or at least millenarian themselves, is, perforce, synonymous not merely with “ridiculous” but actually with “insane.”
No one doubts that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be very difficult to resolve, that this process will take time and is unlikely to yield results in the short term. But no one should doubt, either, that the political vacuum left by the absence of any kind of diplomatic process or other horizon ending the conflict and the occupation produces a decidedly unmanageable and inescapably violent reality on the ground.
In my subjective and personal experience, Palestinians are angrier today than any time since at least the height of the second Intifada, and possibly all the way back to the 1980s. This rage is expressing itself on the ground in the form of violent attacks against Israelis, many of which appear to be spontaneous.
To be sure, many of these violent acts are being conducted by members or supporters of extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But a great deal of the street-level unrest is being driven by youths who do not remember the extraordinarily negative impact of the second Intifada, which ended nine years ago. A 14, 15 or even 16-year-old — and especially those younger — Palestinian lacks a framework for remembering that experience, which otherwise serves as a major disincentive from seeking violent confrontation with the occupying power, Israel, and ordinary Jewish Israelis.
But the violence is not only a two-way street. Israel, and even its antecedent Jewish settler communities in British mandatory Palestine have ensured that there has never been a period of sustained violence in which more Jews have been killed then Palestinians. Indeed, the ratio of Palestinian civilians killed is usually very high in comparison to Jews. And it is not just the Israeli occupation forces that are involved. Increasingly radical Jewish Israeli terrorists, vigilantes and “price tag” fanatics, operating out of the extreme right wing and pro-settler constituencies, are taking matters into their own hands, and attacking and, indeed, killing Palestinian civilians, including children.
Moreover, the occupation itself is inherently violent. It’s not just that by definition it involves a small group of people — the Israeli military — attempting to exercise discipline and control over a huge group of disenfranchised noncitizens — the Palestinians living under occupation. It’s that one of the most important defining features of the occupation is the settlement project that it facilitates and, indeed, that has come to serve as its raison d’être.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that in the absence of a diplomatic process or any other horizon for independence and freedom, Palestinian youths who are too young to recall the lessons of the second Intifada would quickly become restive. Agitation can also be expected from extremist groups that are drawn to reckless, and even reprehensible, activity, particularly in areas they do not control. Hamas has long been accused of seeking to undermine the Palestinian Authority by promoting violence in the West Bank.
And it’s no surprise, either, then, that extremist groups have welcomed the terrorist attack against the Jerusalem synagogue. Indeed, a Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, not only welcomed the attack, he coined a new version of “RoR” — which traditionally has stood for the Palestinian Right of Return. He wrote on his Facebook feed, “We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means.”
This is precisely what can be expected in the absence of a political and diplomatic process, and in the face of not only ongoing occupation, but expanding settlement activity: aspirational dreams of the Right of Return give way to nightmarish fantasies about a supposed “Right of Revenge.” What’s taking hold in Jerusalem is a vicious circle of violence based on the logic of a “Right of Revenge,” embraced by both sides and expressed in many different forms of brutality.
This conflict cannot be managed, for it will continue to metastasize and smolder. Cyclically it will erupt into violence, whether of the more organized form such as the Gaza war this summer, or free-for-all’s such as the second intifada, because people cannot live with this degree of repression and tension. It cannot be sidelined because it will, forever, reassert its disproportionate, and indeed irrational, power to move people across the region and globe.
If it is a fantasy, and it probably is, to believe that the conflict can be resolved in the near-term of the next two or three years, then it is certainly also a fantasy — and a much more dangerous one at that — to believe that it can be successfully defused, contained and controlled. At the very least maintaining a level of calm, that is assuming it can be restored in short order, will require significant improvements to realities on the ground in order to break the cycle of violence, anger and incitement that is currently driving the vicious circle of “revenge” we have been witnessing in recent weeks.
When he launched his renewed peace initiative after he was appointed secretary of state, Kerry spoke in terms of a major project of investment in the West Bank. That never materialized, but there is no logical basis for it to be simply a reward or incentive for Palestinians regarding negotiations with Israel. To the contrary, such a project can and must stand alone as a positive initiative in its own right. The international community has a major obligation to ensure that Israel does not go forward with recently announced major new settlement expansions that would significantly alter the strategic situation in the occupied territories and make a peace agreement substantially more difficult to achieve under the best of circumstances. And the Palestinian Authority can and should do much more with international pressure and support to curb extremist activity in the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas’ condemnation of the synagogue attack was a positive but belated statement of opposition to the present wave of violence. The PA can and should be incentivized to do more to promote calm and enforce law and order in the areas under its control.
This isn’t asking for the world. Instead, these are modest, reasonable measures that are pursuant to the international community’s professed commitment to achieving a two-state outcome. And they are precisely the kind of serious, proactive measures by external, third parties that may well be necessary to break the current cycle of violence in which the parties themselves appear absolutely trapped. One could even frame it as a “conflict management” agenda, if you like, although they should be seen as immediate, emergency measures designed to calm the situation, before more ambitious measures are undertaken to develop, over the medium-term, a new horizon for hope and, ultimately, peace.