In the past, people have speculated about what Israel and the Occupied Territories would look like if the United States stopped trying to broker the mythical kind of solution that the Oslo process envisioned. Well, now we have an example.
The most radically right-wing government in Israel’s brief history was simply waiting for an opportunity to deliver the most intense and widespread blow to the West Bank. The kidnapping of three young Israelis provided that opportunity and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized it with a vengeance. Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the “peace process” and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.
On the Palestinian side, the fundamental lack of strategy has become ever more apparent. Ditching the US-brokered process has been, for a very long time, the right move, but sloughing it off in a half-hearted way and without a substitute was unconscionably foolish. That’s especially true when you consider how much time there was to devise an alternative strategy to the US-brokered process over so many years. The result is that the Palestinian unity agreement was imperiled before it was signed by the essential incompatibility of the strategies and ideologies of Fatah and Hamas.
This is being played out on a daily basis now: Abbas appears not only weak, but like a traitor as he cooperates with Netanyahu in this massive operation that has yielded nothing with regard to the three kidnapped Israelis but has resulted in hundreds of arrested Palestinians without cause, disruption of work, school and health services throughout the West Bank, hundreds of injuries and, to date, five deaths. Hamas is fanning the flames of anger while denouncing Abbas for his quisling behavior, but it also offers no alternative, unless one foolhardily believes that yet another intifada is going to soften Israeli stances. The last intifada may have shaken up Israelis, and certainly resulted in numerous deaths and injuries in Israel, but it did no harm to Israel’s stability while killing and harming a great many Palestinians. In fact, it only hardened Israel’s positions and worsened conditions for the Palestinians. This suggests that violence, on top of being deplorable, is a foolish course for the Palestinians.
For his part, Netanyahu is playing this to the hilt. It is far from certain that Hamas, as an organization, is responsible for the kidnapping. Right now, it seems much more likely that this was a small group whose members might also have been members of Hamas, but were not acting in concert with the organization. Netanyahu, however, insists he has “unequivocal” proof that Hamas was responsible. The credibility of that claim erodes with each passing day that Bibi refuses to offer evidence for his claim.
Netanyahu’s brand of politics, like most right-wingers, functions best when the country he runs is either angry, scared, or better yet, both. The current situation creates such an atmosphere. The problem will come when and if the tension in the West Bank boils over. And that problem is going to be one that neither the United States nor much of the rest of the world will be able to ignore. They will have to choose a side.
In looking at where we’re headed right now, we must start by understanding that the US is not removed from these events. While the Obama administration has decided to take a “pause” from this conflict and certainly has other matters like Iraq and the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to occupy its time, it is still Israel’s benefactor, providing arms and, quite likely, the omnipresent protective veto in the UN Security Council. So, the US is still there, whether it wants to be or not.
It will also be drawn further in if the Palestinian Authority collapses and violence in the West Bank is renewed. This seems very much to be the direction Israel is pressing matters towards. If that is the case, then it also stands to reason that the Israeli government intends to annex some part of the West Bank, using the violence as a pretext. Israel, especially given its budgetary constraints these days, is certainly not prepared to supplant the Palestinian Authority in administering the West Bank. The remainder of the West Bank would be surrounded by “Israel” and would be easily contained. From there, local councils or some such arrangements are probably what is envisioned for the lands Israel decides to leave to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu and his cohorts like Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon are gambling that the violence of a third intifada will be enough to convince key governments — particularly, the US, UK and Germany — to tolerate the annexation. By “tolerate” I mean that they would object and “refuse to recognize” the action, much as they have with East Jerusalem, but would take no other action.
That is a huge gamble. It is far from certain that even the United States would acquiesce to such actions, and less so that Britain and Germany would. Even if they did, there would surely be a great uproar from other countries, in Europe and throughout the Muslim world, as well as from Russia, France and China. Even governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are largely indifferent to the Palestinians’ plight would be unable to stay silent.
But the gambit has a few things working in Bibi’s favor as well. First, as much as the Israeli de facto annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 outraged many, the reality of the whole city functioning as an “undivided” capital, however restlessly, has survived for over three decades since then. And that’s Jerusalem, the hottest of hotspots in this conflict. Netanyahu surely reasons that if Jerusalem didn’t start a war, there’s a good chance that annexing the Jordan Valley in a similar manner won’t either.
Moreover, the timing is very good for the annexationists. Not only are all eyes on Iraq with a few still lingering over Ukraine, but the specter of ISIS has renewed the sense of fright that the West feels toward Arabs. These will combine, Bibi surely hopes, to encourage a similar clucking of tongues while doing nothing that has greeted the excesses, both pre- and post-election, of the al-Sisi government in Egypt. Netanyahu’s assessment that he can take an outrageous step and get away with it is thus not without recent precedent. The annexation vision, if that is what Bibi is pursuing, would require years of violence to set the stage for it, or at least many months of intense fighting and bloodshed on both sides (though, as always, the Palestinians will bleed a lot more than Israel).
Abbas, however unwittingly, is helping that process along by working with Israel. Netanyahu is not allowing the Palestinian forces to do much of anything in the current operation, but Abbas is also doing nothing to support his own people. Hamas’ strategy isn’t entirely clear yet, but its obviously trying to capitalize on the Palestinian rage that fuels its support. In Hamas’ view, escalating violence plays into its basic strategy of confrontation rather than collaboration. But the question of whether or not Hamas actually has some endgame vision of how it can make any headway against the might of Israel’s forces, let alone triumph, remains yet to be answered.
So, this is what Israel-Palestine looks like without a sham peace process. Does that mean the sham is preferable? Is it better to have a normalized occupation, with all the banality of its entrenched administration and gradual assimilation of more and more Palestinian land into Israel; or is a possibly long period of bloodshed preferable? Only Israelis and Palestinians can answer that question. That said, the shameful behavior of the US, the international community, the Quartet, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership has left few other options.
Israelis can alter this situation, of course, any time they want by electing a government that wants to make a peace deal. Palestinians can also affect change by developing, organizing and executing a strategy that wins them both attention and increased support in the international arena. At this point, however, both sides seem unwilling and unable to take these paths, which increases the odds of Israel-Palestine spiraling back into extreme violence.