The Illusion of Peace without the Palestinians Is Fading

© Shutterstock - Nick_Raille_07 - Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, the Gaza Strip, Palestine, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad so far holds after more than 4,000 rockets at Israel, with 12 dead, according to Israeli sources, and Israeli air strikes on more than 800 targets in the Gaza Strip, with more than 240 dead, according to Palestinian sources. Military experts believe that Israel achieved in one week as many tactical objectives in Gaza with targeted air strikes, as it did in seven weeks of a costly ground offensive in 2014. The Israeli Air Force was able to destroy weapon factories, command structures and missile firing sites. Even the extensive bunker system and underground tunnels of Hamas – dubbed “the metro” – has been penetrated and lost its defensive effect.

On the other hand, the Israeli government has lost ground internationally for civilian casualties and leveling houses with the offices of journalists. In response, the US administration had demanded “a significant de-escalation” from Israel. Domestically, Israel is witnessing internal divisions as the current government is highly criticized from left and right alike. According to Israeli news, high-ranking Likud members have expressed that Netanyahu instrumentalized the conflict to benefit his own political interests. They were quoted saying: “Netanayhu is prolonging the operation in Gaza because of Lapid’s mandate”, referring to the current mandate of liberal-Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a complicated coalition-government without the participation of Netanyahu. However, the real victim of the conflict remains the civilian population, primarily in Gaza. With Islamist’ bases in densely populated cities, civilian deaths have long been part of the Islamists' perfidious calculation.

Internal Divisions between Hamas and Fatah

After the unrests in Jerusalem, most analysts interpreted the political goal of the rocket attacks by Hamas was an attempt to highjack the Palestinian cause and to assume the political voice for all Palestinians, including those in the West Bank. By showing the might of its rocket terror, Hamas also aimed to expose the impotence of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ruling Fatah Party under President Mahmud Abbas. While the PA formally governs in the West Bank, it has been losing ground for years in the conflict with Israel - whether against the Netanyahu government or Israeli settlers in their neighborhood. Only a week after the conflict began, the PA called for a general strike across the Palestinian territories and Israel. The modest participation in the rare strike between the Jordan river and the sea shows how late this call came and how little peaceful resistance can mobilize while guns are still smoking.

It is hard to believe that just a month before, Hamas appeared to be honestly willing to support general elections across the Palestinian territories in an agreement with Fatah. With these elections, Hamas would have been able to widen its influence in the West Bank by giving up control over parts of Gaza. Hamas would have become less isolated, probably even gaining some political legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. This deemed important after international isolation contributed to Hamas failing to deliver much more than totalitarian rule, poverty and frustration to the population of a Gaza since assuming power in 2006. Yet, the last weeks also revealed that Hamas simultaneously invested the limited resources, crossing the tight border controls, to producing thousands of rockets.

The illusion of the Netanyahu-Doctrine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government showed being relatively well equipped, to retaliate against the rocket attacks of Hamas. At the same time, he had already for long little answer to deal with the underlying conflict with the Palestinians, which - before the rockets - became visible in Jerusalem and spread across Israel. Israeli journalist Akiva Bigman describes the bottom line of the Prime Minister's policy in his 2020 book "The Netanyahu Doctrine". According to Bigman and confirmed by Netanyahu, it follows the logic of achieving security solely by maximizing Israel’s strength, without making concessions to the Palestinians. Against the background of terrorist attacks during the second intifada, Netanyahu had presented all negotiations and concessions of previous Israeli governments to the Palestinian leadership as following a “naive illusion”. Instead, he focused on economic reforms, armament, pushed ahead settlements in the West Bank and marginalized the Palestinian leadership on every occasion. The normalization agreements with a number of Arab states since 2020, the so-called Abraham Accords, seemed to prove this strategy right. Recognizing Israels economic and military significance the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and later Morocco had given up the former dogma of the Arab league to make normalization dependent on Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians.  

