Israel-Palestine: Is it even relevant anymore?

Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the magnetic centre of national struggles in the Middle East.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators wearing Netanyahu masks protest in front of the Washington Convention Center [AP]
Pro-Palestine demonstrators wearing Netanyahu masks protest in front of the Washington Convention Center [AP]

In 1905, a Lebanese named Najib Azuri wrote: “These two movements [Zionism and Palestinian nationalism] are doomed to constant struggle, until one overwhelms the other. The fate of the entire world depends on the outcome of this struggle … which represents two opposing principles.” One hundred and ten years later, the two nations are still opposed but does the fate of the world depend on it?

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be speaking at AIPAC and, tomorrow, he will be giving a controversial speech to the US Congress. Its primary purpose is to confront the Obama administration on Iran, and help him get re-elected. Meanwhile, the issue of Israel-Palestine is nowhere to be seen. Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict important any more, or has it slipped off everyone’s radar?

Netanyahu speech divides Jewish community in US

The problem of Israel-Palestine is the great, unresolved business of the colonial emancipations of the mid-20th century. As Arab brethren, Africans, and Indians shed the European yoke, Palestinians watched as the Zionist enterprise thwarted their dream.

In a tragic collision of history, the flight of one people from a tortured history in Europe led to the colonisation of another. Splitting the land made no sense to Palestinians at the time, their drive for independence had been interrupted, and matters got very complicated.

‘Two opposing principles’

Indeed, the meeting of these “two opposing principles” – Palestinians naturally seeking independence and Jews seeking a haven and a homeland – have not been reconciled despite the efforts of legion. Today, we are left with the Palestinian Authority barely treading water in the West Bank, Hamas holding on with its teeth in a devastated Gaza, and a prosperous if nervous Israel still expanding wherever it feels the call of manifest destiny.

Meanwhile, the Middle East is doing cartwheels, in a never-ending series of manifestations of human chaos and conflict. States from Beirut to Baghdad are dissolving, and a Sunni-Shia confrontation could take regional conflicts to Olympian heights, and the problem of Israel-Palestine seems of less import. Even the last terrible war in Gaza elicited a storm in the social media and promises of reconstruction funds, only to be followed by whispers of nothing on both fronts.

There are many, including this author, who once believed that resolution of that conflict would help empower moderates in the region. However, one look at the Middle East today makes it clear that forces have been unleashed that will be very difficult to tame. Israel and Palestine’s problems may pale in the face of regional developments; it is a 20th century problem surrounded by 21st century chaos.

The reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine has also changed, if not at the same wild pace as elsewhere. The two-state solution is a quintessentially 20th century territorial division, while today, in 2015, increasing Jewish settlements across the Green Line, the complexity of Jerusalem, economic needs, water resources and even the electromagnetic sphere belie division. With “too little geography and too much history”, the deal may be attractive on paper but, possibly, practically unimplementable.

Politics have not made matters easier, Hamas seeks a long-term ceasefire rather than end of conflict, and the Israeli right likes matters just the way they are, with a few adjustments. Worse, many have simply tired of the intractability, and have relegated the problem to the realm of the Sisyphean.

Today, we are left with the Palestinian Authority barely treading water in the West Bank, Hamas holding on with its teeth in a devastated Gaza, and a prosperous if nervous Israel still expanding wherever it feels the call of manifest destiny.

Indeed, the Israel-Palestine conflict mirrors the region, and is not apart from it. Here, like elsewhere, missiles, tunnels, drones, and extremists’ enthusiasm transcend borders, fences, iron domes, and the orderly control of nation-states.

Furthermore, what was once an ethnic conflict expressed in nationalist terms is now taking on a more religious flavour, especially in Jerusalem. So it is with the rest of the region: Saudi-Iranian rivalry has twisted into a Sunni-Shia battle.

Magnetic centre

Is Israel-Palestine now simply Middle East conflict version 12? Is its resolution relevant? The conflict does matter for anyone who cares about the lot of the Palestinians or the future of Israel. Yet, it is no longer the magnetic centre of national struggles and its centrality for the political evolution of the Middle East has slipped – for now. The large failure of governance in the Arab world, the rise of Iran as hegemon, and the slow motion annihilation of Sykes Picot speak more loudly.

However, the case for total irrelevance may be premature; Israel-Palestine may still offer a lesson and a warning. It is after all the Holy Land, and there are enough either curious or obsessed by “holiness” to revert to it. The lesson concerns a more plebeian matter: the pursuit of conflict management over conflict resolution. Israel is a master at this, because it means avoiding tough compromises domestically.

However, the Palestinians’ need for legitimacy and independence won’t go away. As elsewhere in the Middle East, conflict management means that the wound stays open, and problems morph and become more insidious. Conflict management in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Israel-Palestine leaves the door open for unchecked desires and unmet needs to twist into the higher (or lower) reaches of identity, where the “gods” lurk, and where radicalism thrives.

A great cause

Enter the warning, not the two-state solution but a key element within it, Jerusalem. With the increasing confusion of religion and identity in the Middle East, the “holy city” beckons. While those seeking a relatively benign life sip a cappuccino on the Med, the excited extremists plot. Jerusalem resonates in the minds of millions, and some among them eye a great cause to kill and die for.

Today, the problem may be over the horizon, but recent troubles over the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount hint at the future. When lesser matters have been fought out, the holy city may become an attractive prize for the glory seekers. As Israel-Palestine per se may become less important, Jerusalem may rise in the minds of radicals of all stripes and colours.

Can anything be done? Time is shorter than it seems. Israel can cut the legs from beneath the meaning-packed religious obsessions by sharing the space called Jerusalem with Palestinians, Arabs and others, before the roiling madness of the region reaches further uncontrolled boiling points.

Radicals on all sides will scream at such daring, but better now than later, when they will be stronger. If the city is shared, whether through a two-state solution or another clever compromise such as a confederation, it will be a step forward not only for “moderates”, but also the majority who seek a normal life – while they still remain a majority.  

Bold steps are needed to thwart the DNA of radicalism that puts one God ahead of others; conflict management or continued occupation won’t do it. Meanwhile, as Benjamin Netanyahu comes to speak as the “saviour of the Jewish world”, projecting millennial fears onto the Iran nuclear project, there is still room for Israel-Palestine, and Jerusalem, to play a more positive role. The fate of the world may not quite depend on it, but the future of the region may.

John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

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


More from Author
Most Read