The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached its most dangerous impasse in many years with all three (yes, unfortunately there are three) of the main actors uncertain of what they can, or even want to, do next. Israel, the Palestinian nationalist movement, and Hamas are all badly divided internally and all appear to lack serious options for moving forward. All three are stuck where they are now, leaving the conflict set to drag on indefinitely toward some kind of implosion or explosion which is the inevitable consequence of stasis.
Of the three, Israel would seem to have the most options because it holds the most cards. The problem is that Israel is badly divided on Palestinian questions. Israelis used to be divided neatly between those who wanted urgently to make a deal with the Palestinians and those who were very skeptical about whether that was achievable or desirable. However, in recent years Israel has shifted significantly to the right on all of these questions, leaving the country still divided.
Now, however, the split is between those who don’t wish to make a peace agreement in the foreseeable future and want to preserve the status quo indefinitely (led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and a growing body of expansionist and annexationist Israelis who want to unilaterally redefine the country’s borders. Any such redefinition would almost certainly be the final blow to even the theoretical prospect of a two-state solution, because Israel would certainly leave insufficient territory for a politically and economically viable Palestinian state.
However, the unilateralists are, for now, being held at bay by the status quo forces. Israel’s policies, therefore, towards the Palestinians boil down to exactly that: preserving the status quo, with minor adjustments, in both the West Bank and Gaza. One could detect a creeping annexationism in recent settlement announcements regarding areas adjacent to occupied East Jerusalem, but these plans have not been fulfilled, and may not be. Even if they are, it falls far short of the desire to formally redraw the boundaries, as advocated by the expansionist camp.
So, Israel is effectively stuck. It doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, as is sometimes threatened. It doesn’t want Hamas to fall from power in Gaza, for fear of a more volatile alternative anarchy or a more extreme group in charge there. But it doesn’t want to create new and more positive arrangements with the PA, or to ease the blockade of Gaza and make new arrangements with Hamas there either. Its policy, in both cases, boils down to no policy at all. Just going forward with things as they are is no policy whatsoever and, as US President Barack Obama recently pointed out, totally unsustainable.
The Palestinian groups are, if anything, even more bogged down in their own policy contradictions. Hamas has been trumpeting a great victory against Israel, but as the dust continues to settle, the shine seems to be quickly wearing off with public opinion. The reality is that, with winter approaching quickly, the amount of devastation and lack of housing in Gaza as a consequence of the war is going to become a very serious humanitarian issue. Because there has been no agreement on border crossings, or almost anything else, in the aftermath of the cease-fire, there hasn’t been any reconstruction yet either.
Donor nations have committed hundreds of millions of dollars, indeed by many counts billions, to Gaza reconstruction at a recent meeting. But it’s clear that as long as there is no formula for transferring material and managing crossings, few reconstruction projects will actually be undertaken. And for all of the talk of PA security forces replacing Hamas militia at the Palestinian side of the crossings, there is no sign of any Palestinian agreement whereby that could happen. Indeed, the prospect was just dismissed by the Hamas official currently in charge of the crossings.
Hamas desperately needs a new strategy, unless it wants to fall back on further conflict with Israel and risk even greater devastation. Politically it probably cannot afford to do that. But it doesn’t have any leverage with Israel, Egypt, or the PA to force advantageous changes to the closure regime. Some of its factions want a rapprochement with Iran. But that would cost the organization dearly in Arab support. Indeed, it may not be possible.
Hamas clearly continues to hope to gain a greater foothold in the West Bank on the basis of the ongoing “unity” government, and also transfer significant responsibility for political administration and the costs of governance onto the PA through this arrangement. The PA, however, appears profoundly reluctant to take on those responsibilities as long as Hamas maintains an independent militia, and therefore an independent foreign and military policy. President Mahmoud Abbas recently resuscitated concerns about “one gun,” meaning strong PA objections to Hamas maintaining an independent militia while claiming to have entered into a “unity” arrangement with a new PA government.
If Hamas seems stuck and out of options, except maybe a quixotic return to additional armed struggle with Israel (who knows at what price), the PA is also an exceptionally dire straits. It has staked everything on achieving a negotiated peace agreement with Israel, but no negotiations are currently underway, and there is no basis for thinking that under the current situation negotiations could be resumed or could be successful.
Alternatives to negotiations are all unpalatable. Abbas has strictly ruled out a third intifada, and the public as well seems to view that prospect with considerable, and well warranted, alarm. The internationalization route has been toyed with for a long time, but in truth, it’s another dead end. The international community is not going to be able to pressure Israel, particularly not without the cooperation of the United States. Getting the United Nations Security Council to impose a deadline for the end of the occupation isn’t going to be possible given a US veto, and if the General Assembly did so it would be meaningless. Even if the Security Council did impose such a deadline, Israel could, and certainly would, ignore that too.
Joining the International Criminal Court and attempting to bring war crimes charges against Israeli officers and officials is a lengthy and complicated matter. There are numerous hurdles at which such an effort might fail, most notably getting the court to recognize that the PA, or the State of Palestine as a nonmember observer state of the United Nations, has practical sovereign control of Gaza, which would probably be necessary for any prosecution to go forward. Many Palestinians and their allies tend to think of the ICC as some kind of small claims court, in which a complaint is filed and, sooner or later, the parties end up in front of a judge which rules on the facts. That’s not how it works at all.
And while there are many grounds to doubt how successful such an effort might be, the costs imposed by Israel and the United States would be enormous. In other words, the benefits are doubtful, far off and contingent on many variables, whereas the costs are immediate, significant and daunting. The cost-benefit ratio isn’t very appealing, which is why so much of the internationalization agenda, including ICC membership, has been discussed but not implemented by the Ramallah leadership.
Both Hamas and the PA looked to the unity agreement they signed as a way forward, at least of temporary legitimization in the eyes of the Palestinian public. The new government, which looks a great deal like the old PA government, is actually meeting, but it hasn’t taken over responsibility for the administration of Gaza, or the crossings, or anything new. And there’s no suggestion of when it might. And if it did, the change would either be cosmetic or would quickly deteriorate into renewed confrontation between Hamas militiamen and PA security forces.
The Palestinian groups are simply too divided to meaningfully reunify under current circumstances. Each of them faces a dead-end for their policies, and no notion of what a good alternative would be. Yet Israel, too, is in a dead end of its own. It’s addicted to the status quo, which is unsustainable and, eventually, will almost certainly lead to another brutal confrontation. Israel has no idea what to do with the millions of Palestinians that live under its rule. And those Palestinians don’t know what to do to get rid of Israel’s rule. The three-way standoff is unprecedented and exceptionally dangerous.
It may be the broader regional changes are required to resolve the conflict. But that really means that Israelis and Palestinians have proven utterly incapable of resolving it themselves, including with the help of the United States. What those regional changes might be, moreover, is itself a source of potential alarm. With all three of the principal actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stuck in their own traps and unable to see a way forward, they have essentially lost agency and left themselves at the mercy of events they do not, and cannot, control.
Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog