Will Israeli-Palestinian Violence Spin Out of Control?

On Sunday, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers outside the West Bank town of Huwara, just days after an Israeli army raid in Nablus left 11 Palestinians dead. Sunday night, more than 100 Israeli settlers rioted in Huwara, setting fire to buildings and vehicles, killing one Palestinian and leaving hundreds more injured. Since then, intermittent acts of violence across the West Bank have left several Israelis and Palestinians dead, including one U.S.-Israeli dual national.

Q1: Why is the UN Security Council holding an emergency meeting today about Israeli-Palestinian violence?

A1: The tempo and level of Israeli-Palestinian violence has been rising in recent weeks. Simultaneously, increasingly visible strains in Israeli and Palestinian politics are emerging, only partly in response to rising violence. There is concern that violence and politics could feed on each other in ways that create deep instability. Also, looking forward, there is concern that the confluence of major Muslim and Jewish holidays in the coming weeks could spiral tensions upward. The month-long Ramadan holiday starts March 22, and the week-long Passover holiday starts April 5. In the past, holidays have been associated with increased violence, as they have made each community feel more violated when attacks have occurred, and those carrying out provocative acts have argued for the heightened sanctity of their actions.

Q2: What is happening in Palestinian politics?

A2: First, you have an unpopular leader who is aging and seemingly less in control. Mahmoud Abbas is 87 years old, and he is 14 years past the expiry of his elected term. Few think he should lead the Palestinian community, and few think he is doing so successfully. He has no clear successor, and there is no clear process to select a successor. While people speculate how a power struggle will evolve and who will help shape it, no one has any certainty how it will unfold.

In addition, the split between Gaza and the West Bank that began in 2006 shows no signs of healing. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has a strengthening foothold in the West Bank. That makes many in the Palestinian Authority even more wary of opening up politics.

Finally, there is a rising debate within the Palestinian community about the utility and the wisdom of cooperating with Israel on security issues. New armed groups are forming, such as the Lion’s Den based out of Nablus. Mahmoud Abbas has generally been accommodating of Israeli efforts to crack down on new groups, partly because many of Israel’s enemies are his enemies as well. But if he seems like he supports Israel’s suppression of Palestinians, especially when Israeli politicians are making noise about being harsher in response to Palestinian violence, it might weaken him further.

Q3: What is happening in Israeli politics?

A3: Israeli politics are in motion. According to a recent poll, 60 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu’s initiatives to reform the judiciary and give more unchecked power to parliamentary majorities do not reflect the public will. While the pro- and anti-Netanyahu vote was evenly split in the November 2022 Knesset elections, pro-Netanyahu forces have an eight-vote majority in the 120-seat body. The reason is that more than 400,000 votes for 30 parties—almost 9 percent of votes cast—dropped out of the equation when their parties polled below the electoral threshold. Many of those voters were anti-Netanyahu. Tens of thousands of Israelis are regularly taking to the streets to protest the legal changes Netanyahu and his allies are pushing through.

Unrelated to the overall partisan split in Israel, many of the ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet come from right-wing backgrounds and are testing the limits of Netanyahu’s coalition government, especially on issues involving settlement activity and the treatment of Arabs.

Netanyahu will struggle to manage members of his own coalition. He has his own electoral calculations, as he simultaneously seeks to use his Knesset majority to invalidate corruption charges against him while securing his role as the center of gravity of Israeli politics. Many of his ministers have electoral strategies that involve catering to right-wing constituencies and not the center, and their interests may not align with Netanyahu’s. Netanyahu argues that he is the final word, but his ministers are arguing that they have authority over the enforcing—and not enforcing—of laws under their purview.

Q4: What are the odds that Israel and Palestine are on the brink of a major change in the status quo?

A4: The odds are much stronger than they were a month ago. Mahmoud Abbas’s future is unclear, and it could change quickly, not least because of a health episode. If violence were to escalate, it could either heal or deepen the rift between Netanyahu and his coalition over tactics. Rising violence could completely discredit Abbas. One could imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu’s political allies would seek to push him rightward to further their own political ambitions, or in which Netanyahu would seek to tack to the center and create a national unity government and reformulate his coalition with a more centrist cast. Presumably, though, his current antagonists would exact a high price for his doing so.

Rising violence would scramble the politics on both sides. While some left-wing Israelis would likely argue that Israel’s right-wing coalition was the cause, violence would probably initially reward people who thought it was time to fight rather than reconcile. The same is likely true on the Palestinian side. Over time, a different political environment might emerge.

Q5: How should the United States think about engagement?

A5: There are existential issues involved for both sides, so it will be hard for an outside power to move them significantly. The February 26 meeting in Aqaba, which brought the Israelis and Palestinians together with U.S., Jordanian, and Egyptian backing, strained to keep things from slipping further. But if this is considered in terms of shifting tectonic plates, the United States and its allies and partners may have significant opportunities in the coming months to weigh in and take advantage of new openings that are created. It is hard to imagine that a negotiation process can make dramatic progress between Israelis and Palestinians in the current environment, no matter how enthusiastically it is pursued. But is increasingly easy to see how current events might lead to unanticipated opportunities in the not-too-distant future due to potential changes on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. It is worth thinking about them now.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program