S oon after US President Donald Trump announced that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, protests erupted across the Middle East, often ending in clashes near US diplomatic compounds. After the president’s announcement, rocket fire from Gaza, also in response to the recent destruction of a tunnel into Israel, increased. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) retaliated, hitting several targets in the Hamas-run enclave. A period of relative of calm came to an end.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians has long been described as the deal that could finally bring peace to the Middle East, unlocking the potential for cooperation in a region long beset by conflict. President Trump calls it the “ultimate deal”, one he is eager to bring about.
But the conflict does not only revolve around Jerusalem, a particularly emotive issue due to its status as a holy city in the world’s three big monotheistic religions. Weeks after the White House decision, Israel’s conservative Likud party, of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a member, voted to promote the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state. The vast majority of the international community views the West Bank as occupied territory, while Israel cites historical links to the land and argues that it was disputed at the time of its seizure in 1967.
A formal annexation would mean that Israeli civilian law would be applied to the settlements, which are currently under the jurisdiction of the Israeli military. Such a move, observers say, could facilitate the streamlining of construction and expansion projects in the settlements.
This latest push - it is not clear whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will heed his party’s advice - comes after years of settlement expansions. Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, traditionally brokered by Washington, broke down in 2014.
Amidst the debates over the future of the settlements, rocket fire and attempts at Palestinian unity, what is Israel’s game plan?
End goal: status quo
In a famous speech in 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu for the first time supported the idea of a Palestinian state, a demilitarised one without an army and control over its airspace. Jerusalem, he said at the time, had to remain “the united capital of Israel”. The Israeli Parliament recently passed a bill that would make it harder to transfer any part of Jerusalem to a foreign party.
Many have doubted the prime minister’s commitment to the two-state solution over the years, but the formula has remained the basis for peace talks. Successive Israeli governments have partly blamed a lack of progress on divisions between the Fatah movement headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on the one side and the Islamist group Hamas on the other. Accordingly, there was no partner to negotiate with, a claim roundly dismissed by the Palestinians.
“As long as Netanyahu is Israel’s elected leader, there isn’t much path forward with the Palestinians,” Tal Schneider, the diplomatic and political correspondent for Israeli business newspaper Globe, told The World Weekly. The Israeli government might be pushed by the US to enter some sort of process, she adds, “but even that is a bit unlikely at the moment.”
Mr. Netanyahu will probably favour continuing his approach of publicly voicing support for calls to advance Israeli sovereignty over Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), “while privately reigning in such legislation”, says Hugh Lovatt, project coordinator of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Middle East and North Africa Programme. This double-pronged strategy, aimed at a domestic and international audience, has in the past caused tensions with cabinet members to his right, Mr. Lovatt says.
This could also be the case when it comes to Likud’s call to change the legal status of settlements in the West Bank, a recommendation that is likely to cause international uproar if implemented.
Despite these differences, “the end goal remains the same”, according to Mr. Lovatt: “entrenching Israel’s hold of Jerusalem, advancing Israel’s annexation of Area C of the West Bank, and killing off the two-state solution.” Washington, a staunch ally of Israel for decades, has in the past voiced strong opposition to settlement expansion or calls to formally annex the West Bank. Under the current administration, this is a lot less likely, a development that could “challenge Netanyahu’s preference for quiet incremental Israeli gains in the OPT”. In that vein, Ms. Schneider saw the annexation of the settlements as rather unlikely.
The quest for Palestinian statehood, which has involved armed struggle, peace talks and a push for international recognition, has been ongoing for many decades. Over 20 years ago, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed the Oslo accords, a set of agreements that paved the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority and limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The stipulated end goal of achieving “a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement” was set out in 1993. However, a five-year interim period expired in 1999 without a comprehensive settlement and key issues such as Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and settlements remain unresolved until this day.
For Gideon Levy, a veteran Israeli journalist writing for the liberal daily Haaretz, Israel’s priorities are clear. “Israel has one goal: to maintain the status quo of the occupation. The US seems to collaborate with the same goal. All the rest is less important,” he told TWW.
