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Palestine — The Sustainable Unsustainable Status Quo?

In recent months, the issue of Palestine has been pushed off the world’s and region’s radar screens. But is an Israeli-Palestinian meltdown coming soon? And even if a major conflict broke out, would this improve the prospects for a deal? Aaron David Miller answers no — and no.
A Palestinian demonstrator hurls a stone as an Israeli truck fires a water cannon containing a foul smelling substance during clashes at a protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah September 14, 2012. The demonstrators were calling for an end to the Oslo accords, which were meant to pave the way to permanent peace with Israel. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

In recent months, the issue of Palestine has been pushed over the world’s and region’s radar screen by Iran, Syria and recent anti-American demonstrations sweeping the Arab and Muslim world. 

What’s happening here? Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict old hat? Does anyone care anymore? Will it simply keep?

Recently, I had conversations with an Israeli and a Palestinian who both advocate that Americans pay greater attention to the peace process; both also predict an explosion on the West Bank if they don’t.  At least Israelis and Palestinians agree on something.

The prediction that the West Bank will explode at some point is a pretty safe bet, if not because of Israel’s occupation then as a result of bad economic conditions for Palestinians.. 

After all, violence, terror, pressure and intimidation have been the constant companions of Israelis and Palestinians for well over a century now.  Violence was built into the conflict long before there was an occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And it’s endemic now as the perverse and deadly dance between the occupiers and the occupied plays out. Two intifadas (1987-1988; 2000-2004), a major Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza 2008, and hundreds of less consequential confrontations tell the tale. 

Indeed, with negotiations in a coma and nobody paying attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the explosion argument becomes the last refuge of those advocating a major initiative. After all, if we’re heading toward a big kaboom, shouldn’t that energize the lethargic, trump the doubters, and encourage the fainthearted to act? 

Is an Israeli-Palestinian meltdown coming soon? And even if a major conflict broke out, would this improve the prospects for a deal?  

It won’t surprise you that my answers to these two unknowns are double nos. 

We can’t predict the future.  And the variations on the catastrophe theme in the Middle East are endless. An Israeli or American attack on Iran could ignite Hezbollah/Hamas rockets and blow things up.  

But trying to read the proverbial tea leaves, it seems to me  that while the status quo is pretty bad, it just may be sustainable  for some time to come. And if the past history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is any guide, even if a violent meltdown occurs, it’s unlikely to produce an opening to reach an agreement. 

What may constitute the biggest surprise isn’t an intifada against Israel, but one against Hamas and the PA by Palestinians  despairing over  a deteriorating economy.

Grim but not critical

On the face of it, things between Israelis and Palestinians are pretty grim. There is zero prospect of a resumption of serious negotiations anytime soon. Israeli settlement activity continues. Recent attacks by Israeli youth and settlers against Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank foreshadow worse to come. Israelis are preoccupied with Iran; and there’s no pressure or urgency for an Israeli prime minister, who isn’t all that interested in a peace process to begin with, to take Palestinians or a peace process seriously. 

On the Palestinian side, things don’t look much better.  A recent UN report forecast a jobless rate of 57% for the West Bank and Gaza. A combination of restriction of aid flows, a paralyzed private sector, Israeli restrictions on movement and a chronic fiscal crisis has darkened the economic outlook for the year ahead. Last week thousands protested against the Palestinian Authority over their deteriorating economic situation. 

The Hamas-Fatah rivalry shows no signs of abating.  And Gaza and the West Bank are on separate and perhaps irreconcilable trajectories. Palestinians have no unified strategy to gain statehood either through the use of force or through negotiations.  Sometime this fall, Palestinians will once again embark on a campaign at the UN to seek a UN General Assembly resolution on enhanced observer-state status — an approach that is likely to alienate the Americans and further restrict assistance.  

Given this sad state of affairs, you’d think the West Bank might be headed for an explosion. That doesn’t seem to be the case; and here’s why. 

Nobody wants it

The best explanation for why the sustainable unsustainable status quo continues is that nobody really wants or can afford a blow-up now. None of the three key players that you’d suspect have influence over such a thing — Hamas, Abbas and Netanyahu — want to rock the boat.

The old saw that old age isn’t great but it sure beats the alternative applies here. Sure the situation is bad; but triggering a confrontation with Israel or riling up your public might make matters worse. 

The Israelis clearly don’t want to create a situation where the West Bank explodes. But let’s be honest they also have no stake right now in moving forward to resolve the Palestinian issue either or doing much to benefit Abbas. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu is preoccupied with Iran and there’s little pressure to move on the Palestinian issue. The coalition has contracted once again to its right wing base; President Obama is preoccupied with his reelection. And the Israeli public isn’t seized with the issue either. Terror is under control and Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation continues. 

The Israelis could do a lot more to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and facilitate economic development. And you have to wonder why -- if they truly want to keep the lid on the West Bank -- they don’t.  But everything is a form of leverage and control. And in the Israeli-Palestinian dance, everything is also a negotiation: you do something for me and I’ll reciprocate. And the Israelis clearly are annoyed with Abbas’s plans this fall to pursue the statehood and observer state issue at the United Nations. 

