With Secretary of State Kerry gradually unveiling his proposal for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth asking what it is that Kerry seeks to solve. The present situation is certainly far from ideal. Yet, most Israelis feel safe most of the time and most Palestinians don’t live under “occupation”; they live in areas controlled and governed by the Palestinian Authority. In the last decade this conflict has generated comparatively fewer casualties than those in nearby countries and if one doesn’t count Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon or Hamas-controlled Gaza, which are after all not even being included in Kerry’s peace plan, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent years has been positively uneventful. A cold war between Israel and the PA.
For most Israelis and most Palestinians the present situation is tolerated with the understanding that this is not a permanent arrangement. What each side thinks a permanent arrangement should look like, however, is still vastly different. In this way the unresolved nature of the standoff leaves open the hope for each side that their vision will win out. Drawing from this, there are those on the two sides that prefer perpetuating and advancing the status quo, even if only as means of keeping open the possibility of achieving more far-reaching objectives in the long run. For these parties it has essentially become about playing the long game. For each the hoped-for future remaining just out of reach.
While the Palestinian population in the West Bank is clearly far from happy with the status quo, it also seems that they prefer an outcome that is unachievable as things stand. Electoral support for Hamas and polling of Palestinians in recent years would suggest most Palestinians either reject the two-state proposal outright, or they believe two states should be used as a step toward eventually eliminating the Jewish state. The dream of seeing Israel ended and Palestinians return in its place has remained prominent and unaltered, constituting the core of Palestinian identity ever since it was formed in the aftermath of Israel’s establishment. This is what most Palestinian politicians continue to express support for–in Arabic at least–and it’s what they broadcast on their television networks and teach in their schools.
The Palestinian leadership also has multiple practical reasons for maintaining the status quo. For one thing, they have long grown fat on the financial aid and sympathy that comes with playing the part of the ever-destitute nation. They are also confident that under the status quo they are better able to advance their strategy for weakening Israel, chipping away at its international legitimacy while believing that demographics are ultimately on their side. With every round of negotiations they have been able to win more concessions from Israel, the consensus about the final-status parameters gradually drifting in their favor. When new talks begin it is with Israel’s previous concessions assumed as given, with the expectation that Israel now agree to further demands. The division of Jerusalem and land swaps being a case in point. Each time the amount Israel is obliged to offer increases.
The Israeli public became sick of policing the West Bank decades ago. The electoral success of those promising to end the impasse has been persistent, even in the face of unrelenting Palestinian terrorism. However, this hope for peace accompanied by the constant background noise of violence against Israeli civilians creates a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. Israelis find themselves unwilling to stay with the present arrangement, while not quite able to embrace a new one.
Land-for-peace compromises only served to weaken Israel’s security, undermining the left-wing peace camp, adding weight to the arguments of Israel’s security hawks who, like many Israelis, still hope for a complete and definitive defeat of Palestinian terrorism. These voices insist that given current Palestinian attitudes and incitement, for now it is safer to manage the conflict than attempt to solve it. For such an agreement would mean evacuating the strategically vital Jordan Valley and abandoning the West Bank hilltops that overlook Israel’s narrow coastal strip where its major population centers, industrial infrastructure, and transit network are all situated. Israel would have to do this knowing a Palestinian state has every likelihood of turning out to be another failed state, a terror state and an Iranian satellite. Far better, they argue, to have the IDF in the West Bank, keeping Hamas and Islamic Jihad at bay, while strengthening the Jewish presence in the settlement blocks ensures that the areas most vital to Israel’s future will be retained in any agreement.
In this way the unhappy status quo at least leaves open the possibility to people on both sides of eventually achieving their most precious objectives. The problem with Kerry’s final-status plan is that it threatens to permanently slam the door firmly shut on these hopes. We have already seen what unsettling the status quo looks like. It was during the Oslo years that suicide bombers first ventured into Israel’s cities. Equally, the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000 played no small part in unleashing the horrors of the second intifada.
Israel and the PA have already agreed to disagree, for now. Kerry may yet come to wish he’d left well enough alone.