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The Inevitable Intifada

PARIS – After the stones of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, came the human bombs of the second one. Now Palestinians have turned to knives. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the last man to have embodied a real hope for peace, is a third intifada erupting?

To be sure, the recent knife attacks that have taken place across Israel and the West Bank, have apparently been carried out by “lone wolves.” But they echo a new wave of resistance by Palestinians that goes beyond physical assaults – reflected, for example, in the recent arson attack on a Jewish shrine in Nablus. With Hamas now calling explicitly for a third intifada, there is no denying the seriousness of the situation.

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In fact, a new Palestinian uprising should come as no surprise. It is not as if anything has happened to break the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of fragile truces and violent explosions. The situation is not even frozen; it is deteriorating, owing to increasing political and religious radicalization on both sides. And yet, judging by the attitude of the international community, no one would know it.

A few days ago, I attended a small conference in Paris focused on the new challenges and changing balance of power in the Middle East. None of the main speakers made even a passing reference to the rising wave of violence in Israel. They were too busy discussing the crisis in Syria – which now poses a real threat of international escalation – as well as the diplomatic, strategic, and economic consequences of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The reality is that world leaders have little energy left to dedicate to the seemingly interminable conflict between Israel and Palestine – a conflict that they have tried and failed to resolve innumerable times. And, indeed, there are serious doubts as to whether there is a viable alternative to today’s frail and sometimes violent status quo.

If Israel refused to leave the occupied territories in the past, how can it be expected to do so now, when the Islamic State is creeping toward the border? Doing so would raise massive new risks, in stark contrast to the brief spasms of violence that now punctuate Israel’s otherwise stable security situation.

And who on the Palestinian side would be willing, much less able, to engage in serious negotiations with Israel’s increasingly right-wing government? There are too many rifts and weaknesses on one side, and too powerful an illusion of strength on the other, for talks to yield anything of value.

In any case, even if they did resume talks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would not come to an agreement by themselves; and the international community is too divided, fatigued, and indifferent to impose a deal on them. If a consensus exists today, it is a negative one. With all parties resigned to the current situation, the dream of a “two-state solution” – based on the sound idea of exchanging territory for peace – is effectively dead.

Of course, the status quo is far less desirable for the Palestinians than for the Israelis. But they may have to do no more than bide their time, as their demographic advantage grows. Without a viable state of their own, Palestinians will progressively become the majority in the current “Jewish state.” The political, social, and religious implications of such a transformation would be far-reaching – and unacceptable to the Israelis.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been so intractable because it is a clash between nationalisms. If it becomes a clash between religions as well, compromise will become nearly impossible, even without further radicalization.

With the two-state solution off the table, and the establishment of a peaceful binational state unviable, some voices, mostly coming from the Israeli left, are now toying with a third idea: a confederation of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians. Palestinians share a strong kinship with Jordanians, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin. At the same time, Jordan is Israel’s closest partner in the region. These factors make Jordan seem to many like an ideal bridge between Israel and Palestine.

Of course, there remains serious mistrust among the parties. Nonetheless, advocates argue that the clear economic advantages of such a confederation – which would include a free-trade zone and joint economic ventures – could prove tempting enough to all sides to put the idea on more solid footing.

But the proposal, though certainly appealing, is not consistent with the realities of the Middle East today. Unlike European countries, which emerged from World War II so exhausted by conflict that they agreed to pool their sovereignty for the sake of peace, the countries of the Middle East are experiencing an ever-intensifying climate of nationalism, intolerance, and hatred.

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By causing a continuous shift to the political right, Israel’s occupation policy has undermined the state’s political and ethical foundations, while turning Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into a hostage of forces even more extreme than he is. Small minorities of Israeli extremists no longer hesitate to use violence to defend, if not impose, their views on others. And the radicalization that the occupation has helped to fuel on the Palestinian side is well documented. But amid the rise of the Islamic State and the end of Iran’s international isolation, not to mention the Palestinian knife attacks, who can convince the Israelis that the biggest long-term threat they face is their own policy?

One cannot say with certainty that if Rabin had lived, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would have become a reality. But, as the region increasingly becomes trapped in a race to the abyss, the rare combination of courage, modesty, and lucidity that he embodied is badly needed.