Relations between the Palestinian leadership and Washington have come under severe strain after Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision. ”We reject the American decision over Jerusalem. With this position the United States has become no longer qualified to sponsor the peace process,” PA President Abbas said in a statement last month. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat saw the decision as a message to Palestinians, saying “the two-state solution is over”, he told Haaretz, adding “now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea".
A growing number of Palestinians, disillusioned with the lack of progress on the two-state solution, is arguing that their leadership should switch strategies and push for the formation of one state with equal rights for all. Given current demographics, such a move would threaten the ‘Jewishness’ of the Israeli state.
Palestinian unity at last?
While united in their rejection of President Trump’s decision, the main Palestinian factions have long been divided. Much of the current discord goes back to the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, in which Hamas won a majority. Tensions between Fatah and Hamas soon turned to violence after the elections and PA President Abbas dissolved a Hamas-led coalition government. To this day, Hamas, labelled as a terrorist group by Israel and many Western governments, rules over the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-led PA controls the West Bank.
Many observers saw Hamas’ electoral victory more than a decade ago as a response to government corruption, including the embezzlement of public funds. President Abbas is about to enter the 14th year of what was meant to be a five-year term ending in January 2009. He has used control over payments for electricity and fuel as a tool to pressure Hamas in the past.
Both sides are currently engaged in another attempt to forge unity. President Trump’s recent moves “have opened a small amount of space for the reconciliation talks to once again creep forward”, Mr. Lovatt says, adding that the Palestinian president’s decision to reinstate electricity payments for Gaza was an “important step”. The enclave has long suffered from chronic power outages.
Omar Shaban, the founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in the Gaza Strip, told TWW he was not optimistic that the two sides would fully reconcile and reach agreements on a unity government, elections and political reforms. “The current status, no full divide, but no full reconciliation, will continue for 2018”, Mr. Shaban says. The humanitarian situation in Gaza, meanwhile, will get worse this year, he added.
“In all likelihood,” Mr. Lovatt says, “real national re-unification will only happen once Abbas has left the scene.”
Much of Israel’s rhetoric about the Palestinians revolves around security. During the heyday of the two Palestinian intifadas (uprisings that occurred in 1987-1993 and 2000-2005), a fear of daily violence persisted. Estimates vary, but over 1,000 Israelis and several thousand Palestinians were killed in both uprisings.
At the height of the Second Intifada, which saw the deployment of Palestinian suicide bombers in public buses, cafes and checkpoints, the Israeli government started to build a 'security fence' around the West Bank. The number of suicide attacks significantly dropped after the erection of the fence. However, the move was highly controversial as the fence, referred to as a 'separation barrier' or 'apartheid wall' by Palestinians and others opposed to it, severely restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement, including access to Jerusalem.
Israel subsequently fought several deadly wars against Hamas, an Islamist movement that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza; the latest war raged on for 50 days in the summer of 2014.
But Hamas is not Israel’s only security threat as other armed groups operating in the Gaza Strip, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, have also fired rockets into Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are cooperating against Israel, says Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel. Both, Dr. Karmon adds, receive support from Iran in the form of money and military hardware. Iranian support goes beyond Gaza, he says, as Tehran is also trying to destabilise the West Bank and increase Hamas’ power there by fomenting tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Could another war erupt in Gaza anytime soon? Dr. Karmon was doubtful. “Israel is not interested in another war in Gaza,” he told TWW, adding that the government is trying to manage the conflict without slipping into all-out war, aiming to stabilise the situation in the coastal enclave.
Mr. Shaban says there was no consensus amongst the main Israeli actors on how to deal with the Gaza Strip: some are worried about the humanitarian situation, some think the coastal enclave needs to be kept under blockade, while others see another war as “unavoidable”.
Things could change if Palestinians manage to form a lasting unity government accepted by the international community. Equally, if corruption investigations against Mr. Netanyahu lead to a new prime minister after the next elections, a change in Israeli policy might be in the cards. That, however, remains in the realm of speculation for now. “We are not there yet,” concludes Ms. Schneider, the veteran Israeli journalist.
Amidst a push for change from different sides, the status quo could once again prove to be the winner.