Israeli-Palestinian peace remains dim prospect after turbulent year
As 2020 draws to a close, it is hard to think of a previous time when the Jewish expression of hope, “There ends a year and its maledictions and a new one begins with its blessings,” has resonated with most of humanity. Focusing on the relations between Israel and Palestine, things started to look somewhat more positive toward the end of the year, but mainly because, up to that point, we had only seen a steady exacerbation of already-worsening relations in the triangle of Israel, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The end of 2020 also represents the end of the Trump administration, which has had a huge, mainly negative impact on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. The election of Joe Biden as US president gives rise to the hope that the new leadership in Washington will play a more constructive role in improving relations between these neighbors, even if a comprehensive peace doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Interactions between the Israelis and the Palestinians are heavily affected by domestic politics in this triangle of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and the bilateral relations between each of the two.
The year started with a glitzy event in the White House: The unveiling of Donald Trump’s “vision” for peace in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood next to Trump as the US president announced a plan that was stillborn, and one that could be argued was designed to fail, while the Palestinians, who refused to participate in the charade, could be blamed for its failure. It was a short-sighted approach that sided almost entirely with the Israeli position. Even the optics of this event, with no Palestinian in sight, left no illusion of any imminent or genuine peace negotiations. Not that the plan was wholeheartedly supported by all Israelis, but, for the Palestinians, it included almost everything they couldn’t agree with, including recognition of the occupation of at least parts of the West Bank before negotiations would even begin, and being forced to accept the diktat of their state being defenseless and at the mercy of its more powerful neighbor. Yet, for those more hawkish Israeli politicians, the mere mention of a Palestinian state, regardless of the humiliating preconditions, was unacceptable, so they too rejected the plan.
Before the ink had dried on Trump’s plan, the world was engulfed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which pushed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process even further down the international agenda. The US has become the country hardest-hit by COVID-19 — and during an election year in which deep divisions, on race relations in particular, also surfaced in full force.
It was also necessary for Israel, the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza to divert their attention to containing the pandemic, and here they achieved various levels of failure. The virus, which recognizes no borders or political disputes, highlighted that, in the small space in which both nations operate, with the movement of populations between Israel and the Occupied Territories, a lack of cooperation is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, though predictably, such a lack of cooperation was evident and cases in all communities are currently soaring, demonstrating the incompetence of the authorities in all three territories, their inability to rise above their mutual distrust, and that their vested interests have taken precedence over ensuring the well-being of their people.
The normalization agreement with the UAE stopped the irresponsible and damaging annexation plan, saving Israel from its own folly
If the threat posed by the current pandemic diverted attention from the “normal” areas of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, the normalization agreements signed in the summer by Israel, first with the UAE and then with Bahrain and Sudan, changed the calculus. With Israel’s plans to annex large parts of the West Bank, and the US election campaign entering high gear, while the tide began to turn against Trump, the normalization agreements were bound to impact Israeli-Palestinian relations.
For Netanyahu, the pledge to annex nearly third of the West Bank was merely a ploy to attract votes from the Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and their supporters, rather than part of any comprehensive strategy toward future relations with the Palestinians. However, the threat of annexation led the PA to make good on its warning to end all cooperation with Israel and, in particular, their security coordination, knowing that this was its most powerful card as it sought to sway Netanyahu away from his annexation plans. But it is doubtful whether President Mahmoud Abbas believed even for a second that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition would be convinced by this threat, as he knew that, as in the case of the PA and Gaza, it is all about the domestic politics of the survival of the elite, and not much else.
Annexation would have made little difference on the ground, as the West Bank is already under the complete control of Israel, which, as the occupying force, treats it as if it has already been annexed. However, the message of a unilateral decision by Israel with the support of the US on the future of the West Bank would have been clear. It was the normalization agreement with the UAE that stopped the irresponsible and damaging annexation plan, saving Israel from its own folly.
The Palestinian leadership, feeling abandoned, might have expressed its anger at the normalization agreements, but stopping the Washington-blessed legalizing of Israel’s occupation was an important condition of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE. Moreover, removing the threat of annexation, together with the election of Biden as the next US president, has facilitated Israel’s transfer of the more than $1 billion in taxes that it had collected on behalf of the PA. It now seems that some thaw, mild as it is, is taking place between the PA and Israel.
However, the fundamentals of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians remain the same and are not likely to change any time soon. All three leaderships — of Israel, Fatah and Hamas — are suffering from dwindling support and trust. Israeli politics has been hijacked by the vested interests of a prime minister on trial for corruption, who spends most of his energy attempting to avoid justice. Neither Palestinian leadership has received the confidence of its voters for more than 14 years, while the question of succession is constantly hanging over the Palestinian political system(s), resulting in near-complete political paralysis. In the meantime, Israel is entrenching its occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, with no end in sight.
The overarching aspect of relations between Israel and the Palestinians is the Israeli occupation and blockade, which is making the lives of ordinary Palestinians a misery. The situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, turning 2 million Palestinians into prisoners in their own homes, while the human rights of those in the West Bank are subject to violation at will by Israeli security forces or Jewish settlers. As long as this continues, and settlements are constantly expanded and the political systems in Israel and Palestine remain in a state of flux, the vision of peaceful and just coexistence remains as remote as ever.
• 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