Despite there being no hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, ossified and ineffectual Palestinian leadership, and a new Israeli prime minister who is the political godfather of the push for West Bank annexation, nearly everywhere you look there are temperature-lowering developments in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. The Israeli Supreme Court has proposed a compromise in the Sheikh Jarrah case that would allow the Palestinian tenants to remain in their homes, and while the compromise is unlikely to be accepted, there are signals that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will not carry out evictions in any event. On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted to grant an additional 15,000 work permits to Palestinian construction workers in an effort to improve the West Bank economy and give a boost to the Palestinian Authority. Earlier this week, an unnamed senior Israeli official implicitly acknowledged that there is currently a de facto settlement planning and approval freeze, and that when the High Planning Committee does meet, it will focus on approving plans in settlement blocs rather than in more isolated settlements. Not only does there appear to be a “do no harm” approach that avoids obvious flashpoints, there appears to be a desire to improve the situation for Palestinians and improve the political stature of the Palestinian Authority.
There are a number of reasons for this new environment. Bennett does not want to get into clashes with President Biden over Israeli policies in the West Bank that are particularly inflammatory or resonant in the U.S. political arena. Defense Minister Benny Gantz does not have the same affinity for the settlement project that his immediate predecessors–Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, Moshe Ya’alon–had and does not want to make it harder for Israel to ever extricate itself from any part of the West Bank. Nearly all of the new Israeli government and security establishment views empowering the PA as important for Israeli security and as the necessary and previously missing part of the equation of weakening Hamas. Perhaps most saliently, Bennett has become convinced of the necessity of “shrinking the conflict,” a term borrowed from Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman encompassing an approach to the West Bank designed to improve Palestinian quality of life and improve Palestinian autonomy.
What has made shrinking the conflict controversial is that it does not, in Goodman’s conception, exist alongside dealing with the status of the occupation. Goodman arrives at his prescription following a diagnosis that Israel cannot afford to leave the West Bank but also cannot afford to control the lives of the Palestinians living there, and thus what is required is giving Palestinians self-governance without giving them an independent sovereign state. It is understandable in this context to view any measures designed to improve quality of life for Palestinians and bolster the West Bank economy as being a way to shrink the conflict but deepen the occupation, as divorcing them from a political horizon is a mechanism for making it easier for Israel to permanently hang on to the territory.
I will be the last one to turn off the lights on a two-state outcome, and having a political vision to work towards that goes beyond the hollow construct of economic peace is fundamental for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ever be resolved in a viable way. But the confluence of factors that is pushing Bennett and the new Israeli government toward seriously considering ways to deescalate with Palestinians in the West Bank counterintuitively depends on keeping the political vision on the sidelines. If everyone can agree to disagree on what the endgame is, then the window of opportunity to implement changes on the ground that will actually improve things for both Israelis and Palestinians can remain open as people focus on the means and not the ends.
What allows someone like Bennett, as fervent an opponent of an independent Palestinian state encompassing nearly all of the West Bank as there is, to embrace the sorts of policy measures that would have engendered more right-wing opposition a few years ago is that they carry no long-term threat. A majority of Israelis do not view the Palestinians as serious about peace, do not believe it is possible to get to a negotiated two-state solution, and do not support withdrawing from any part of the West Bank under the current circumstances. Israeli political parties reflect this view, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently telling his EU counterparts that he supports a two-state vision but does not view it as possible right now and the traditional Israeli peace camp effectively neutralized or focusing on other issues. There is no Oslo process around the corner, no American administration pushing—or even seeking to push—the Israeli government to the negotiating table, and no foreseeable threat to Israel’s hold on the West Bank. This turns “shrinking the conflict” measures into low-stakes bets for the Israeli right, since they do not carry the danger of leading to larger pressure on territorial withdrawal or negotiated concessions. Removing the plausibility of a serious two-state push has made the possibility of changes on the ground more likely, as the policy proposals have been decoupled from the larger political two-state agenda.
Bennett’s gamble is that temporarily slowing down settlement growth and possibly even freezing it outside of the blocs, halting high-profile contentious evictions, and improving the Palestinian economy will ultimately redound to the benefit of his political vision by removing easily identifiable sources of friction with the Palestinians, which will over time make it easier for them to grudgingly accept autonomy in Areas A and B. I believe the opposite, and have pushed these types of measures for years in the belief that they not only improve Palestinians’ quality of life but help restore a political horizon for two states through empowering the PA and convincing Palestinians that a viable independent state remains possible. Either Bennett is right or people like me are right, but the key in this moment is not having that argument. If people from both of these camps agree on the wisdom of a common set of policy measures that will improve freedom and prosperity for Palestinians and security for Israelis, that is what will allow change to happen on the ground. As important as a serious two-state vision is, right now its absence from Israeli political discourse and the lack of a debate over Israel’s presence in the West Bank is what is allowing the first green shoots that have sprung up in a long time.