by Paul Pillar
The last few months have gone rather well for the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense of advancing its prime objective of indefinitely extending the occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by ensuring failure of any diplomatic efforts to end the occupation. Netanyahu’s success in this regard has been due both to his own tactical skill and to the luck of outside events.
Netanyahu achieved failure of the latest U.S. attempt to revive a peace process worthy of that name partly through the preemptory demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He also successfully used the stratagem of striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority that involved release of Palestinian prisoners, reneging on that deal by construing its meaning differently than originally intended, and then blaming the P.A. for not proceeding anyway with substantive talks as if nothing untoward had happened. The Israelis had to take some mild off-the-record blame for the breakdown from the Americans, but nothing that wasn’t manageable.
More threatening to the Israeli government’s strategy than John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts was the latest effort by Hamas and Fatah to bridge their differences and jointly support a single Palestinian government. These intra-Palestinian acts of reconciliation have always been a problem for Netanyahu’s strategy because they involve creating a negotiating partner that can speak for the great majority of Palestinians and because they belie the Israeli allegation that Hamas wants nothing but the destruction of Israel. The Hamas-Fatah deal and subsequent creation of a cabinet of technocrats clearly involved Hamas moving toward Mahmoud Abbas’s position rather than the other way around. This latest reconciliation appeared even more threatening to Netanyahu’s approach than the previous ones because it showed more sign of sticking. Perhaps most disturbing to Netanyahu is that the Obama administration indicated it was willing to work with any jointly supported Palestinian government that emerged from the deal.
Netanyahu has given the same vehement and unyielding reaction he has given to the previous efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, such as withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. What most enabled him, however, to sustain his strategy in the face of this latest challenge—and here is one place where the luck of events has helped him—was the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and repeatedly promised evidence, which still hasn’t been forthcoming, that the group was responsible for the crime. Two men with ties to Hamas have been named as suspects. They are at large but their families’ homes have already been demolished. No proof of guilt was furnished beforehand, but Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank is an everyday occurrence anyway.
The crime provided the occasion for the Israeli government to strike back more broadly and forcefully than that. As Mitchell Plitnick has described it, “Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the ‘peace process’ and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.” This forceful stirring of the pot by Israel, which has involved the detention of hundreds of Palestinians and the death of several of them at the hands of Israeli security forces, helps to put any peace diplomacy even farther out of reach. It enables American supporters of Netanyahu’s government to say for the umpteenth time that the time is not “ripe” for peace negotiations—and the government they support will do what it has to do to ensure that the time will never be ripe.
Netanyahu’s strategy has benefited recently from other distractions, which have diverted any energy and attention that might otherwise be directed toward establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal distraction that Netanyahu has relied on has been, of course, his demonization of Iran. Other events have helped him. The world’s attention was diverted greatly for a time by the crisis in Ukraine. Then came widespread alarm over the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria that now calls itself the Islamic State. The latter scare has been even more useful for Netanyahu, who used it as another excuse to insist that Israeli troops must continue to occupy the Jordan River Valley indefinitely. Never mind that the chief of Mossad dismisses the notion of an Islamic State army marching across Jordan to invade Israel; the excuse still has a crude geographic appeal.
So Netanyahu has peace diplomacy right where he wants it: in the trash bin, but so far without having to shoulder unequivocal international blame for putting it there. His very success over the last few months in this regard, however, may over the next few months lead to reactions that will complicate further execution of his strategy. That the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has gone as far as it has—farther than previous attempts—may lead many Palestinians to see it as a best shot at a genuinely comprehensive peace, one that would cover Gaza as well as the West Bank. Continued vehement Israeli rejection of this best shot may lead Palestinians to conclude that they have no shot—none, that is, at negotiating a bilateral accord with any Israeli government that looks at all like the current one. One resulting possibility—which the current volatility in the Palestinian territories shows is dangerously close to becoming a probability—is outbreak of a new full-blown intifada, an uprising with widespread violence.
Even without a new intifada, there are two other strategy-complicating possibilities. One is for the Palestinian Authority (presumably in the form of its Hamas-backed but non-party government) to drop its previous restraint in seeking the full involvement of international organizations in helping the Palestinians out of their plight and moving toward real statehood. The other is for the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, end the fiction that what exists in the West Bank is anything other than continued Israeli military occupation, and stop being an accessory to that occupation. Netanyahu in effect encourages Palestinians to reach that latter conclusion, and to realize that the P.A. is not really a government at all, when he does things such as disdaining Abbas’s attempts to help in finding the killers of the Israeli teenagers and berating the P.A. even though the crime occurred in a portion of the West Bank where the P.A. has no security functions at all.
But Netanyahu is always focused on the short term, and he probably is not worrying much right now about those possibilities. It also is because he is focused on the short term that success in his strategy in fending off Palestinian statehood is not at all success for Israel. In fact, it is quite contrary to the long term interests of Israel and damaging to its prospects for living as a peaceful, prosperous, liberal state. The Netanyahu strategy fails to recognize that clinging to all the land to the Jordan River makes it impossible for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.
The strategy is one that entails unending conflict and animosity. As Israel sinks ever more deeply into hard-core apartheid, a corrosive effect continues to be seen in the public attitudes and morality of many Israelis as well as many Palestinians, an effect that is disturbing to the many other Israelis who are still thoughtful and humane. The phenomenon in question has become increasingly apparent in recent years in an intolerance in Israel that has evolved into overt hatred and prejudice against Arabs, matching anti-Jewish hatred that can be found on the other side. (Anti-Semitism probably is not the appropriate term in this context, only because both Jews and Arabs are Semites.)
In this atmosphere, nonofficial acts of inhumanity and violence become more likely—such as the killing of the three Jewish teenagers and the subsequent killing, possibly after being burned alive, of a Palestinian Arab teenager. The atmosphere also infects official acts. Those acts include much of what happens in the West Bank every week, including all those demolitions of homes. It also has reportedly included in the past few days the brutal beating by Israeli police of another Palestinian teenager—a cousin of the one who was burned and killed.
The victim of the police beating is an American: a high school sophomore from Tampa, Florida who was visiting his relatives. If the reports about his beating are confirmed, this ought to be an occasion for the U.S. to pull its kid gloves off at least a bit more in dealing with Netanyahu’s government. When Israeli police are beating up U.S. citizens, the U.S. government ought to do more to steer the Israeli government off its disastrous path. Call it tough love if you prefer, but the emphasis needs to be on the toughness.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.