Who Remembers the Palestinian Issue?

Prof. Elie Podeh February 2019
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Public attention in the upcoming Israeli elections is focusing on domestic political and economic issues, such as Netanyahu’s legal situation and the cost of living – and on security-related political issues, such as Iran, Gaza, Syria and Hezbollah. However, the question of relations between Israel and the Palestinians has been marginalized and has almost disappeared from the political agenda.

With Tzipi Livni’s decision to quit politics, the last voice preaching for an immediate settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians has also disappeared. Obviously, this is one of the achievements of the Right, which succeeded in diverting attention from the issue that should be the most important one in the upcoming elections.

The temporary quiet in the Palestinian territories, as well as the continued covert cooperation between the IDF and the Palestinian security forces, support the belief that the more we wait, the better Israel’s situation becomes. This is especially true with regard to the ongoing construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. However, the clock continues to tick and the conflict with the Palestinians will erupt sooner or later if the deadlock continues. Recognizing the destructive consequences of the current stalemate between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the first step toward a historic reconciliation between the two peoples, and this is where the election campaign may play a key role.

Dealing with the pressing Palestinian issue is critical for two reasons: the more urgent one is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 83-years-old and unhealthy. The fact that he has been consistently opposed to the use of violence, and was involved in the Oslo Accords and adhered to them, is indicative of his thinking and policy. He has made a few mistakes, such as rejecting (or not accepting) Olmert’s proposals in late 2008, and by making some hasty statements – especially after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, all in all he has been the most moderate of all Palestinian leaders. Abbas has not appointed a successor, and the struggle over the Palestinian leadership may be ugly and violent, which may also hinder negotiations.

The second reason relates to the demographics in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – where the number of Palestinians is almost equal to the number of Jews. This process leads to one state, which is not Jewish or democratic.

It may be argued that negotiating with the Palestinians now is risky in light of the division between Fatah and Hamas, which seems unbridgeable. However, the Oslo Accords were signed with Arafat when he was very weak, and when his involvement in the Palestinian intifada was largely expunged following his support of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A new Israeli government that recognizes Abbas’s conciliatory policy and rewards him will be able to embark on a peace process.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the initiator of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, used Abbas to carry out his plan rather than turning him into a partner. As a result, Hamas could then portray the disengagement as a success of its own military struggle – just as Hezbollah did in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The Israeli mistake was not necessarily the withdrawal but rather its unilateral implementation, which prevented the moderate Palestinian camp from enjoying its dividends.

Israeli governments were not generous with Abbas, offering him only few gestures. The current Netanyahu government has not allowed Abbas even a shred of achievement, nor a retroactive recognition of the Palestinian construction in Kalkilya, which was supposed to expand the Palestinian Authority’s territory. This step was part of a larger secret plan, coordinated with several moderate Arab states and intended as a prelude to Israeli-Arab negotiations along with a series of gestures from the Arab side. But Netanyahu has succumbed to pressure from the hard-liners in his government. It has become his pattern of behavior: advancing his agenda behind the scenes while withdrawing in public.

Netanyahu and his right-wing partners have found a way to evade the Palestinian issue by appealing to pragmatic Arab countries, which fear Iran and terrorism and therefore see Israel as a partner in this joint struggle. Although these Arab countries are not particularly interested in the Palestinian issue, as long as Israel does not make steps toward resolving the conflict, it will not be possible to have overt relations with them, and the relations will remain largely hidden.

Arab leaders have enough problems at home, and the risk embedded in making relations with Israel official – without obtaining a political gain that will serve them internally – is too high. However, according to the 2018 Israeli Foreign Policy Index of the Mitvim Institute, 54 percent of Jewish Israelis think that the Arab countries will normalize their relations with Israel even without the Palestinians, because Netanyahu convinced them it is possible. Alas, this is wishful thinking. This is not to negate the possibility of short-term gains – similar to the one Netanyahu made when visiting Oman – but this does not change the situation in a meaningful way.

Therefore, the upcoming elections are an opportunity to bring the Palestinian issue back to the center of the national agenda, with the understanding that significant progress toward a solution is also a significant step forward in solving the fundamental problems of the State of Israel. Moreover, a new Israeli initiative by a new government will be received with enthusiasm by the US and the EU, and will improve Israel’s international standing.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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