by Nicholas Goldberg
Five Israelis shot dead in Bnai Brak and two more in Tel Aviv. Clashes at the Al Aqsa Mosque, where more than 150 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli riot police. Stabbings in southern Israel and Jerusalem; counterterrorism raids across the West Bank that killed more than a dozen Palestinians. Exchanges of rockets and airstrikes between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
These are headlines from the last month, marking the end of a period of relative calm between Israelis and Palestinians and raising fears of further, graver violence ahead.
They’re troubling for sure, but no one would call them unfamiliar. Headlines just like them could have been — and were — bannered across Page 1 while I lived in Jerusalem as a correspondent in the 1990s. An uncountable number of news stories have reported on the dead and the wounded since the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.
The conventional wisdom has been that this most recent round of troubles was set off by the unusual confluence of Easter, Ramadan and Passover, creating a special moment of tension in the Holy Land. And that indeed may have been the immediate trigger.
But putting it that way obscures the more important fact that the violence is the predictable result of more than a half-century of Israeli military occupation that festers and chafes and inevitably blows up into clashes like these — and worse, into far more deadly confrontations, such as the periodic wars in Gaza in which dozens, hundreds or even thousands are killed.
If that last paragraph seems patently, painfully obvious, excuse me — it needs to be repeated. In recent years too many people in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere have played down the conflict, shrugged off its underlying causes and hoped that if they just ignore it, it’ll go away, or subside to a manageable level. Just maybe, the thinking goes, we can all muddle along with the status quo for another decade or two or three.
“The Palestinian issue has been marginalized,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who advised six secretaries of State on Middle East policy. “It’s on the back burner.”
There are a lot of reasons why.
Most recently, Ukraine has taken up all the bandwidth the world has for crisis.
But even well before that, U.S. policymakers had pivoted to China, Russia, climate change and other pressing issues. U.S. presidents who could have served as mediators between Palestinians and Israelis decided they wouldn’t expend their limited political capital trying to solve a conflict that had so utterly frustrated their predecessors.
Add to that Iran’s regional ambitions, which are reshaping Middle Eastern alliances, creating a common enemy for Israel and some of its former Sunni Arab antagonists. As relations between Israel and Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab nations warm up, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems less urgent. The unspoken subtext of normalized relations is that resolving the Palestinian situation is not a prerequisite to more stability and cooperation in the region.
Another reason the conflict has moved to the back burner is that the weak post-Netanyahu Israeli governing coalition that came together in 2021 under Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett is too ideologically fractured to make serious decisions about peace, land and the future.
And the Palestinians, too, are in a weakened, deeply divided state. They’re ruled half by a Hamas government in Gaza, which is anathema to Israel for understandable reasons, and half by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party in the West Bank. Abbas, 87, is highly unpopular. Nearly 80% of Palestinians want him to resign.
And what’s the cost to Israel of putting the Palestinian problem on indefinite hold? Seemingly, not too much. The “separation barrier” built along the border between Israel and the West Bank has been reasonably effective at keeping terrorists out. The Iron Dome air defense system successfully keeps most rockets from Gaza out. A strong economy has convinced Israelis they can bide their time.
Besides, Israel and the Palestinians remain far apart on the issues that divide them.
So perhaps it’s no wonder the Palestinian issue has been shunted aside, and negotiations have died out.
But here’s the problem. This strategy won’t work indefinitely. The status quo is morally untenable and the conflict won’t disappear.
Palestinians have lived under a half-century of military occupation. A half-century of middle-of-the-night raids, land confiscations, house demolitions, settlement building, institutionalized discrimination and abusive arrests and detention. Gaza remains under blockade. Palestinians lack the self-determination to which all people are entitled.
Israelis, for their part, live under the constant threat of violence. They too deserve a resolution to this stalemate, one allowing both sides to live independently without fear.
And that means attention must be paid, talks revived, risks taken, trust built.
By all means, discuss a two-state solution, a one (democratic) state solution, a three-state solution. A confederation. Autonomy. Whatever. Put everything on the table. Just get talking.