Ten years on: The question of Israel and Palestine

Yousef Munayyer delves into the political outlook for the next ten years between the USA, Palestine and Israel.

An Israeli woman is reflected in an American flags which is hung inside a bulldozer at a construction site in Givat Zeev.
No American president has shown - and unlikely to ever show - the willingness to bare the political costs by imposing comprehensive agreements to settle the disputes between Israel and Palestine [REUTERS]

How will the Israeli/Palestinian question evolve over the next ten years? It is hard, actually impossible, to predict the future. However, it is possible and important to analyse trends and extrapolate trajectories given well-established facts. In the areas of American politics, Palestinian politics, Israeli politics, facts on the ground and media and public opinion, we can see strong arguments for trends (or the lack thereof) that suggest a direction in which the Israeli/Palestinian question is moving.

American politics

We’ve come to learn from the current Presidential campaign that Israel is as important an issue in American politics as it has ever been. Under President Barack Obama, according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US-Israeli security cooperation is “unprecedented”. Likewise, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak noted that US-Israel security ties during Obama’s administration are at the “highest level they have ever been” and that the “administration is consistently strengthening the depths of Israel’s security abilities”.

Despite this, Obama’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney has, along with his allies on the right, attacked Obama during the campaign for not being close enough to Israel. This has effectively moved the boundaries of acceptable positions on Israel in the American political discourse further to the right and is undoubtedly due to the efforts of pro-Israel interest groups. This is also occurring in the context of American public opinion that has not seen significant changes in regard to favourability toward Israel while favourability toward Palestinians markedly increased in recent years.

Yet while interests groups and their effects on American politics have certainly created a pro-Israel bias in American mediation, they are able to do so in conjunction with a constant which hasn’t changed in the past two centuries and isn’t likely to change in the next decade: the American electoral cycle.

 Romney pledges support for Israel

Every four years the United States has Presidential elections and pro-Israel interest groups have proven a consistent ability to use these domestic constraints to hold first-term presidents in check. For this reason, presidents who have engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace making have done so in their second terms. Take Camp David and Annapolis for example: both came in the final years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies. Obama, who sought to engage early by merely asking the Israelis to comply with obligations and freeze settlement building, realised quickly that he didn’t have the political capital in his first term to actually use leverage against a recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister.

This, in turn, creates a situation where Israel, particularly when it is governed by the settlement-addicted right, prefers first term Presidents. This explains why the self-proclaimed most pro-settlement Israeli government in history has clashed with a first-term American president who engaged early and backed, more overtly than ever before, his opponent.

But even presidents in their second term are limited in their abilities to gain traction on Middle East peace. The nature of the peace process is the reason why. The Oslo process was supposed to be akin to Gilligan’s “three-hour tour”, instead the “interim agreements” that were aimed at yielding a peace in a few short years turned into an odyssey. The peace process has been dominated by agreements and frameworks which have emphasised gradual steps, obligations, implementation, and verification. With Oslo, we had interim agreement I and then interim agreement II, with President Bush’s 2003 Road Map we had Phases 1, 2 and 3. At the outset, Phase 3 was supposed to conclude by 2005 and yet well after President Bush left office, President Obama is still struggling to get the Israelis to implement their first phase obligation, a settlement freeze, and has failed to do so.

From Inauguration day, a second term President has about three years (some would argue less), to expend his political capital before the attention of all the players shifts to their potential successor in the lame duck election period.

The drawn out nature of these agreements makes their implementation practically impossible in such a short time period, especially because the actor which has to relinquish control over land (Israel) constantly has an incentive to put off such actions, retain the land and its resources, and wait for the next administration. The alternative to gradually implemented agreements is imposed comprehensive agreements. But this takes even more political capital, and no president – first or second term – has shown the willingness or interest to bare the political costs of attempting this.

This is the Catch-22 of US mediation and given that it is structured around the long constant American electoral system and pro-Israel interests groups, which seem to be increasingly effective in moving political discourse inside the beltway, this is unlikely to change.

Palestinian politics

The signing of the Oslo accords created significant divisions in the Palestinian polity. Since then, divisions have grown in size and number, in large part due to the role of the Israeli occupation. The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 compounded this problem. Arafat was synonymous with the political party Fatah, but for many he was also synonymous with the Palestinian cause. His passing and the political changes that followed in presidential and legislative council elections created a widened rift between Hamas and Fatah. All of these divisions have led to serious questions about the need for truly representative Palestinian institutions, including calls to reinvigorate a dormant Palestine National Council. These calls are likely to continue to grow.


