Palestinian and Israeli youth see a future without strife

Palestinian and Israeli youth see a future without strife

A young protester waves a Palestinian flag while demonstrating by the border fence with Israel east of Gaza City. (File/AFP)

Winter has not yet arrived in Israel and Palestine, and people are enjoying the unseasonal bright and warm sunshine. But politically there is hardly any ray of hope of a change in either society, and most definitely not in the relations between them.

The prime reason for my visit here was not to enjoy the weather, but to obtain a better sense of where the Israelis and the Palestinians are heading. After a week’s stay, I am left with one certainty — that both societies are in a greater state of flux than for a long time, with each longing for their political stalemate to be unclogged, while wishing the same for the stalled peace process.

In Israel, elections as an exercise in democracy seem to have gone too far, with a third vote in less than a year almost inevitable; while on the Palestinian side the prospect of any election at all, for a new president or parliament, is a fading hope. The replacement of long-serving leaders on both sides of the 1967 line is not a magic wand, either for transforming the divisions within Israeli and Palestinian societies, or for rekindling peace negotiations, but without fresh leadership both political systems are at best semi-functioning. Moreover, the future of the two leaderships has become the main issue of concern, rather than the direction in which they might steer their peoples.

The atmosphere in Israel is deceptive. Bustling cafes and restaurants, not to mention shopping malls that don’t deter customers with prices that rival some of the most expensive countries in the world, conceal a country that is grappling with one of the worst political crises in its history. With just few days left for a government to be formed before a general election must be declared instead, no one genuinely believes that the inter-party negotiations in progress will break the deadlock.

So why bother with another divisive and expensive election campaign?  Well, the answer to this is simple: Benjamin Netanyahu, who has become a burden not only on the country but also on his own Likud party.

It would have been naive to think that Netanyahu would leave politics quietly, and with even a little dignity, after his indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In fact, his main incentive for staying in power is to pass a law granting him immunity from facing these charges in court. 

Yossi Mekelberg

It would have been naive to think that Netanyahu would leave politics quietly, and with even a little dignity, after his indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In fact, his main incentive for staying in power is to pass a law granting him immunity from facing these charges in court. That he has lost (or at least failed to win) the last two elections, and that his personal freedom depends on remaining in office, has left the coalition talks at the mercy of his unscrupulous maneuvering.

In his desperation to avoid trial he is insisting on serving first as prime minister in a rotating government with Benny Gantz, head of the largest party in the Knesset, if only for the first six months. While his obvious motive is to be able to legislate for his immunity, his pretext is an apparent opportunity of a lifetime — Washington’s recognition of the Jordan Valley as the eastern border of Israel, and an Israeli defense pact with the US; President Trump, himself facing impeachment, may be coming to the rescue as part of Netanyahu’s great escape strategy.

On the Palestinian side there is the same wait-and-see feeling as the Palestinian Authority (PA) becomes increasingly authoritarian. The public is in the dark about the succession process when President Mahmoud Abbas eventually leaves politics. With untenable divisions between the occupied West Bank and Hamas-ruled, Israeli-blockaded Gaza, and no elections imminent in either, the mood ranges from apathy to anger. For now the anger is bubbling under the surface, but for how long? In the West Bank blame is directed not only at the Israeli occupiers but equally toward the PA, which is perceived as incompetent and corrupt — as well as serving Israel’s security needs and its own vested interests rather than those of Palestinian society.

It has not been astonishing to learn that in different quarters in both societies there is a creeping realization that the old strategies for peacemaking have failed, and the Oslo process has become obsolete. This may not mean the end of the two-state solution, but it will not be the one envisaged in the 1990s. Many of those who were invested in Oslo have left politics or are on the margins; while, sadly, the forces that could and should replace them have been deterred from taking center stage, or don’t see that there is space for them to replace the current failing leaderships.

However, there is a real thirst for new ideas and leadership that could change the conflict-ridden and bloody history of both societies, and prioritize civil and human rights. Achieving this is not a contradiction of, or an alternative to, Palestinian self-determination, or the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both peoples, or a fair and just solution for Palestinian refugees both in and beyond Palestine. It is more a realization that, for instance, the settlement movement has changed the political and economic landscape of the West Bank, and any solution will have to be a creative one; minimising the need to relocate people, but still enabling a viable Palestinian state with close political and economic ties with Israel, not swallowed or controlled by its more powerful neighbor.

There is a young and hungry generation of Israelis and Palestinians who are ready to engage with each other, who believe that they are destined to live together, and who above all are longing for normality; but without being empowered, they won’t be able to perform the peace miracle that the previous generation began, but failed so miserably to complete.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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