Hamas isn’t looking for trouble either. Still adjusting to life post Syria, it’s looking to find its new footing with Egypt and the Gulf states. Gazan economic conditions are deteriorating. More than 80% of Gazans depend on the international dole; 40% live below the poverty line. A young Palestinian who set himself on fire in despair recently died. The last thing Hamas wants now is to be blamed for a confrontation with Israel that brings more misery to Palestinians in Gaza without any real gain.

And that goes double for Abbas. Talk about a guy who is in a tough spot: the economy is declining; the occupation continues and there’s little prospect of delivering a state. Last week, Abbas face serious demonstrations in the streets by Palestinians protesting their economic plight. 

Paradoxically, he also has something to protect. The real legacy of the Abbas years are the institutions developed largely under the auspices of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  As dependent as Palestinians are on the donors and the Israelis, they now have the infrastructure of a rudimentary state in place. The idea – proposed by some Palestinians -- that the PA should simply   return the keys to the Israelis and let them have responsibility for governing 2.5 million Palestinians is an empty threat. More likely is an economic crisis in which the PA couldn’t make its payroll for thousands of employees, particularly police and  provide services. 

Finally, neither Abbas nor Hamas want to encourage unrest and street demonstrations against Israel that could easily become a launching pad for action against them. 

It’s intriguing that the Arab spring never came to Palestine, and that the demonstrations against the corrupt, extractive and sclerotic Arab regimes has not (yet) been directed at Hamas and the PA. One explanation is clearly that the Palestinian public will always be angrier at the Israelis than at their own leaders. Another is that Palestinians see what the Arab spring has wrought in places like Syria, Yemen and Egypt and don’t want any part of the violence, civil strife and economic misery it brings.  Indeed, the Palestinian leadership wants to keep it that way without allowing the situation to get out of control. The last thing they want now is a  new intifada.

Middle East conflicts don’t happen by accident

The other obvious explanation for the perpetuation of the status quo is that it takes will, skill and organization to run a war or a sustained popular uprising. Middle East conflicts don’t just happen by accident, though the events that trigger them may be hard to predict.  But they’re usually driven by a mix of underlying factors long bubbling and then usually preceded by a more immediate period of escalating tensions or some willful act. (see 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982; Lebanon in 2006; Gaza in 2008)

The challenge is much harder in the case of trying to sustain a popular uprising in which you need to mobilize large crowds   over a prolonged period of time.  Even the first intifada which seemed to have been characterized by a high degree of spontaneity, required real organization at the local and grass roots level to keep it going. 

Sure the underlying anger against Israeli occupation practices combined with an Arab world that was ignoring the Palestinian and a PLO leadership (then outside the territories) that seemed unable to do much for Palestinians inside, created the mix for an explosion. But it took enormous energy by the local popular committees under the umbrella of a national coordinating leadership comprised of local PLO affiliated organizations to keep it going. 

The uprising caught the PLO by surprise, damaged Israel’s public image (10 months in, no more than five Israelis had been killed as opposed to 600 Palestinians within a three year period) but eventually would bring both into the Oslo process. The nemesis of both – Hamas -- would also emerge during this period.

The second intifada was considerably less spontaneous. Arafat did not plan it; but he used the violence as it spread to demonstrate his role as struggler, to demonstrate his indispensability and to improve his bargaining leverage.  He didn’t want Hamas improving its position and used Fatah groups to counteract it. 

But ultimately the proliferation of groups, such as the al-Aqsa brigades, would get beyond him. In the end he refused to restrain or control the actions of these Palestinian groups – so vital to keeping the confrontation against the Israelis alive and lethal with suicide attacks against Israeli civilians and military. Any sustained Palestinian uprising would require the active support and encouragement of Hamas and elements within Fatah. 

Would a blow-up make a difference?

The past doesn’t offer up much hope here.  The first intifada did lead to a strategic recalculation by the Israelis (Rabin and Peres) that there was no military solution to the Palestinian problem and there was some urgency in finding a political solution. That produced Oslo which ultimately came apart in the second intifada with its years of terror and violence. The Israeli-Palestinian relationship has still not yet recovered. 

Equally depressing were the results of the 2008 Gaza war which lead to a great deal  of death and destruction, primarily for Palestinians and not much else. 

The fact is violence and war can set the stage for positive change (see the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the first intifada); but this requires that the pain of conflict be accompanied by prospects of real gain too. And that demands leaders in the region ready to step up to take advantage of the crisis and more often than not a mediator ready to do the same. 

Today, we don’t seem to have much of that around. Sadly, what we do have is a status quo that just doesn’t provide enough pain or gain to impel Israelis and Palestinians forward. The tragedy lies in the fact that whenever the next major confrontation does comes it may not provide sufficient incentives and disincentives either.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President? will be published this year.

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