Yet, the thought that Israel could achieve peaceful coexistence with their neighbours and within Israel without resolving the conflict with the Palestinians seems these days to have become an illusion by itself. In the last two decades, the Palestinian leadership contributed to it. With the totalitarian rule of Hamas, which still does not even recognize Israel's right to exist, Israel can refer to have no constructive negotiating partner in the Gaza Strip. On the other side, no threat seemed imminent from the West Bank, partly because of Israeli military control and partly as Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the PA, had been cracking down on violent groups like Hamas with the iron fist of his own security apparatus.

Growing frustration

The Netanyahu doctrine deemed it sufficient to keeping Hamas in check through severe border control, having a tight grip on most of the West Bank with its own military and providing Abbas with sufficient resources to prevent violence from Palestinians in PA controlled areas. If Abbas condemned the construction of settlements or the lack of steps towards the agreed two-state solution, it was easy for the Netanyahu-government to criticize his lack of democratic legitimacy or simply ignore his concerns. With the support of the Netanyahu-government, settlers in the West Bank have at the same time quadrupled since the Oslo-peace process of the 90ies to over 400,000. Therefore, while Israeli control over the West Bank through settlers and military infrastructure seemed solidifying “security through strength”, it also solidified Palestinian frustration and undermined Israels standing in the Western world. Demonstrations of strength with constant military raids have contributed to these unintended consequences, the same as the daily routine of long lines of Palestinians at checkpoints across the West Bank.

Jerusalem as the epicenter of the current conflict

In Jerusalem, the same weaknesses of the doctrine have contributed to sparking fire in recent weeks. Netanyahu has long not attempted to solve deep structural problems to peaceful coexistence in Jerusalem. Arab residents of East Jerusalem have nothing more than an easily revocable right of residence, since Israel expanded its territory to East Jerusalem – contested under international law – in 1967. This became apparent in the context of the threatened evacuation of Palestinian houses - in favor of Jewish settlers - in the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah. Some of the families supposed to leave their homes in Sheikh Jarrah had lost their homes in the Western part of the city in 1948. With hardly a chance to claim back the rights of their former houses, the case has mobilized many Palestinians in solidarity. Far-right political allies of Netanyahu tried to show strength by demonstrating for quick evictions and setting up an office in the middle of the contested street. According to rumors, Netanyahu committed to freeze these evictions for now as part of the ceasefire agreement. Peaceful and save coexistence would depend on more severe attempts to solve the structural problems behind this case.

The clumsy to invasive behavior of the Jerusalem police in dealing with the Palestinian population during Ramadan 2021 became another trigger of current events. Unlike in previous years, they tried to vacate the square in front of the Damascus Gate of the old city, allegedly in order to facilitate and ensure the flow of pilgrims. This decision sparked unrest over the restriction of freedom of movement and was quickly reversed. Shortly after the unrests at Damascus Gate, the clashes shifted from the Temple Mount to the al-Aqsa mosque. This spread further unrest, also far beyond Jerusalem, as it was seen as an interference with the freedom of Muslims to practice their religion. Hamas started its violent response in direct reference to these clashes, arrests and outrage among believers.  Since the ceasefire, jubilant Palestinians have reentered the Temple Mount. Yet, more trust needs to be built, so that Moslems feel again their rights adequately recognized and protected in Jerusalem.

The lost election in the Palestinian territories

The cancellation of the elections in the Palestinian Territories - originally planned for past weekend – had contributed to frustrations of Palestinians ahead of the events in Jerusalem. Many expected that in fear of a defeat of his supporters, Mahmoud Abbas was looking for a reason to cancel them. He got this delivered with the help of the Netanyahu government. Without its support, setting up election stations in East-Jerusalem, as agreed in the Oslo peace process, Abbas could easily postpone the election indefinitely “until this question is resolved”. With an active commitment by the Israeli government to carrying out the elections as agreed in Oslo, it could contribute to the democratization in the Palestinian Territories and thus to new - more legitimate – negotiation partners. Such process is not without dangers, with Israel and Fatah alike fearing growing influence of radical Islamists. Against this fear, the polls of previous months at least showed that the support for Hamas and other Islamist candidates was limited to less than a third of the total votes.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis

