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A Third Intifada Can Be Avoided

Nadav Eyal writes that if a third intiada breaks out, it will have been the result of a lack of foresight and diplomacy.  
A Palestinian protester holds stones during clashes with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron February 25, 2013 following the funeral of Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat. Jaradat's death in an Israeli jail on Saturday and a hunger strike by four other Palestinian inmates have raised tension in the occupied territory after repeated clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers in recent days. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3EAAX

The violent mass demonstrations sweeping across the West Bank in the last few days should have taken no one by surprise. They were to be expected. Indeed, the events were foreseen long before. Seniors in the Israeli defense establishment have been warning for the past two years against the potential outbreak of violence in the territories, and thorough preparations have been made in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in anticipation of this ominous scenario.

More than anything, the recent developments in the territories testify to the vortex of folly into which the entire Middle East has been drawn and which has been totally generated by the players in the arena themselves. Israel has failed to take advantage of the recent years of quiet — secured thanks to the efficient action of the Israeli defense establishment, on the one hand, and the interest the Palestinian Authority had in keeping the quiet, on the other. Thus it missed the opportunity to formulate an effective outline for progress in the diplomatic process.

As a matter of fact, the impression created by the outgoing Israeli government is that against its will, it was pushed, stamping and screaming, into attempting to revive the peace process. At the same time, absurd ideas have been raised in the Israeli political discourse, some calling for the legal annexation of parts of the territories, while others suggesting the adoption of the status quo as an ongoing policy — as though the status quo could be sustained forever; as if it were not a crisis liable to blow up at any moment.

It was a folly, but it was not the doing of the Israelis alone. The Palestinians, for their part, have been undergoing a fierce internal power struggle, which threatened and continued to threaten the chances of achieving a settlement. The confrontation between Hamas and Fatah has locked the Palestinian Authority into inaction and time after time sent it climbing up tall trees, far removed from any real desire to negotiate. Whether it was the issue of a building freeze in the settlements or the bid for UN recognition, the Palestinians invariably focused on exerting diplomatic pressure on both Israel and the United States, but refrained from entering into negotiations with Israel for fear that the Netanyahu government would thereby get undue credit, while leaving them without any tangible achievement. Three years later, the Palestinian Authority has found itself without negotiations and devoid of any tangible accomplishment.

Yet, there is no symmetry in the situation. Being the strong party in the conflict, Israel has a primary interest in reaching a diplomatic solution. And in view of the confrontation vis-à-vis Hamas, Israel must be interested in strengthening the moderates in Palestinian society at the expense of Islamic fundamentalism. 

The Palestinian Authority led by President Abu Mazen has taken some bold steps to reinforce security in the West Bank. The  window of opportunity  created following the second intifada, as well as the Arab Spring,  called for a brave attempt to advance the diplomatic process. Alas, it did not happen. The dialogue between the parties took the form of declarations and speeches from the UN podium rather than taking place through diplomacy. The Palestinians are responsible to a large extent for this state of affairs. The Palestinian Authority has consistently avoided denouncing and disowning Hamas. Indeed, it has been delivering a highly dangerous signal to the Palestinian public — let Hamas take care of the “resistance“ (the armed struggle), while the Palestinian Authority is moving ahead along the diplomatic path. This message is dangerous since it creates the impression that the two political factions are striving to reach one and the same goal. However, as long as Hamas is unwilling to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, it will be seen as a pariah. As to the Palestinian Authority, due to its weakness, it has had no choice but to court Hamas, playing a deadly love game with the organization.

There is another player in this vortex of folly, which is not customarily referred to: The US Administration has been acting in recent years as if almost offended by the sides' lack of motivation for diplomatic progress. To quote President Barack Obama’s own words: “We cannot be expected to seek it [peace] more than the parties themselves.”

The initial failure of the attempts to get the peace process going and to enforce the associated initiative for freeze on construction, launched by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama, dealt a stinging blow to Obama's first-term administration. As a result, the endeavor to reach an agreement was substituted by “conflict management” — or that’s at least the message received from Washington. The murky relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American president further strengthened the feeling that no basis for close cooperation that would enable diplomatic progress was likely to be built. The traditional American arm-twisting, the role of masculine global policeman once played by the mighty United States, has given way to the gradual decline of interest and involvement in the process. 

The quiet in the West Bank contributed to the illusion that the conflict was a matter that could be ignored; as if it were not one of the most venomous conflicts in the world, one that was liable to escalate and expand into a full-blown and far-reaching confrontation.

Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart, a major intellectual voice in America of 2013, used the term “benign neglect” with reference to the approach Obama was likely to adopt (or had already adopted) toward Israel and the conflict.

 Yet there is no such thing as benign neglect — certainly not when it comes to the Middle East. No neglect in this region is benign, it always becomes malignant. Had it not been for the aggressive effort made by then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the entire region could have been hurled into war all over again. And had it not been for [former U.S. President Jimmy] Carter and his administration, peace would not have been achieved between Cairo and Jerusalem.  These are merely the famous examples; In fact, on countless occasions in the past American presidents prevented the parties from committing acts of folly. What has never come to pass does not go down in history.

The Arab Spring and the civil war tearing Syria apart may have shifted the world's attention away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the Arab-Israeli conflict is still at the center of the Middle Eastern confrontation, and its potential repercussions — whether those concerning Egypt and its relations with Hamas, Iran's nuclear program, or the future stability of the Jordanian regime — are a source of deep concern to the leaders of the region. From the early statements made by Secretary of State Kerry, it definitely sounds like the second Obama Administration understands that full well.  

Needless to say that a third intifada would be disastrous, but even more frustrating is the realization that if a third intifada breaks out, we will all know that it could have been prevented. That is the folly.

Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Chanel 10's foreign news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv. Eyal was named one of the hundred most influential people in the media for 2011 by the Israeli business magazine Globes. He holds an LLB degree from the Law Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.

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