A confluence of factors this week led to heightened tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel celebrated its 70th anniversary, the United States officially moved its embassy to Jerusalem, and protests in Gaza led to levels of violence not seen in several years. Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen shares her analysis and discusses the perfect storm of events leading to the latest round of tumult between Israelis and Palestinians and explains why Middle East peace remains a generational goal.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Complete Transcript

Tim Farley (host): At a special counsel, or a special convening, of the UN Security Council yesterday, the subject ... main subject, really, was the violence on the border between Israel and Gaza. And yesterday the United States' Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, one of those obviously speaking because it's the Security Council, but she said that Iran-shaped, or Iran-inspired militants, have been at work in this region and it happened long before the administration's decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, attacking what she called a 'double standard' by the International community. Here she is yesterday. 

Nikki Haley: The United States welcomes the discussion of this violence in the Middle East. We welcome discussing the ways we can cooperate with each other to put an end to this violence. There is far too little discussion in the Security Council on Iran's destabilizing presence in Syria. Its promotion of violence in Yemen. Its support for terrorism in Gaza. And its dangerous and illegal weapons build-up in Lebanon. 

Tim Farley (host): All right, if we're gonna discuss violence in the region, let's talk about the full perspective of the moving of the embassy, and what it means. Joining us on POTUS is Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen who is director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Lucy, welcome, thank you for being here on POTUS again. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you Tim, good morning. 

Tim Farley (host): This is not a surprise, we kinda knew this was coming. The President did it, it became formalized, and what exactly does this mean, just in broad brush strokes? 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, as you said, we did know this was coming. And in the embassy, if we start there, the groundwork was set for that back in December 6th when, as you remember, we discussed on this show, actually, when President Trump announced the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And in doing that was breaking with US policy precedents and International consensus on this issue, which had basically withheld adjudication of the status of Jerusalem until that was decided in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. So now we're in a situation, the embassy, that less than six months later was opened the other day, and what we know right now is certainly it has set back the ability to start moving forward on negotiations. As we know the Palestinians after that December 6th announcement have subsequently refused to deal with the United States mediator on this issue, saying that it has ruined its credibility to serve in an impartial and effective role.

Tim Farley (host): All right, so was being held out as bargaining chip. What does this mean effective now, and what do you think was the cause of the violence? Was it Hamas to blame, that's what Israel was doing, what the U.S. is doing. Was it Hamas that was inciting the violence on the border? 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Right, well, so moving down to what was happening in Gaza, now this is a case of where you had a confluence of events that weren't entirely unrelated to each other, and certainly all relate to the dynamics in this ongoing conflict. But what was happening, what you saw on Monday in the border of Gaza, was a culmination of about six weeks of protests that were started on March 30th. Now, they were started ... they were ... actually, an initiative started at the grassroots level by unaffiliated, non-politically affiliated activists. But that protest movement was fairly quickly co-opted by Hamas. The idea of the march, it was called 'the great march of return', and the stated goals of it were to bring International attention to the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza, the blockade on the Gaza strip that is implemented by both Israel and Egypt. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: But also, as the name suggests, the activist are saying it was also a call to return, to return to the land that Palestinians refugees lost in 1948. And they scheduled, or designed the protest, to build up over the course of six weeks so to culminate on May 15th, which is what the Palestinians commemorate usually as Nakba Day, the Catastrophe Day. Now, that culmination day was moved up to May 14th, which was the date that was chosen to open the Jerusalem embassy, because that marks the anniversary of the date 70 years ago when Israel was created. So, again, you have this confluence of events. We did know this was coming, Israelis knew it was coming, of course what happened you heard on Monday, 60 of the protestors, the Palestinians to the fence, killed. And that has launched a debate to as to whether this could have been handled in any other way. 

Tim Farley (host): Yeah. Because they were warned that there was gonna be a force of Israelis at the border, right? It was ... Again, I'm not trying to cause blame or point fingers at anybody, I'm just trying to figure out what happened here, and then ... It was not that there was this surprise that the Israelis had guns, that they were at the border there?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: No, for sure. And Israel had been very clear about what would happen if activists approached the fence, and this gets back to the point of Hamas having co-opted the march. There were tens of thousands of Palestinians who were protesting, demonstrating over the course of these weeks. Those who approached the fence, Hamas was actually on the 14th urging people onto the fence. It was probably fairly clear what was going to happen. As Israel had made clear, they set a demarcation line of what would happen and that you'd be considered a threat if you were coming within ... initially it was 300 meters of the fence, that was moved then to 100 meters of the fence. And so yes, you had unfortunately a very sad, unpredictable situation play out. And this for Hamas, as well, of course, was a strategic move as well. It gives ... it draws attention to Hamas' cause and really gives Hamas a little bit of a credibility resistance boost, perhaps, among the Palestinians, at a time when it had been feeling a little bit on the ropes.

