Palestinian issue is expanding, not shrinking
Dwight Eisenhower, the former US president, once observed that “if you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” Put a challenge in its broader context and opportunities may open up. Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War, was no slouch in terms of devising strategy, so does the opposite work, too? If you shrink a problem, does it make it more difficult to solve?
This has been the governing principle of Israeli strategy regarding the Palestinians for decades. Israeli strategists want to make the Palestinian issue a little local difficulty, a minority rights issue. Every time any party wishes to expand the problem, or to internationalize it, the Israeli anti-Arab hasbaristas, or propagandists, kick in to complain.
Initially, the Israeli, and indeed US, strategy was to peel off Arab states from the Palestinian cause. From 1967 to 1993, the Israeli policy was never to negotiate with the Palestinians, but only with Arab states where possible. The Trump administration resumed this stance, closing down the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington, with Jared Kushner, then Trump’s senior adviser, bizarrely proclaiming that the Palestinians were not ready to govern themselves.
For Israel, the Palestinians were less of a problem the fewer Arab states actively backed the Palestinian national movement. The 1991 and 2003 wars, which Israel pushed, took Iraq out of the equation. The Abraham Accords have led to tensions between the PLO and other Arab states.
Back in the 1970s and in the Camp David Accords with Egypt, the Palestinians were to be offered autonomy. It was functional rather than territorial, so that Palestinians could manage their own education and health, but never permitting them to have anything approaching sovereign control over the land and its resources. Even then, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin objected strongly and finished the plan off with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Yet all of this reappeared during the Madrid talks and, ultimately, in the Oslo Accords. Not once in the Oslo Accords was a mention of a Palestinian state made, nor did they refer to Palestinian self-determination. Once again, the far right objected that even this was too much.
This is again the position under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. It is merely the repackaged model that Begin adopted. Bennett has always believed that the Palestinian issue can just be magicked away. He ran an entire election campaign on what he referred to as his relaxation strategy. Essentially, Bennett believes that Israel can just plow on, take Jerusalem, expand the settlements and keep the Palestinians hemmed into their ever-shrinking spaces, while the international community will busy itself with copy-and-paste press releases stating their concern.
Bennett sums this up by the extraordinary misnomer “shrinking the conflict.” Let us be very clear, the conflict has not shrunk at all. The Palestinians are going nowhere. The extraordinary Palestinian civil society efforts in Jerusalem in May show that the youth are a long way from giving up. The people of Gaza will not give up, while Hamas will look to boost the potency of its rocket arsenal still further. Palestinians want their rights, not a few extra dollars or the odd permit when Israel feels in the mood.
Bennett is determined to finish the conflict, using force and coercion to impose a fait accompli. The Palestinian Authority is bleeding credibility, as well as funds, as it tries to hold on, but should it collapse, as it might well do, instability and insecurity will reach new heights.
Only in the eyes of the Israeli right is the conflict shrinking. For them, the less territory Palestinians have to live on, the better. Bennett is de facto expanding Israel, as every prime minister since 1967 has done. He has advanced massive settlement announcements, major programs of forced dispossession in Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills, and a crackdown on the most effective and functional part of the Palestinian political system: Civil society.
The major E1 project is being pushed ahead when even his hawkish predecessors had baulked at doing so. This will cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank. The Givat Hamatos settlement will sever Jerusalem from the Bethlehem hinterland and the southern part of the West Bank. Only an intervention from US President Joe Biden has seemingly slowed the process for approving the city-sized Atarot settlement plan that will further separate Jerusalem from southern Ramallah.
Inciting and inflaming conflict is de rigueur. “Death to Arab” marches in April and May went ahead with no consequence. The hard-line Israeli settlers have got the message, ramping up their state-sanctioned violent attacks, which by most definitions would be deemed terrorist. Bennett has done nothing to stop them. The settlers aim to create the circumstances where Palestinians flee from their rural agricultural areas into increasingly crowded Palestinian cities.
Anti-Arab commentators praise Bennett for ditching his ideological fervor for a more pragmatic approach. It is nothing of the sort. His actions are in line with his far-right, pro-settler roots, while the pragmatism serves only to hold his curious coalition together. The question people should be asking is why the center and left-wing parties are doing so little to halt this, with the alarming suspicion that holding on to power has trumped principle and responsible governance.
Extending the conflict is something that Bennett, like Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharon before him, is happy doing. Israel always plays the long game. First, it never rushes the negotiations if there are any. Leaders are routinely happy to let things just drag on. This was one reason there were 10 rounds of Madrid negotiations over 20 months. Bennett could not wait to confirm that his coalition has no mandate for negotiations, as this is the last thing he wants.
Bennett believes that Israel can just plow on, take Jerusalem, expand the settlements and keep the Palestinians hemmed into their ever-shrinking spaces.
The international community should stop playing Bennett’s game. The conflict is more likely to explode than shrink. Israel has tried to shrink the diplomatic space into some local dispute. Responsible international actors have to reverse that. They can do so by asserting the primacy of international law, with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 2344 as the foundation for finding a solution. Working together, pressure must be applied on all parties to end violations, including the doomsday settlement projects. A failure to do so must trigger consequences.
Most importantly, they can reassert the fundamental principles of a resolution that has to include an end to the Israeli occupation.
This is a major international conflict and it is in the clear interest of the global community to bring it to an end. As with all other Middle East conflicts, allowing this to fester only exacerbates the accompanying dangers.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech