Groundhog Day in Palestine/Israel

The past six decades have seen many changes in world politics – the one thing that remains constant is the occupation.

Driving around the West Bank, Israeli settlements and outposts can be seen on almost every hilltop [GALLO/GETTY]

For an unforgettable “Groundhog Day” experience, there is nothing better than a trip to Palestine and Israel.  We’ve experienced multiple revolutions over the past six decades in information technologies, social mores and political upheavals. 

The Soviet empire collapsed, democracy advanced around the globe, Asia began to rise and the West began to decline. It is all quite disorienting. But one thing remains constant: The Arab-Israeli conflict. It just grinds on and on. 

For those of us who have been studying it professionally, there is something oddly reassuring about that. For most others not directly involved, it has just become boring. Too bad, because, like a smoldering peat fire, the Palestine problem helps keep the entire Middle East on the boil.  

Here are some verbal snapshots from a recent visit to Palestine and Israel.  

Welcome to Bantustan Ramallah

Getting out of Fortress Israel into the promised land of Palestine is not nearly as difficult as getting back in. Ramallah has become a boom town, far different from the sleepy metropolis it used to be.

“There’s lots of money here,” my taxi driver observed, “but not so much anywhere else in the West Bank.”  A lot of that money comes from Western donors to support that sickly enterprise known as the Palestinian Authority. Other money is coming in from the Gulf. Land prices are out of sight. 

The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, darling of Washington and the World Bank, is building small city that would aspire to be Dubai or Singapore.  But Ramallah, like the other main towns of the West Bank, is hemmed in by Israeli checkpoints. And for a Palestinian to get from Ramallah to Bethlehem requires a two-hour (or more, depending on delays at checkpoints) journey down into the Jordan valley and back up again, which could be done via Jerusalem in a half-hour were there no Israeli obstacles. 

Arab Jerusalem (the east side including the Old City) is languishing economically and socially because it is now effectively cut off from its natural hinterland – Bethlehem and Hebron to the south, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to the north.  

If you want to contemplate the possibilities of the two-state solution, there is no better place to do so than on a drive between Ramallah and Nablus. Where is this other state going to be, anyway? I got a ride with a friend who has been making the trip regularly for some years. She said the pace of settlement construction has dramatically increased under Netanyahu’s regime. 

At every crossroads there are signs and roads to new Israeli settlements, and on virtually every hilltop there is a new “outpost”. Settlers continue to seize the agricultural lands belonging to Palestinian villages. By any conception of a genuine state, with territorial contiguity, these settlements would have to go. But is there any Israeli government, hawkish or dovish, that could make that happen?

Abu Mazen the Hero!?

Who would have thought it? Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), this colourless, suit-and-tie kind of guy, antithesis of the charismatic Arafat, reviled and ridiculed for allowing himself to be bamboozled for a decade by the charade of the Oslo “peace process”, is suddenly getting some respect! 

But yes it’s true.

Abu Mazen has gained much respect among Palestinians since the bid for statehood at the UN [GALLO/GETTY]

Buildings in Ramallah and Nablus are plastered with banners proclaiming him the standard-bearer of Palestinian statehood. The empty chair for Palestine at the UN is (people hope) about to be filled thanks to Abbas’ uncharacteristically principled performance before the General Assembly.

Contrary to the pronouncements of many Israeli and Western pundits, he has not been undone by the Hamas-Israel prisoner swap which was actually a win-win event for all Palestinians; and now, with the overwhelming international endorsement for Palestinian membership in UNESCO, his flag is flying even higher. Will it all dwindle away when the Security Council rejects full Palestinian membership – thanks to the threat of a US veto (this being part of the Obama administration’s campaign to be on “the right side of history” in the Middle East!)? I doubt it. 

Palestinians have shown remarkable indulgence for their leaders who have failed but “fought the good fight”.  Nevertheless, the time may not be far off when the two-state solution, and those who fought for it, will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The swap: Advantage Hamas

Outside the villa housing the offices of the International Red Cross in east Jerusalem four – now two – Hamas officials from the elected Palestinian Legislative Council and the short-lived Fatah-Hamas government that followed it have been holed up for over 400 days.

They are Jerusalem residents, and the Netanyahu government has ordered that they be deported. One of them who briefly stepped off the premises was snatched by Israeli security agents. The remaining pair vow to remain indefinitely.  