The Palestinian Authority (PA) also faces significant challenges. It was created with the intention of being a temporary vehicle which would transport the Palestinians to statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Two decades since the start of the Oslo process, the West Bank is filled with more settlements and settlers today than ever and is severed from the Gaza Strip whose prospects for sustainable development are consistently declining. What is the purpose of the PA if not to deliver statehood? In the absence of progress toward self-determination, the PA has diverted focus from this difficult question by focusing on economic development. Here too there are serious challenges. Financials crises are becoming commonplace as the PA regularly struggles to meet payroll for employees. The prospect of insurmountable debt looms as an economy built primarily on donor dollars has reached the physical limits of its growth under the constraints of the Israeli occupation.

To be relevant in the absence of political progress the PA must be able to prove its administrative worth, but the infrastructure of Israeli apartheid places hurdle after hurdle in the way. Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control, makes up 60 per cent of the territory and is 100 per cent off limits to Palestinian private investment. This is a chokehold on the Palestinian economy. Instead of showing signs of relaxing restrictions in Area C, the Israelis have only intensified them as the political interests of the settlement communities take centre stage in Israeli politics.

Despite the Israeli limits imposed on its ability to deliver goods and services to Palestinians, the PA is still consistently expected to maintain security coordination with Israel which in turn creates points of contention between Palestinian citizens and the PA.

This cannot be sustained over the long term and efforts to do so will only feed into the inevitable weakening of the PA, possibly to the point of collapse.

Israeli politics

It is common to hear that Israelis and Palestinians both want a two-state solution. Indeed, polling of the Israeli public and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza yields this finding (barely, nowadays). But upon closer inspection it becomes hard to conclude that what Israelis want is a two-state solution as conventionally understood. Majorities of Israelis oppose the removal of most of the settlements and a majority opposes the division of Jerusalem. So while Israelis say they support a two-state solution, they are also saying they oppose the steps necessary to achieve one. What this means, in essence, is that a majority of Israelis support the status quo.

The traditional left of Israeli politics has all but disappeared. The Labour party, a historic powerhouse, does not have a viable path to political power today. Politics are dominated by the right and the kingmaker in Israeli coalitions is the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman, who himself lives in an Israeli colony in the West Bank. The settlers have grown significantly in number over the past 45 years, and so it should come as no surprise that their interests are increasingly reflected in governing coalitions. The Kadima experiment, a party born out of Likud, has failed and is unlikely to be repeated. Polls indicate that votes that went to the Kadima party in the past would essentially be divided up, mostly to the right.

 Israel to build more West Bank homes

The safest and most consistent path to political power in Israel today is through right-wing coalitions and, barring any major events which drastically alter the Israeli political constellation, this is likely to be increasingly the case over time as settlers continue to grow in number three times faster than the rest of the Israeli electorate.

There are two possible ways this can be drastically altered. The first is overwhelming American pressure that brings down an Israeli governing coalition. For the reasons outlined above it would be an understatement to call this unlikely. The second is a genuine organic social movement in Israel that mobilises to bring down the political right. While popular protest in the form of the J14 movement has shown some signs of cohesion, it is organised primarily around socio-economic issues and not opposition to colonialism, raising serious questions about any challenge it can pose to the ever growing settlement enterprise.

About a decade ago I remember listening to an influential left-wing Israeli politician speaking about the two-state solution and likening it to a falafel sandwich. He urged the audience to think of a sandwich with three falafel balls in it, each representing a claim: a claim to a Jewish state, a claim to democracy, and a claim to the Occupied Territories. He said the Israelis could not have a Jewish majority and be a democracy while ruling over millions of Palestinian non-citizens. Thus, they had to sacrifice one, the Occupied Territories, to enjoy a still satisfying falafel sandwich.

Since then, this politician has given up on the two-state solution believing now that Israeli imposed facts on the ground have made it impossible. It seems Israel will still have to relinquish one of these three claims but the open question is which one, a Jewish state or a democracy? Advocates for a unitary state with equal rights will quickly assert that it is ethnic majoritarianism that has to go but the obstinate Israeli electorate seems happy to relinquish any semblance of democracy before that.

Facts on the ground

For decades honest observers have noted the growing threat Israeli settlements pose to the possibility of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and, for decades, these settlements have grown, exponentially, in number and in size. Anyone who still believes a viable and contiguous Palestinian state is possible in the West Bank has either never driven through the West Bank (outside of the Ramallah bubble frequented by internationals) or has some yet-to-be-public understanding of the concepts of physics.

 Riz Khan – Walls of division

Perhaps the simplest of the final status issues negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians is the route of the border. Certainly, the question of refugees and the division of Jerusalem is regarded by most to be more difficult. But even the simpler of these issues could not be resolved during the Annapolis conference due to Israel’s insistence on keeping two major settlements, Ariel and Maale Adumim. Ariel, which is the most problematic, is deep inside the West Bank and has almost tripled in population since the start of the Oslo process.

