Reflections From Our Trip

From Susie Gelman and David A. Halperin

A consistent theme in our meetings with Israelis and Palestinians during last week’s Israel Policy Forum delegation to the region was that both sides are finding it politically expedient to cater to their worst political impulses, with potentially disastrous implications. With no progress on the diplomatic front and the Quartet report landing with little more than a whimper, both Israelis and Palestinians are jockeying for position in the short term rather than taking the necessary steps to stabilize matters in the long term. That both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu are exceedingly unpopular is only exacerbating this trend. With new challengers to Prime Minister Netanyahu emerging, and the once-taboo subject of President Abbas’ succession now dominating Palestinian discourse, each leader is even more focused than usual on short-term political calculations rather than long-term national interests.

The Day After Abbas

The anticipation that Abbas is coming to the end of his term is creating incentives for extreme behavior rather than responsible behavior, even from the PA’s president himself. Incitement is inexcusable and all too common. Abbas’ remarks suggesting that Israeli rabbis had poisoned the Palestinian water supply were abhorrent, notwithstanding his subsequent retraction. The statements by a PA official claiming that Palestinians should kill an Israeli if they come in close contact to one were especially grotesque and outrageous.

The flame-throwers are not completely drowning out positive voices. We were heartened to hear on our visit from some Palestinians who acknowledge past mistakes and missed opportunities. They recognize the deleterious impact the BDS movement has had on Palestinian workers as well as the importance of both strengthening Palestinian institutions and continuing security cooperation with Israel. However, too many on the Palestinian side are engaging in inflammatory rhetoric to enhance their credibility in the expected post-Abbas era jockeying for political influence.

Incitement is not the end of the story, though. To be sure, even as the participation of the PA and its officials in incitement is to be resoundingly condemned, singling out PA-driven incitement as the sole cause of inspiring recent acts of terrorism – as some Israeli officials have been wont to do – is foolhardy. Most chatter on Palestinian social media advocating violence is directed against – not led by – the PA and its leaders. The trend of young, disenfranchised youth turning their ire against their leaders and institutions, and/or becoming radicalized online, is a problem that is clearly not exclusive to the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, according to analysis provided to us by Israeli intelligence officials, incitement is directly responsible for only a fraction of the recent acts of “lone-wolf” terrorism in Israel, with personal issues – domestic, economic, revenge, even romantic influences – actually serving as the chief drivers of violence.

The challenge is complex. The payments by the PA and Fatah to families of terrorists are repulsive and under no circumstances justified. But clearly if the PA does not do so, Hamas will fill the void, gaining popularity and street credibility as a result. For any post-Abbas Palestinian leader to be effective, he must enjoy both credibility and governability. Those currently close to Abbas’ inner circle may enjoy governability for the time being but are lacking in credibility. Meanwhile, figures such as Marwan Barghouti, still incarcerated in an Israeli prison, enjoy credibility on the street without having the ability to govern. The challenge, therefore, is to not only press the Palestinians to clamp down on incitement, but also to create productive alternative ways for the PA and its leaders to enhance their credibility, by providing basic services that improve the quality of life and enhance the rule of law in the West Bank alongside an alleviation of some of the presence of Israel’s occupation.

Progress will not take place until the political climate or the political calculations on both sides change, and certainly not unless Israel’s immediate and long-term security needs are addressed.

— Susie Gelman and David A. Halperin

Establishing Facts on the Ground

Unfortunately, to do the latter, assistance from Israel is needed, and that has not been entirely forthcoming. As with the Palestinian side, the political discourse in Israel is being shaped by opponents of the two-state solution. Too many in Israel’s governing coalition are quick to castigate supporters of two states as leftists and traitors while claiming that the international community’s focus on Israel is driven by anti-Semitism and arguing that President Obama – despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary – is anti-Israel.

