Israel and Palestine: Dysfunction all around
2015 was disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians alike. The social and political equation has rarely seemed this bleak.
The Israeli government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just isn’t interested in a serious peace agreement with the Palestinians. Twenty years ago Netanyahu was where he is now: defending the status quo from Jewish Israelis demanding fundamental changes.
However, then he was fighting a peace camp to his left which wanted a two-state solution. Now, he is fending off a powerful and growing movement to his right, although it is heavily represented in his own cabinet, that wants Israel to annex much, or even all, of the West Bank.
Only the idea that the occupation is temporary can explain how Israel is still a Jewish or democratic state but how can any situation that has lasted almost 50 years still be seen as “temporary?”
The de facto greater Israeli state contains a non-Jewish majority and cannot be considered democratic because most of the Palestinians living in it are disenfranchised non-citizens without basic human, civil or political rights.
The status quo is suicidal for Israel, yet Netanyahu’s remarkably sustained term of office has been based on protecting and defending it from all challenges.
The Palestinian leadership is also in crisis. The Palestinian Authority (PA) may, in reality, have already internally collapsed. If so, this will reveal itself over the next few years.
With no peace process with Israel, a crisis of legitimacy and ineffective governance, the current PA has little to offer Palestinians. It has been stifling rather than promoting civil society. Corruption is getting worse rather than better. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been wasting his time and energy pursuing trumped-up accusations to harass perceived political rivals.
Abbas has been grooming chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to succeed him but Abbas’s passing is more likely to reveal the political incoherence of Fatah and the PA and produce no clear or effective leadership. Even while Abbas is president, violence in the West Bank could trigger events leading to the collapse of the PA.
This lack of any political horizon for ending the Israeli occupation and nothing much to believe in beyond the family home has led to a series of apparently spontaneous attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. This violence, which is matched by attacks against Palestinians by extremist settlers and Israeli occupation forces, has produced a “new normal” in occupied cities such as East Jerusalem and Hebron of grinding, daily attacks.
They are not enough to be called another uprising but they are obviously the precursors of a potential eruption of violence on a much greater scale. When that happens, as seems inevitable without any significant change, it is hard to imagine the PA as we have known it surviving. Israel would probably end up reoccupying the West Bank cities.
Hamas rule in Gaza has been significantly worse in almost every way than the mess in the West Bank. Most people in the West Bank can clearly see that one way their situation could become worse is to become another Gaza. Yet Hamas might still inherit the leadership of the Palestinian national movement by default.
If a crisis produced by widespread violence or a political collapse initiated by the death of Abbas or some other catalyst brought the PA crashing down and Fatah splintering into numerous rival factions, Hamas might triumph through no virtue or success of its own but because it remained the last national Palestinian organisation standing.
The United States also has failed wretchedly. After the end of the Cold War, American policy focused on the two-state solution but now Washington has moved on. Israel has no interest in a two-state solution and there is no evidence that the United States is preparing to, or capable of, independently champion or salvage this agenda.
In effect, it has been cast aside and it is hard not to conclude that the only thing that could prompt the United States to restore the two-state solution to its list of Middle East priorities is renewed interest on the part of Israel. It is doubtful that Washington is willing to try to force anything like this on Israel, which means that the American commitment to Palestinian statehood was always much more hollow than it appeared.
Change always happens but in this instance, with all three major parties trapped in dysfunctional policies and with no framework or mechanism for improving the status quo, that change is unlikely to be positive.
Indeed, 2015 quietly but meticulously laid the basis for 2016 to be not only worse but, potentially, produce a real catastrophe. If that does not occur next year, unless someone does something significant soon, then it is just a matter of time.