I’ve spent the last week in Israel with IPF exploring the security situation in depth, spending days in the Gaza envelope, Jerusalem seam line, southern West Bank, and Jordan Valley to get a firsthand sense of Israel’s security challenges and requirements. This included meeting with former Israeli generals and national security advisers, American security officials, and Palestinian security and local government officials to get their assessments. The amount that I have absorbed will take awhile to fully process, but let me start with one reason for despondence and one for encouragement.
The most disheartening thing I have seen this week – aside from Hebron, where I hadn’t been for two decades and which provoked in me a unique brew of shock, rage, sadness, and apathy all at once – is the complete lack of daring on both sides. Let’s start with the Israelis. One thing you immediately hear when talking to Israeli officials about doing anything on the Palestinian front is incitement. There is no question that incitement is a genuine problem that should not be dismissed by anyone who takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously. One high-ranking IDF officer told us how terrorism in the area under his command has morphed from “organized” to “inspired” and is enabled by a social media echo chamber, and incitement is certainly a component in the wave of attacks on Israelis that has only recently abated. Nevertheless, the IDF’s assessment of the wave of terrorism that began in the fall is that twice as many terrorists were motivated by nationalism – i.e. lack of political progress – than by incitement. This should logically warrant the conclusion that it is more important to take constructive steps now, unilaterally or otherwise, to change conditions in the West Bank than to sit pat until all incitement everywhere stops. But using incitement as a reason not to take any steps at all is easy politics, particularly because it provides perfect evidence for the argument that there is no partner and allows the government to maintain the status quo, such as it is, indefinitely.
Notwithstanding the fact that incitement is a concern that must be addressed, and that the Palestinian Authority must answer for its role in fomenting it, ultimately the laserlike focus on incitement is something of a shell game. Initially, Israel argued that the Palestinians were not serious because the PA supported terrorism. Now that the PA has become a full-fledged security partner and has by all accounts cracked down on terrorism to the best of its ability in the West Bank, the new argument becomes that the Palestinians are not serious because of incitement. None of this is an argument that incitement is irrelevant, because it decidedly isn’t. President Abbas’s feet must be held to the fire over the virulent and criminal ugliness that emanates from official Palestinian channels, and hopefully the forthcoming Quartet report will do just that, as expected. But it is pretty clear that Palestinian cooperation is achievable on a number of fronts, and maintaining the status quo everywhere because it is politically safer and more potent to rail against incitement is a wasted opportunity. I understand that the coalition politics of it is difficult for Netanyahu and that nobody justifiably wants to come out and embrace Abbas when he is off accusing Israelis of poisoning Palestinian wells, but sacrificing opportunities to move the ball forward on the altar of political expediency does Israel no favors.
The Palestinians are equally guilty of shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of narrow politics, and in their case they are losing out even more. At nearly every opportunity that presents itself, Netanyahu reiterates his offer to sit down with Abbas and negotiate without preconditions anytime, anywhere. Rather than accept, Abbas jumps through hoops not only to avoid Netanyahu but to also avoid having to meet with any Israeli officials at all, such as just last week when he wouldn’t sit down with President Rivlin in Brussels. Palestinian officials offer a litany of excuses as to why Abbas won’t sit down with Netanyahu, from there not being enough advance notice to refusing to believe that he will actually negotiate once in the room, but what it boils down to is the politics on the Palestinian side. It costs Abbas every time he sits across the table from Bibi and ultimately doesn’t come away with a deal, and so just entering into negotiations is now deeply unpopular. That does not absolve Abbas; leaders are supposed to lead, and he is not. Much like the Israelis, the Palestinians like to shift the goalposts too. First the problem was that Netanyahu wouldn’t negotiate; then the problem was that they could only negotiate once settlements were frozen; then they couldn’t negotiate until building was frozen in East Jerusalem as well; and now it is back to insisting that Abbas can’t meet until Netanyahu first demonstrates good will by again freezing settlement construction. In the meantime, literally every day the situation gets worse for the Palestinians, and Abbas’s own stubborn obduracy not only allows Israel to shift the blame for the impasse entirely onto him – after all, Netanyahu will sit down while Abbas will not – but telegraphs that the political costs to Abbas are more important to him than the policy costs to the Palestinians as a whole. Overall, it is overwhelmingly clear that nothing is going to happen without some shakeup that changes the political calculus for one side or both.
Nonetheless, I came away with two data points that I hadn’t expected to see and that actually make me more optimistic than anything I have seen in years. The first was on the Palestinian side, where multiple Palestinian officials conceded that they had made mistakes by walking away at Camp David and breaking things off with Ehud Olmert in 2008. This was unprecedented for me and for other people I asked with far more experience dealing with the Palestinians, and it genuinely took me by surprise. Whether it heralds a newfound openness and realism I don’t know, but I can only take it as a positive sign.
On the Israeli side, we talked to a number of rightwing policymakers, from retired four star generals to regional council heads and mayors, and to a man, each one of them without hesitation said they would choose a two-state solution over one state. None of them hedged, none of them claimed that there is a realistic outcome other than those two options, and while all of them had a litany of reasons why two states is a bad idea or not implementable, they all reluctantly embraced it as the preferable of the options available. While I do not expect this to translate into a sudden policy shift, it is striking the way that serious people on the right do not pretend that the choice is avoidable, and even more striking just how much the concept of two states has been socialized into the thought and discourse across the political spectrum. I don’t think we are anywhere close to a successful round of negotiations or a permanent status agreement, but I leave Israel thinking that given the right set of circumstances, perhaps things are not quite so bad as many – myself included – have long assumed.
“It costs Abbas every time he sits across the table from Bibi and ultimately doesn’t come away with a deal.”
If true, this is a big problem, no? I understand that part of the reason it costs Abbas to negotiate without coming away with a deal is because of this narrative that Israel uses the negotiations to stall so they can build more settlements. But it seems like a large part of the cost is that a significant portion of Palestinian society doesn’t feel there should be any negotiations at all. So any negotiation attempt costs political will that Abbas feels he cannot afford. But if you can’t even sit down with your enemy to negotiate without losing face, how can you be expected to ever conclude a deal which would require a substantially higher level of political capital to sell? It’s difficult to believe that Abbas can agree to a deal that Palestinian society would accept (either through implicit consent or a referendum) if he can’t even get agreement that it’s a good thing to sit down to negotiations. And like you mention – it’s not like the Palestinians have an upper hand here where they can afford to hold out for better concessions. It is this difficult for Abbas to negotiate even while things are dire. If circumstances improved (say, by another settlement freeze) the little current leverage available to negotiate would vanish.
I don’t think a deal is imminent by any means, and I wouldn’t recommend any negotiations now for a variety of reasons, including what you point out above.