Israeli–Palestinian Conflict: When Concessions Are Impossible

In a country where politics can be divisive and unpredictable, one of the few issues of consistent consensus in Israel is that the government should not concede on issues of its citizens’ security. Therefore, it was no surprise that Israel acted to demolish structures illegally built in proximity to the security barrier, which has saved hundreds of lives since its construction, to prevent terrorist groups from compromising its efficacy.

Despite the threats from Ramallah that followed, the recent demolitions do not spell the end of counter-terrorism cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has threatened to take this step many times in the past, sometimes because of issues far more essential to the PA than several residential structures. However, each time the threat has proved empty. One need look no further than the PA’s strategic priorities in order to understand why that is. 

The primary objective of any group is to survive, and the primary threat to its survival is another body that seeks to occupy the same niche. Or simply put, “all competition is local”. This is how one can understand the bizarre reality wherein the PA, though it maintains a somewhat hostile position toward Israel, is able to cooperate more closely on issues of security with the “Zionist regime” than with its Palestinian brethren in Hamas. In fact, it is opposition to the radical Hamas organisation which provides Israel and the PA with cause for cooperation.

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A decision by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to end security cooperation with Israel would be tantamount to reducing his own capability to deal with threats from his Hamas rivals at a precarious moment in time for his administration (it is wildly unpopular in its 15th year with a four-year term...). Recalling the brutality that accompanied the PA’s loss of Gaza to Hamas in 2007, including the two sides throwing each other’s activists off high-rise buildings, would likely cause him to think twice before proceeding with such a decision. 

Furthermore, the recent friction between Jerusalem and Ramallah will have negligible impact on the prospects for the Trump administration's “deal of the century.” These events are relatively minor when considering the long-term factors impeding an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. These include: 

1) The political, geographical, and ideological divide among Palestinians;

2) The Arab Quartet’s inability to “deliver” the Palestinians. 

As for the former, so long as the West Bank and Gaza remain separate political entities under different leadership, any peace agreement would necessitate a prior Hamas-PA reconciliation agreement. Based on the countless failed efforts over the last 12 years to broker such a deal, it appears about as difficult to achieve as Israeli-Palestinian peace. Regarding the latter, the Trump team may have overestimated the degree to which money and pressure from the Gulf States could induce the Palestinians to enter into a peace process they'd sought to boycott. While the Arab Quartet may be able to circumvent Ramallah on a number of issues, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abbas appears to maintain considerable control. 

In the past, Israeli efforts at bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians have been frustrated by PA’s rejectionism (in particular in 2000 and 2007). Palestine's negotiating strategy appears to be based on the idea that refusing offers that do not meet 100% of their demands is a win-win: either Israel will be pressed to make a more generous offer or inertia will bring about the destruction of Israel through a slide toward a single binational state. To counter the Palestinian strategy of “vetoing” Israel’s future, the time appears ripe to adopt a new approach.

Israelis should root for the U.S.-led peace effort to succeed, but it would be well-advised to develop a “plan B” in case it doesn’t. This backup plan should include the following components to ensure the preservation of Israel’s fundamental character as a secure, Jewish, democratic, and morally just state:

1)      halt the slide toward a single binational state and protect the future viability of the two-state solution;

2)     maintain security by rejecting any compromise of Israel’s operational freedom to counter terrorism in the West Bank;

3)     to the extent possible, promote capacity-building and economic development for Palestinians;

4)     seek to revive bilateral negotiations with a credible Palestinian counterpart, but should he/she fail to materialize, then independently demarcate national boundaries.

That Israel is now experiencing a moment of heightened political, economic, and military power is no excuse to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue; rather it is a window of opportunity to settle the conflict under favorable conditions.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.