While an international organisation like the Red Cross does not enjoy the sovereign status of an embassy, the Israelis so far have been reluctant to intrude and cause a fuss. I asked their lawyer whether they might be included in a possible swap for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza for five years. He replied that there have been rumours of an imminent swap for almost as long, so don’t expect anything soon. But only a few hours later, there was a deal between Netanyahu and Hamas to exchange Shalit for over 1,000 of the some 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Unfortunately, the two Hamas officials were not among them.

So why did the swap suddenly happen? Some analysts claim that Hamas leaders blinked because they felt upstaged by Abbas at the UN – but it is not obvious that they made significant concessions – indeed they did better than they ever had in terms of the comparative prisoner “yield”. If they were concerned (as they should be) about a threat to their larger strategic position from the turmoil in Syria, a successful swap would give them a “bounce” but wouldn’t materially improve their overall position.

President Abbas has transformed Ramallah from a sleepy small town into a busy capital [GALLO/GETTY]

Two other explanations are more plausible. First, Egypt – “liberated” from Mubarak and his slavish collaboration with Israel and the US – has begun to recuperate some of its long-lost influence and had improved leverage with both Hamas and Israel.

To Hamas, Egypt is now more of an honest broker. To Israel, Egypt is suddenly much more important and problematical in its strategic situation. Egypt’s interim military rulers are more vulnerable to the deep anti-Israeli popular sentiment than was the former dictatorship, and cooler heads in Israel realise the importance of trying to repair one of their few normal relationships in the neighbourhood, especially now that the Turkish connection has almost been severed.

But second and more important, Netanyahu blinked. 

An Israeli analyst I spoke with spoke of the domestic pressures – the unprecedented and ongoing mass protests over deteriorating social conditions. This plus the effective lobbying campaign by the Shalit family had put him in a tough spot. And there is no doubt that Netanyahu scored many political points by bringing back the soldier, despite recriminations by some that he had paid too high a price and was opening the door to new kidnapping attempts. 

But my Israeli contact raised another and more intriguing question: Why would Netanyahu, whose brother was killed in a counter-terrorist raid and whose life’s vocation has been to make war on terrorists, suddenly make a deal with terrorists (and not such a favourable deal at that) while at the same time continuing to undermine the “moderate” Palestinian leadership? 

Is he undergoing some kind of Nixon-in-China epiphany? Or is he simply trying to deepen the rift between the two Palestinian factions? My Israeli interlocutor said he had no answer. But the fact that Netanyahu apparently rejected a Hamas demand to include Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned popular Fatah leader, in the swap leads one to suspect that he would prefer the weak Abu Mazen to a dynamic leader who might unify the Palestinian factions and create a more powerful Palestinian leadership.  

Israelis in a funk

What’s a liberal Israeli to do? I met a few during my trip. Rarely have I seen a more dispirited lot.

Obviously there should be a meaningful two-state solution, said one of them. It would have been smart for Israel, he continued, if instead of fighting tooth and nail against the Palestinian bid for full UN membership it had supported it. So why don’t the Israelis do what’s in their interest, I asked naively. 

Wearily he replied that Israel is in the grip of a determined radical minority of settlers, xenophobic emigres from Russia and orthodox Jewish interests for whom a Palestinian state is anathema. The peace movement, thanks in part to past Palestinian provocations, is on life support.

And among conservative Israelis the mood is also bleak. They rightly sense a new insecurity. The “Arab Spring” has weakened relatively friendly Arab dictators and nobody knows what lies ahead but it probably won’t be favourable to Israel. Relations with Turkey have collapsed – a major strategic setback. The new Egyptian regime remains at best a question mark. 

And they must be unhappy at the recent successes of the Palestinians in the international community – most recently with their victory in securing UNESCO membership over vigorous American and Israeli opposition. For much of the Israeli public the occupied territories are a distant sideshow now that terrorists acts have declined; domestic social and economic issues are more important.  

America AWOL

We all crave a happy ending to this dreary story. So where is the deus ex machina to provide it? Naturally we look to the United States. Europe seems too divided to do the job, and Asia is still too weak, too far away, and too uninterested. 

Unfortunately, the US is out to lunch as far as this matter is concerned, at least until the next presidential election. Mired in tired positions, promoting a diplomacy defined by “Oslo” and “the Quartet” that are utterly discredited, the Obama administration appears resigned to “muddling through” even though its fecklessness feeds America’s many other problems across the region.

Michael C Hudson is the Seif Ghobash Professor of Government and International Relations at Georgetown University. He is currently serving as the Director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books, including Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press), Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (Yale University Press) and The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (Random House).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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