A Perfect Storm of Stalemate

A Perfect Storm of Stalemate

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.

By | 2014-05-26T17:40:00-04:00 May 26th, 2014|Blog|8 Comments


  1. Anonymous May 26, 2014 at 11:30 pm - Reply

    You are right about the likelihood of a continuing stalemate and the forthright analysis underpinning it. However, the deus ex could be closer than we think, for example, a post-Abbas PA (cum Hamas), reassertion of the Arab (Saudi) Initiative, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from paarts of the West Bank, and Iran-Israeli confrontation via proxies or directly. Let us hope that positive outcomes with the PA and/or Arab Initiative will produce progress rather than stalemate. Jacques Roumani

  2. Anonymous May 27, 2014 at 12:26 am - Reply

    Question for general information to better understand the overall mess:

    Why did not Abbas not lobby, insist, stamp his feet etc etc that negotiations re-start (July 2013) with “Olmert Plan”?

    Of course Netanyahu would have said no.

    But that alone would have given Abbas huge moral victory. “See how the Jews can’t be trusted? They offer a plan and then take it back”

    …Or maybe, in fact Bibi sorta agrees. (Fat chance but for sake of discussion.) In either case it is great move for Abbas.

    I think that most rational observers would say that Olmert offered what appears to have been a great offer and as close as possible to what any Israeli could ever give.

    NOT perfect for Palestinians but certainly good place to start public talks.

    So please explain your analysis? Why no response by Olmert over past 5-6 years?

    My only take is that Abbas really didn’t want to get a 2 state plan.

    It is entirely possible that there would have been such great pressure on Bibi (by Quartet) to talk starting somewhere near “Olmert” that his govt might have collapsed i.e. enough israelis might have gone along with pressure to use Olmert as base.

    So what am I missing from Palestinian POV? Why was Abbas unwilling/unable to use Olmert as starting point? Thx.

    It is important (to me) because certainly Bibi killed last round; but maybe Abbas was happy to end negotiations.

    Question for general understanding.

  3. Daniel May 27, 2014 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    As usual you just skip on surface and avoid serious questions. To name but a few:
    Why do you think Palestinians want a state? Any serious analysis shows that Hamas and Fattah will never be able to rule together and that they are as yet unwilling to accept the responsibility of state – much better to live off the world and blame Israel for anything and everything they themselves do wrong.
    Does it still make sense to talk about two-state solution? If anything is it not three-state (or three-entity) solution?
    Why should Israel take the Arab initiative seriously – yes, some interests of some Arab states are almost identical with those of Israel and Israel can cooperate with them overtly or covertly on this basis. But what can Arab states as a group pledge and vouch for?
    Why do you call Israeli electorate cynical? Why don’t you call them cautious instead? They have enough reasons indeed not to trust the Palestinians a single word.
    You admit some turmoil in Arab world. Would it not be better then to wait for the situation to settle down a bit so that we can see the new power and threats distribution within the Middle East? Even though you would like to keep it Israeli-Palestinian conflict new developments tend to make (at least partially) Israeli-Arab conflict again.
    Why on earth do you think Palestinians are weak now? By having more and more people round the world willing to blame Israel for anything they can feel perfectly strong to protract the “process”.
    Europe is getting more and more ridiculous in their ME policy so whatever step they take it cannot make them a serious player. Harm Israel? Yes, that they can do but be taken seriously …
    You are right that things may stay as they are for years to come. The more reason to give up the ridiculous and often harmful “peacemaking” and try some other concepts instead – like for instance conflict management.
    I could go on like this forever, but I guess I have run out of time.
    I am sure you will come up with some more funny stuff and get me writing again.

  4. Paul L. Scham May 27, 2014 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Dear Jacques and Anonymous,
    Jacques, I share your hopes and think it’s perfectly conceivable that those things you mention or others may shift the situation positively. But my point is that a new phase is developing and I am pessimistic for the immediate future.

    Anonymous, my guess is that Kerry told Abbas that Olmert’s plan was a non-starter with Bibi’s government and wouldn’t support him in that. I think Abbas does want a 2-state plan but won’t give anything up formally before Israel agrees, for domestic political reasons. Don’t forget Abbas is also under great political pressure and is considered a sellout by many Palestinians and others, so he has to be careful about seeming to willing to give things up. I can’t prove any of this but that’s my reading.

  5. Anonymous May 27, 2014 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    OK, fine. So what’s the plan? Waiting for deus ex machina? Reminiscing about almost successes? Do you have a plan?

  6. Paul L. Scham May 27, 2014 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    Responses to comments 3&5,
    Dear Daniel and Anonymous 5,
    Daniel, I of course don’t know who you are but if you’re genuinely interested in learning my answers to your questions (which I doubt) you’re welcome to read my 20 or so posts on this blog and a lot more available elsewhere online. Just one point. HOw anyone can think (as Israel certainly does) that the Palestinians are not at their lowest point in decades is beyond me. What good is all this verbal support doing them? None, obviously.
    To Anonymous 5, the answer is obvious. I have no plan that I think anyone who actually could do something will implement. Luckily, that’s not what I’m paid to do. I have lots of ideas that I think could work, but the decision-makers rarely follow my advice.

  7. Daniel June 5, 2014 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Well, Paul, don’t you remember our long disagreements in Jerusalem and Herzlia (at our functions). And once in LA.
    I am sorry I do not have that much time to go through heaps of texts to look for remote signs of an answer. I guess I would not find real answers anyway. I am afraid you are too ideologically preconditioned to be able to give WORKING answers. You are a nice chap though :-).
    I do not know why should Palestinians be at their lowest point. Because they lost their hope of eventually destroying Israel? Because they cannot get their act together? (The current “unity” government will not last long and will not produce anything.) I truly do not know why they should be so low and if they really are, the better for them maybe. They need to understand at long last that it is up on them too. That they cannot only live off the world and wallow in their perennial victimhood.
    I am sure we talked about that too. In my decades of dealing with ME and talking to Palestinians I have not met a single one who would admit that they made fatal mistakes in their history and that they brought – at least partially – their current fate upon themselves. On the other hand you find endless number of Israelis feeling far guiltier for the situation than their fair share of the problem would be (you being one of them) Without the Palestinians internalizing their share and acting accordingly there is no hope for an agreed solution at all. So maybe they need to suffer even more. Personally I do not think they will ever get it and the only solution is Israel acting unilaterally and leaving Palestinians to their fate.

  8. Paul L. Scham June 6, 2014 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    I know a lot of Daniels but I don’t remember you without your last name. Can you remind me of that or when we talked?

    Obviously you are at least as ideologically preconditioned as I am. Do you really think you’re approaching this with fresh eyes? I don’t claim to.

    Just as obviously we answer these questions with reference to different expectations. You assume only force is valid. While I don’t dispute force is sometimes necessary, I don’t think it is the most efficacious tool most of the time. I’m sorry you feel hated forever and you believe there’s nothing you can do about it except fight. But it must be very comforting that everything is always someone else’s fault.

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