The discrimination of the Arab population - despite great integration achievements over the last years - triggered demonstrations in Israeli cities for the first time. Mostly peaceful, but sadly - comparable to some “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations in the USA – some of the protests slipped into violence. Here the current government showed responsibility by condemning the violence in the same breath as the increased violence of religious nationalists against Arabs. Nevertheless, Yair Lapid highlighted the inglorious role of Netanyahu forming an alliance with ultra-nationalist religious-Zionists. Lapid commented: “Someone who has done everything in his power to bring into the Knesset supporters of terrorism who specialize in spreading hatred is not allowed to pretend to be shocked when hatred erupts and burns us from within." As a long-term answer, the majority of Israeli politicians are currently speaking of intensifying efforts to integrate their Arab population. It is clear that big efforts need to be invested to calm the current ethnic tensions within Israel.

Back to the Two State Solution

The Netanyahu doctrine did not target to solve any of the underlying problems the events of recent weeks brought to light. Where there are tensions it knows how to maximize strength, but it lacks ideas and will for going beyond unilateral moves. Accordingly, the negotiated Two State Solution of Oslo remains till today the only realistic project for a peaceful and mutually acceptable coexistence of two equally large populations between the Jordan River and the sea. Currently Palestinians perceive the status-quo under Israeli military rule in the West Bank as unbearable. The majority of Israelis see it as negative, but at the same as an unavoidable evil to ensure their security. In Israel Netanyahu won his fight against the peace-process towards a Two State Solution of the 90ies. Public opinion had turned against it under terror attacks in Israeli cities in the early 2000s. However, Netanyahu failed since to come up with any long-term concept on how to reduce tensions with the Palestinian population.

One can hope that with all the tensions on display today, a new effort for a peaceful resolution beyond demonstrations of strength can arise. For a modest start, such a new peace-process could build on the already once negotiated and agreed Two State Solution. With active engagement of the Unites States and the European Union it could help to include human rights and democracy as a solid pillar of such a process - like in the Helsinki Peace Process between the West and the Soviet Union. Such a pillar could allow Israel demanding democratic reforms on the Palestinian side and the Palestinian side winning legitimacy and a new angle to demand a better protection of the rights of Palestinians. A first impetus for such a process could be to make up for the postponed elections in the Palestinian Territories – with the active support of Israel and a firm commitment to non-violence and democratic principles especially on the side of Hamas.

Without such a process, the Two State Solution leading to a functioning Palestinian state will remain a failed attempt of the past. Any new commitments and concrete steps out of the current stalemate will once more rely on compromises from both sides on core questions of the conflict. How to deal with questions of security, how to accompany contested visions for the future of Jerusalem and how to deal with Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The events of recent weeks showed that the fate of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank remain intertwined with the lives of Arab and Jewish Israelis. With the illusion of the Netanyahu-Doctrine not having to search for compromise with the Palestinians, political instability and polarization will prevail and the next round of violence could already be waiting around the corner.

About the Author

Julius Freytag
Julius von Freytag-Loringhoven heads the FNF Jerusalem office since 2020, trying to enhance innovation to foster dialogue and strengthen liberal principles. From 2012 to 2020 he ran the Moscow office of FNF, trying on improving dialogue with Russia, while advocating for individual dignity, freedom and responsibility. He has launched new programmes on bilateral dialogue, market economy, civic and human rights, promoting entrepreneurship and bringing together young change agents. He brought Fuck Up Nights to Russia and is also deputy chairman of the board of trustees of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. From 2010 to 2012 he co-founded and coordinated a dialogue forum within the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), while working for six years as political consultant in the surroundings of EU politics in Brussels. Julius is an officer of the reserve of German tank reconnaissance. He studied - in Brussels, Munich and Saint Petersburg - Politics, Philosophy and Economics and holds an MA in Political Strategy and Communications from the University of Kent.