Settlements come with perimeters, buffer zones, fences, walls, checkpoints, roadblocks and other elements of the apartheid infrastructure to fill up Area C. But the settlements are not the only facts on the ground. The billions of dollars worth of industry and infrastructure built by Israel in the West Bank provides additional incentive to maintain a long term presence in the territory and these figures continue to increase. Barring any major and unforeseen changes, it is unlikely that Israeli settlement expansion will move in any direction but forward, deeper and deeper into the West Bank, and filling in a growing amount of Area C.

Media coverage and public opinion

It has generally held that global public opinion is largely sympathetic to the Palestinian plight while public opinion in the United States is more sympathetic to Israel. While this remains true today, it is changing. It is hard to map or measure changes in the discourse on Israel/Palestine in any comprehensive and systematic way. However, anyone following closely will admit that there is a marked shift in the discourse today as compared to ten years ago or even five years ago. This is due to a variety of reasons.

First, Israel’s continued occupation and its willingness to entrench it belie any claims that it is temporary or for purposes of security. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is now 47 years old and in a mere three years it will turn 50. Do not underestimate the psychological impact the half-century mark will have. By this point, the majority of the world and the vast majority of Palestinians, will not be able to remember a day before the Israeli occupation. Indeed, by then Israel will have been occupying these territories for 73 per cent of its existence as a state.

 Listening Post – Palestine: Starved of attention

Second, technological advances have shaken the Israeli state’s control over the imagery and information that reaches the outside world. Israel bombardment of Gaza was a prime example. Despite a dearth of Western reporters, local feeds via satellite and the diligent work of a few Al Jazeera English reporters innovating with Twitter were able to bring the horrific reality of war-torn Gaza to the world instantaneously. Similarly, imagery of the killing of civilians on an aid flotilla to Gaza rifled around the world, forcing Israeli PR to spin themselves dizzy in an attempt to reshape the story. The everyday horrors of occupation are making their way to the screens of Americans in ways they never did before. This is not because they were not happening before, but because the vehicles to deliver them were absent.

Third, the mainstream media is forced to reconcile its reporting with the representations of reality that these technological advancements are producing. Numerous stories and aspects of occupation have been covered simply because they have been exposed or brought to the fore by social media. Likewise, editorialists must react to this more attuned reporting. When the mainstream coverage does fail, blogs exist today to act as uncensored checks with much quicker turnaround, accuracy, and visibility than a letter to the editor that may or may not survive the filters of an outlet uninterested in being exposed or embarrassed by its publication.

Over time, the discourse will continue to open. Today the images, videos and stories from the West Bank and Gaza are harrowing and they are falling on increasingly receptive ears among western audiences. But the West Bank and Gaza still lag behind in certain technological capabilities. Smartphones have yet to permeate the mass market and internet, especially DSL or faster, is limited to the more affluent urban areas. 3G capability is also unavailable in most areas and when it is, it is from Israeli based settlement antennae in Area C which is out of reach for most Palestinians. Is it any surprise then that Israel monopolises control over the network grids and allots limited frequencies to the Palestinians?

This will change in Palestine. Money and the power of markets often find ways to adjust policy, even if it a slower pace than necessary. It is unclear when, but at some point in the not-too-distant future most Palestinians will have smartphones and the ability to livestream their every interaction with the occupation on a daily basis.

A confluence of trends

With their veto, the Americans have handcuffed the world to prevent them from intervening. But the Americans themselves are handcuffed by electoral constraints and domestic interest groups. The divisions among Palestinians limit their abilities to effectively strategise and the Palestinian Authority teeters on the edge with every passing day. Israeli politics shift increasingly to the right making the interests of settlers more important and right-wing coalitions the only viable path to power. The infrastructure of apartheid shows no signs of abating. And the world, and especially Americans, is increasingly getting a front row seat to this horror film. 

So what does this all mean?

In the immediate short term it means little will change, overtly at least, but the situation will grow continuously unsustainable into the future until a major paradigm shift away from the two-state framework happens. Until that major shift, minds will be quietly changing as the facts on the ground and the realities of occupation continue to shape opinions. When the shift happens, and what will immediately precede it is impossible to know, given the stability of American and Israeli political trends the catalyst may well come from major change on the Palestinian end forcing the others to react in ways inconvenient to them. By this point, where the PA factors into this, if at all, probably isn’t relevant. It is not a matter of if, but when.

The only question remaining in my mind is how many more weapons will be shipped from Washington to Israel to take the lives and freedom of how many more Palestinians in the course of protecting how many more settlements that they will build.

And how much longer until we wake up to it all?

Not too long, I hope.

Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the executive director of the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.