Between Annexation and Political Horizon: Israeli Society at a Crossroads for Conflict Resolution After October 7th

Reef Itzhaki April 2024
Op-eds / The Gaza Campaign

Over the past decade until October 7th, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has received minimal significant global headlines. Extensive coverage of the conflict occurred mainly during military rounds, such as Operation Protective Edge in 2014 or Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021. The world’s indifference undoubtedly reinforced the local perception that the conflict is here to stay, affecting both Israelis and Palestinians.

Under the leadership of Netanyahu’s Israeli government, the prevailing approach was to manage the conflict while maintaining security. The central assumption of this approach is that the conflict is unsolvable, and therefore, there is no need to exert effort to resolve it. Instead, resources were invested in managing it, ensuring that the cost borne by Israeli society would not be excessively high. This approach created a false sense of temporary security and control. However, in practice, it fueled a dangerous dynamic of Hamas’s empowerment and the expansion of cycles of violence that compromised Israel’s security.

As Netanyahu’s governments became more radical and messianic, the “conflict management” approach shifted. Rather than advancing a political solution, the government prioritized accelerating settlement construction in the West Bank. Instead of strengthening cooperation with the Palestinian Authority—the security and conflict resolution partner—the government favored bolstering Hamas, the perpetual war partner. Netanyahu even attempted to downplay the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, portraying it as a minor nuisance. He argued that Israel could integrate into the Middle East without resolving the conflict, bypassing Palestinian leadership through normalization processes with Arab countries. All of these, along with the government’s judicial overhaul, have harmed Israel’s national resilience, weakened the country, and undermined its deterrence in the region.

Despite the conflict management approach, there hasn’t been a strong alternative political strategy. Public figures from major center-left parties preferred to avoid presenting a two-state solution due to political concerns. Since Rabin’s assassination, public support for a political horizon leading to two-states reality has declined. The ongoing terror, incitement, and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Palestinian education system, coupled with disappointment from incomplete peace processes, have fueled despair among Israeli society regarding a political resolution to the conflict.

However, the idea of annexation and Jewish supremacy has never gained widespread support among Israeli citizens. In a July 2023, the Mitvim Institute for regional foreign policies in Israel discovered that 36% of Israelis view pursuing a two-state solution as the desired strategy for Israel regarding the Palestinian issue, while 28% support annexing the West Bank and establishing a single state with additional Jewish rights. Despite relatively low support for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the picture changes significantly when regional components are considered. The same survey found that 61% believe Israel should leverage normalization with other countries to promote peace with the Palestinians. This trend of increasing support for normalization-driven peace has persisted since the Abraham Accords were signed.

The Israeli Society After October 7th: from Anger to Hope?

Until that tragic day, Israeli society was on the brink of dissolution. The judicial overhaul faced strong opposition from the liberal camp, which flooded the streets in protest against the erosion of Israel’s democratic core principles. Despite assurances, the “fully right-wing” government struggled to combat the wave of terror within the country and the simmering conflict in the north with Hezbollah, resulting in a diminishing sense of security among Israeli citizens.

However, before October 7th, it appeared that Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East was about to strengthen. The normalization process was reaching its peak, with the anticipated inclusion of Saudi Arabia—the most influential and powerful Muslim state in the world—recognizing Israel. The planned normalization agreement did not impose significant requirements on Israel regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state. Undoubtedly, Netanyahu was on the path to achieving a significant diplomatic milestone, with broad support from the Israeli public. But everything changed after October 7th.

Fifty years after the surprise attack by Arab forces on Yom Kippur in 1973, on October 7th, Hamas carried out the largest massacre against Jews since the Holocaust. For two years, Hamas meticulously plan a detailed operation: capturing as many Jewish towns around Gaza as possible, killing Israeli civilians and soldiers, and abducting hundreds of them into Gaza. Iranian support for Hamas fueled a long-term strategy against Israel, which was carefully shielded from Israeli political and military echelons. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar aimed to undermine Israel’s normalization talks with Arab countries, claiming that violent incidents in Al-Aqsa and the government’s West Bank policy were catalysts for the massacre.

Shortly after the October 7th tragedy, the words “peace” or “two-state solution” became charged terms in the Israeli public discourse. News of hundreds of Israelis being abducted and thousands of civilians, including elderly, women, and children, being killed shattered trust toward the Palestinians. Simultaneously, a lack of confidence emerged primarily against the government. The era of “time dragging on” for an Israeli-Palestinian resolution had ended on October 7th, and the public shifted toward supporting long-term decisions. For Israelis, the government must urgently restore the lost sense of security and release the hundreds held captive by Hamas.

As the war dragged on without full achievement of its goals, the Israeli public began losing patience. The delay in negotiating the release of captives, heightened insecurity, damage to Israel’s international standing due to the humanitarian crisis, and calls for annexing Gaza by extreme factions within the government pushed many Israelis to the streets. Slowly, Israelis are beginning to realize that their country is standing at a crossroads: annexation or a diplomatic solution. A perpetual war or a lasting agreement.

As Israeli society contemplates the consequences of each direction, civil society within the liberal camp is actively promoting greater Israeli backing for a political resolution. Israel’s democratic forces must capitalize on the opportunity arising from the October 7th tragedy to propose an alternative approach—one that considers Israel’s security imperatives and centers on justly resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a comprehensive regional framework.

The article was published on April 11th, 2024, at Settimana News.

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