Middle East Notes and Comment: The Other Crisis
January 20, 2016
It is hard not to be distracted in the Middle East. Wars rage in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Tens of millions have been forced from their homes. The memories of tear gas canisters flying in Egypt and Bahrain remain fresh. Young and inexperienced leaders have come on the scene and old and wizened leaders are reluctant to leave it despite diminishing faculties. Amidst it all, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undergoing fundamental change.
Not long ago, the direction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed clear; the question was only the timeline. “We all know what the final deal will look like,” people committed to the process commonly said, even if they didn’t know how to create the politics to achieve it.
By now, it has been many years since the Oslo Process resembled a process. No longer shuddering, it has collapsed. Even for Oslo’s skeptics, however, the new environment is not good news.
Many Israelis who always distrusted Oslo see the collapse of the process as an opportunity to return to a better time. Consolidating Palestinian power did not create a negotiating partner, they argue, because Palestinians never gave up their ambition to destroy Israel. Israel took steps that potentially compromised its security, they say, but it never brought actual peace closer. Seen this way, Oslo only put pressure on Israelis, and it only rewarded Palestinians.
To hear some Israelis tell it, the golden time of Israeli-Palestinian relations was in the 1970s and early 1980s, long before the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) returned under the guise of the Palestinian Authority. Jordan still maintained its claim to the West Bank and asserted a stabilizing influence. The PLO was routed from neighboring Lebanon in 1982 and relocated to far-away Tunisia. The Camp David treaty had neutralized Israel’s strongest enemy. On the ground, Israeli authorities built ad hoc relationships with local community leaders—sometimes with local notables and sometimes with rural tribes. Israel worked with nationalists, too, the striving young men (and they were almost all men) who wanted to build a modern society.
Competition between these groups absorbed tremendous internal resources, and Israel’s role as a kingmaker gave the country tools to help align local leaderships with Israelis. At the same time, competition between the groups helped prevent a common front from emerging. Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in managing conflict, not building an agreement. There were few timelines. In a very broad sense, the arrangements would persist until a peace agreement was made. In a narrower sense, managing the conflict became an iterative bureaucratic exercise and not a low-grade war.
The strategy worked until it didn’t. The outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987 was a spontaneous eruption of frustration. Starting with the popular reaction to a car accident in Gaza, youth took to the streets. The Palestinian leadership was caught by surprise. After weeks of chaos, the PLO used all of its local strength to establish influence over the intifada and then drive it toward a political process, first in Madrid in 1991 and later Oslo in 1993.
It is tempting to see the current uptick in Palestinian attacks as a similar kind of youth revolt that the Palestinian political leadership will be able to contain. There is reason for pessimism.
First, Yasser Arafat’s symbolic leadership of the Palestinian community was clear in 1987, even if it was under challenge. Mahmoud Abbas has far less credibility, and his entourage has less still. They attract all of the criticism of corruption that followed Arafat, and little of the respect for sacrifice and dedication.
Second, the local Palestinian leadership has been hollowed out, especially in the West Bank. The 70 and 80-year-olds in power have not cultivated a rising generation of leaders, and Palestinian institutions have grown weaker in the last two decades, not stronger.
Third, the split between the West Bank and Gaza is far deeper than in 1987, so it is even harder to imagine how an agreement in one place can lead to anything that looks like an end of conflict. In Gaza, Hamas is intent on showing its resolve despite Egyptian actions to shut the border. The organization remains active in the West Bank, and it would likely prove a wildcard if the Palestinian Authority began to lose its grip.
For many Israelis, the Oslo Process brought nothing but misery, and a return to managing conflicts with no expectation of resolution seems practical, at least for now. For many in the Palestinian leadership, the failure to move forward toward a political settlement makes them mere agents of the Israeli security services and provides an impetus to leave the situation for the Israelis to manage alone.
The rub is this: for many young Palestinians, the current impasse reveals the moral bankruptcy of all of the authorities they face and the hopelessness of their condition. The hopelessness helps explain the random and wanton acts of violence that have erupted in the last six months. It is hard to see how it will end. Israel’s commitment to disproportionate responses will cause consternation in the West, polarization around Israel-related issues will increase, and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement will gain momentum, especially in Western Europe and the United States.
Palestinians face a difficult challenge: engendering a new leadership that will unify them after almost a decade of sharp divisions. Many see that violence has been tried and failed, but diplomacy has failed, too. A leadership vacuum is widening, and no clear leaders are emerging.
This is not just a Palestinian problem. Israelis have a keen interest in a strong Palestinian leadership, too, and not only one that is weak and compliant. Israel needs a Palestinian leadership that can win credibility not only by creating domestic order, but also by wresting concessions from Israel. A weakened leadership will not only allow persistent threats to Israel to seethe. It will also lead Israel to pursue policies that undermine its closest alliances. Israelis and Palestinians will both lose.