My day job is teaching and writing about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relating it, when appropriate, to the present. I present the conflict in phases, such as the inter-communal conflict before 1948, the Arab states vs. Israel after that, the reemergence of Palestinians as a factor after 1967, etc. Obviously, this sort of periodization isn’t watertight, but it gives students a sense of how things have both changed and stayed the same.
Last semester, although teaching a simulation based in the 1930’s, I warned my students that a new phase is probably beginning. While that will only be clear, and even then controversial, 10 or 20 years from now, I think it’s worth stepping back now and seeing where things are in a larger perspective. I should note that in June and July I’ll be spending a few weeks in Israel (and a few days in Jordan as well) and hope to see how my D.C. perspective tallies with what I see close up.
With the long-expected failure of Kerry’s peace initiative, the attempt to settle things through direct negotiations is in abeyance again, perhaps for years. As Marx remarked in a different context , if the first time (Camp David II) was tragedy, this one was (admittedly bitter) farce. I confess that I had persuaded myself (with some difficulty, against my own judgment) that the negotiations might work, but their failure ended up being the sad victory of reality over hope. Turns out that the Secretary, although brave, had no clothes.
While the Palestinians have, as usual, made perhaps more than their rightful share of mistakes and misjudgments, it is clear to most outside observers that Israel’s far right government, enabled by a cynical electorate which simply doesn’t trust Palestinians or Arabs in general, has no capability or interest in participating in making a mutually acceptable peace. Most Israelis say they want a two-state solution (as do pluralities of Palestinians) but the concept is so eroded and ambiguous, and the path to it so dependent on some degree of trust between the sides, that there is no serious likelihood of reaching it without a deus ex machina type incident, such as a war, serious and extreme pressure from the U.S., effective isolation of Israel, or a collapse of will on the Palestinian side. All of these are unlikely, although possible, but they are the bluntest of instruments, which are as likely to worsen the situation as to ameliorate it. See the Yom Kippur (October) War for an example. The disengagement of Israelis from the conflict is old news by now, and Israeli attention is currently, and likely to stay, elsewhere.
The US, traditionally the main interlocutor between the two sides, has made it clear that its attention is elsewhere for the near and probably intermediate future. There is no current or potential critical mass in the dysfunctional American political arena that could support the intensive US intervention that might make a difference. With the 2016 presidential elections almost on the horizon and Obama beleaguered on most fronts, US initiatives are not on the table.
Moreover, the Arab world is experiencing a degree of existential turmoil that precludes it from playing a stabilizing role in peace, as the Arab League tried to do with its peace initiatives of 2002 and 2007. While on the one hand it makes Israel a close ally, de facto because of shared interests in stability, with some of the major Arab states, Israelis do have a point when they are skeptical of making peace with governments that may collapse. And although there is no doubt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a continuously corrosive influence on Arab and Muslim relations with the West, there is equally no doubt that the the horrendous tragedy of Syria is more urgent. Action on both is not contradictory but unlikely.
It is common wisdom to attempt to make peace when your adversary is weak, as the Palestinians are today. But Israel has whipsawed the Palestinians between Scylla and Charybdis; it won’t take them seriously when they’re divided and won’t deal with them when they try to unite. As I have argued for years, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is in Israel’s interest, but it is too demagogically easy to choose to see it through the wrong end of the telescope. While the Palestinians are half-heartedly playing the UN option, they realize that is a slow, uncertain, and probably only partial process at best. Ultimately, they have to make peace with Israel, while Israel find the status quo quite comfortable, thank you.
Europe has started applying some economic pressure but without US participation it is unlikely to have serious effects on the situation. BDS, despite its great usefulness to Israeli and American Jewish leaders as a bogeyman, will probably have even less.
Of course things can’t and won’t go on like this forever, but my guess is that this is the shape of the next few years. It is a seemingly perfect storm of stalemate. There are any number of additional factors I could discuss, such as the unprecedented lack of future Israeli political leadership, the seeming attainment of a modus vivendi, with Israel generally doing well and Palestinians living miserably but surviving, the continuing absence of an effective Israeli Left, new tensions in Europe and the Far East, etc., etc. And who knows: the deus ex machina could appear next month, and I’ll gladly eat crow. But I wouldn’t bet on it. As the cliche goes: plus ca change, plus la meme chose.