Tim Farley (host): Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen with us, Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute of Peace. Lucy, I was thinking about this last couple of days, because several years ago I had interviewed Jennifer Griffin, she's a Pentagon correspondent for Fox, and she had written a book with her husband, 'This Burning Land: Lessons from the Frontlines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict'. She had lived there for a while, and one of the lessons I took from that is that the players don't really change that much. Benjamin Netanyahu on and off has been in power since the 90s, and we're still looking at the people who are in charge of the Palestinians, and I wonder ... I'm trying to look at this maybe in a different way, as who ... We like to think that gaining from peace would be all of the people of the region, but who stands to lose from peace, and who stands to win by maintaining the conflict? Is Hamas one of those who would gain by keeping this conflict alive?

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, Hamas certainly wants to keep the resistance mantle alive, and in that regard you saw some of that obviously playing out in sharp focus on Monday, and we might yet continue to see it play out in the days ahead. What is clear is the people of the region, the Israelis and Palestinians, are the ones that certainly stand to gain from the resolution of this conflict, and the people in Gaza are certainly suffering under the ongoing conflict and our inability, the parties' inability, the leaders' inability, the International community's inability to bring this to a resolution.

Tim Farley (host): There also seems to be a concern about the ... perhaps a ... more movement by Iran to have an influence in the region. I know that some of the Saudi and other Arab neighbors publicly have condemned the violence, but have been privately communicating that they are concerned about what Iran is doing in all of this. And I don't know if that's directly related to the movement of the capital ... or the movement, rather, of the embassy. But I wonder if that is playing out also is another one of those somewhat connected events, although it's not directly connected.  

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Absolutely. All these dynamics are in the mix. There is Iranian support that goes to Hamas. The other piece to remember here ... There are two things that ... and you alluded to one of them. You have seen some strengthening of ties and certainly because of shared interests between Israel and Arab states with which it doesn't have formal peaceful relationships, because of the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel is increasingly finding common ground with many of these Arab states, that they see Iran as the number one shared threat in the region. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Again, not directly connected to what we saw on Monday, but you have seen in the last couple of weeks really direct engagement, unprecedented, between Israel and Iran across Syria. Iran now has a presence in Syria, you saw Iran strike at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights last week, and Israel strike back. So you do have this dynamic going on in the north of the country, too, which, of course, when you try to connect this to what might happen with a peace process, this doesn't do much to make the Israeli public feel safe and in a position to think about taking risks with a process with the Palestinians, necessarily.

Tim Farley (host): I have wondered ... In my own mind, I have wondered whether or not this is something where we have to wait and let generations forget about, or to sort of forget the animosity. On the other hand, that might cause it to actually grow and over time the separation becomes more and more institutionalized. But it doesn't matter almost, just what is real and the Israelis and the Palestinians say, because all of these other influences are so much a part of this process, it seems. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: That is true, but I think nobody can afford to wait. And what we have seen, with this, going back to this sort of narrow focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sitting and waiting things only fester, and you end up with recurring cycles of violence. It's like seeing the same movie over again. We've now seen Israel with Hamas alone has engaged in three wars, active combat situations, since 2008. You have the tensions now brewing again on the border. Letting things fester is not the recipe either, though I agree with your initial point that this is not something that is going to be solved in the near term, and over time will be a generational process. Even if a peace agreement is signed all being well before then, it'll be a generational process of peace building and reconciliation after that point.

Tim Farley (host): I hear the word generational, I hear you. I've been talking about this for a long, long time, as I'm sure you've been studying this all your life ... Lucy thanks for being here. 

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

Tim Farley (host): Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen is Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute of Peace, putting in perspective the interconnected events of what has been taking place in the region after the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, and this prompting some protests and a lot of other things that have happened as a result. And you could tell from that conversation that it is pretty complex. By the way, the Twitter is @USIP.

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