The violent confrontation with Hamas reveals how delusional the Israeli reality is: The Israeli-Palestinian issue has long been pushed out of the political discourse and election debates. Strategic assumptions of questionable validity have coalesced into a kind of axiom that no longer requires proof. Here is a selection of these assumptions that should now be reexamined.
• “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be managed, not resolved.” – This slogan creates a somewhat odd common denominator between Greater Israel proponents and those who are ready for a historic compromise but believe the Palestinian side is not yet ripe for it. As a result, a large Israeli majority has been created that sanctifies the status quo, increases the impulse to deepen the split between Gaza and the West Bank, and strengthens the legitimacy of the Hamas rule in Gaza. There is a long-running dispute within Palestinian society between the camp seeking peace with Israel and the camp insisting on its destruction. Israel’s status quo policy and failure to set a credible political horizon weakens the Palestinian camp amenable to compromise and strengthens its opponents.
• “Israel will know how to preserve its Jewish character under any scenario.” – The IDF’s attack on Hamas, severe as it may be, will not make the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the three million in the West Bank disappear. The removal of the two-state solution from the agenda and the continuation of the settlement process in what should be the Palestinian state’s territory bring Israel closer to the point of no return, when it will no longer be able to escape a binational reality and the loss of its Jewish-democratic character.
Although Israel’s Nation-State Law declares, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” in practice, a Palestinian decision may have more weight than Israeli law. That is, if instead of demanding an independent state alongside Israel, equal rights are claimed in one state between the river and the sea.
• “Israeli Arabs prefer integration over nationalism.” – The brutal confrontations between Jews and Arabs within Israel’s borders reveal just how fragile the integration process is. Without an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the nationalist urge among Israeli Arabs will intensify and with it their solidarity with their brethren in the territories. The deeper the axis that connects the Arabs living in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, the closer we are to a violent and dangerous binational reality.
• “In any future arrangement, Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty.” – The violence in Jerusalem, and the way Hamas has exploited and amplified it, unmask the Israeli illusion of a “united city.” The potential for deterioration is great in the face of deliberate provocations of extremists on both sides. The 330,000 Jerusalem Arabs who have until now boycotted municipal elections may end this practice.
Israel is therefore held hostage by a Palestinian decision that has the power to significantly erode the Jewish character of Israel’s capital. The illusion that an agreement could be reached with the Palestinians that leaves the whole of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty was conspicuously advanced by the Trump administration in its “Deal of the Century.” It is no wonder that the Trump plan failed to find partners, collapsed and disappeared.
• “The Arab world is tired of the Palestinian problem” – The Abraham Accords led many to accept the claim that it is possible to achieve peace with the Arab world without making progress in solving the Palestinian problem. The responses to the current crisis emanating from the Arab world show that this is a shaky claim. Without a solution for the Palestinians, the longevity of the Abraham Accords is anything but guaranteed. The prospect of more Arab countries joining the peace circle is also fading. Moreover, if Israel does not set a credible political horizon for the Palestinians, it will have difficulty forming a regional front with Arab states in the face of the Iranian threat.
• “Israel will always be able to rely on the alliance with the United States and its Jews” – The Biden administration, which is preoccupied with complicated internal problems, sees the challenge posed by China as the organizing factor of American foreign policy. Against this background, the US is striving to extricate itself from the shifting sands of the Middle East. This position will hold as long as the events along the Israeli-Palestinian axis do not threaten American interests. Washington’s displeasure with Israeli moves in Jerusalem, the pressure it exerts for a ceasefire, and the critical voices toward Israel heard within the Democratic Party may signal what to expect in the future.
The Biden administration will not push for a speedy settlement between Israel and the Palestinians because it does not believe the parties are ripe for it. But Washington is certainly expected to toughen its demand that Israel improve its treatment of the Palestinians and avoid establishing facts on the ground that will foil future implementation of the two-state solution (i.e., settlement activity beyond the populated blocs adjacent to the 1967 lines, and moves perceived as provocative in east Jerusalem). Israel’s disregard for the necessity of promoting an agreement may even deepen the distancing of liberal US Jews from Israel, and their support is essential to Israel in times of distress.
When the fighting stops, our leaders will claim they have taught the enemy a lesson he will never forget. However, it is essential that they do not run away from learning their own lessons. A stable and long-term solution to Israel’s vexing strategic predicament requires formulating a political horizon to end the occupation, strengthening the hand of the moderate Palestinian camp, and making a real effort to advance the two-state solution.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), author of Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East, and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.