News — 03 March 2017

The Arab world, from Iraq via Syria to Yemen and Libya, is in a state of chaos and fragmentation. Most Israelis conclude that this is not the right time to establish yet another Arab state, one already fragmented between the West Bank and Gaza.

An analysis of prospects for Israel-Palestine must focus on several key dimensions: the broader situation in the Middle East; the strategic and political situation in the relevant capitals—Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza; the interests of outside powers, principally the United States and Russia; and the outlook for a new political process or, alternatively, renewed violence.

The regional situation. The Arab world, from Iraq via Syria to Yemen and Libya, is in a state of chaos and fragmentation. The threat of some similar degree of unrest hovers over the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well. Iran’s drive for regional hegemony while preaching Israel’s destruction has taken its Quds Force right up to the Syria-Israel border. Most Israelis conclude that this is not the right time to establish yet another Arab state, one already fragmented between the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are relatively isolated, hence perhaps more prepared to discuss compromises and concessions.

Jerusalem. The current Netanyahu government embodies elements openly opposed to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state process. Netanyahu, while catering to them and consistently rejecting the concessions necessary to create any chance of a solution, maintains a degree of ambiguity regarding two states and is apparently aware that the overall drift of his policies is leading Israel and the Palestinians toward a one-state entity which will be either bi-national or apartheid—both unacceptable outcomes. Meanwhile Netanyahu has exploited the perception of a shared threat posed by both Daesh and Iran to cultivate enhanced strategic relations with the Sunni Arab states of the region. He seeks to move a step further and suggests, though without any apparent foundation in reality, that normalization with Israel’s Arab state neighbors is possible without the Palestinians and could contribute to a Palestinian solution. In a very different context, Netanyahu may be facing serious criminal charges that within months could compromise his status and paralyze Israeli policy-making.

Ramallah. PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has, like Netanyahu, demonstrated that he is both incapable of making the necessary concessions and incapable of mustering strong enough leadership to deliver on virtually any agreement. Moreover, his biological clock is ticking with no stable succession process in sight. Meanwhile, a large proportion of the West Bank Palestinian establishment has developed a vested interest in the status quo, both economically and politically.

Gaza. The deteriorating economic situation threatens stability. The new Hamas leader in the Strip, Yahya Sanwar, is an extreme militant. The Israel-Turkey rapprochement has not provided the Strip with appreciable benefits. The deterrent effect generated by Israel’s military response in summer 2014 may be wearing off. There are voices in Israel, e.g., Defense Minister Lieberman, advocating a far more expansive response in the event of another round of violence. If the enhanced deterrent projected by this strategy fails, new Hamas-Israel violence could have far-reaching consequences for Israel, Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan.

The US. The approach of the Trump administration to the Israel-Palestine complex appears to be evolving toward openly expressed caution regarding the settlements and the Jerusalem embassy move. But presidential special envoy Jared Kushner and Washington’s ambassador-designate are strong supporters of the settlements and the Israeli right sees in Trump an ally. Netanyahu would like to interest Trump in an Arab or regional solution. Basically, it is too early to predict what if anything the new administration will seek to do. Other Middle East issues—Iran, Syria, coordination with Russia in the region—appear likely to take precedence in the near term.

Russia. Since September 2015, Russia is again a major presence in the region, exercising more influence on the ground in the Levant than the United States. Moscow appears to understand the region better than Washington. Among its efforts to deepen its renewed presence has been an offer to host Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. While this has not generated any new moderation on either side, the offer would appear to have greater appeal to Abbas, with his and the PLO’s history of a Soviet connection, than to Netanyahu. On the other hand, given Russia’s proximity as a neighbor across the border in Syria and its close strategic coordination with Israel, Netanyahu cannot for long defer the offer either.

Prospects. Netanyahu and Abbas both know the substantive gaps separating them on the issues are too great to bridge, no matter who the interlocutor is. Both are too weak politically or not strongly enough motivated. Nor can Abbas speak for the Gaza Strip or commit it to a process. Hamas, on the other hand, by starting another round of violence can thwart a process.

Meanwhile, Israel-West Bank relations are likely to remain stable, while Israel-Gaza relations are unpredictable. A viable near-term two-state process would require a joint US-Russia-EU effort to apply pressure on both sides, perhaps as part of a broader set of regional and global understandings. This might become possible in the event of a major Trump-Putin meeting of minds, but as matters stand this is not likely.

This leaves Israel and the West Bank Palestinians on a dangerous slippery slope toward a one-state reality.

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