Against this backdrop, the Quartet’s recommendation that Israel “cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion” is far too broad to make an impact. Israeli officials predictably responded to the Quartet report by repeating an oft-heard talking point that settlements are not the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are not obstacles to peace.

While the settlements are in fact a real issue and not just an excuse for Palestinian intransigence, they do not yet prevent an insurmountable obstacle to a final agreement. 80% of Israelis in the West Bank are living on 4% of the land, all of it adjacent to the Green Line, and many who live in further-flung locales, such as the Jordan Valley, will quietly evacuate in return for compensation. It is for this reason that attention needs to be focused on the areas that have the potential to create an insurmountable obstacle, so that the point of no return is not reached.

Rather than focus on any building beyond the 1967 “Green Line” as counter to peace, the United States and the international community would be better served clearly articulating new red lines. The international community has made clear that activity in the controversial area of E-1 is a red line, and building has been effectively frozen there for 9 years. Rather than treat all activity the same, new red lines could acknowledge that major settlement blocs will be incorporated into Israel – placing the focus on activity that runs counter to any future prospects of a two-state solution.

The focus of international ire should be squarely on the legalization of outposts deep in the West Bank as well as areas such as E-1, which blocks Palestinian contiguity from Ramallah to East Jerusalem; Givat Hamatos, which blocks contiguity of Bethlehem with East Jerusalem; the territorial “finger” incorporating Nokdim and Tekoa, which effectively surrounds Bethlehem with Israeli settlements; the territorial “finger” incorporating Beit-El northeast of Ramallah; and areas such as Kiryat Arba, outside of Hebron. Since Israelis and Palestinians have been incapable of negotiating a map that both sides can agree upon, the international community should make reasonable assumptions about the feasibility of a two-state solution that focuses the parties on the need for a negotiated compromise. Continuing the current policy only deepens resentment and strengthens maximalists on both sides.

The Quartet report can be used as the basis for such an effort. Despite its wide lens on settlements, it is more effective when it gets specific, such as the recommendation that Israel transfer “powers and responsibilities in Area C, consistent with the transition to greater Palestinian civil authority contemplated by prior agreements.” We repeatedly heard Israeli security officials – with views from across the political spectrum – advocate for the kind of measures the Quartet urges, including “progress in the areas of housing, water, energy, communications, agriculture, and natural resources, along with significantly easing Palestinian movement restrictions.” At Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing point to the Gaza Strip, we were impressed by the Israeli commitment to processing hundreds of trucks and tons of material a day, even under threat of fire (and under actual fire during the 2014 Gaza war), and we are optimistic that the Israeli government will take steps to avoid another Gaza war by looking for ways to ease the humanitarian situation. However, more can and should be done, especially in the West Bank.

In fact, there was broad recognition of the need for the kind of menu of independent Israeli economic, security, and political actions being advocated by Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), IPF’s partnering organization that consists of over 200 top retired generals from the IDF and equivalent officials from the Mossad, Shin Bet and police forces. In fact, the growing rift between the political and security echelons is perhaps the most acute fault line in Israeli politics today.

Whether the movement of the “generals” will coalesce into a political force is yet to be determined. Who will emerge as President Abbas’ successor remains in question. How the US presidential elections will impact US engagement in Mideast peacemaking is highly uncertain. If Netanyahu and Abbas can ever trust each other is an open question. Yet, what is apparent is that progress will not take place until the political climate or the political calculations on both sides change, and certainly not unless Israel’s immediate and long-term security needs are addressed.

All supporters of a two-state solution would be advised to focus on the kinds of tangible progress that could restore hope for such a solution. This could happen under the current leadership — as we write this report, the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s visit to Israel provides new intrigue that near-term progress could be possible — but it may also require a reconfiguration of the leadership on both sides. The one variable that certainly must change is a shift away from ephemeral political gain and towards building a stable political and security equilibrium.

Susie Gelman is the Chair of Israel Policy Forum. David A. Halperin is the Executive Director of Israel Policy Forum.