Thirty years ago, the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference aimed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and initiated what we now think of as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Three decades later, the world and the region have undergone tectonic changes, bearing little resemblance to 1991 when the Cold War came to a close. Yet, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are still dealing with their conflict as if it is business as usual. The time has come for them to take a more sober look at the global and regional trends that spell trouble for them and their peoples. Without such a reorientation from leadership on both sides, it is likely that there will be continued and escalating rounds of violence like what we witnessed this past month.  

A view of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Old City of Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives on Sept. 13, 2019. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
A view of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Old City of Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives on Sept. 13, 2019. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

A New World Disorder

The Madrid conference took place in a unipolar world. Today, we are witnessing renewed great power competition with a Cold-War flavor. President Obama set the objective of withdrawing the United States from the region but was interrupted by the need to defeat ISIS. This trend continued under President Trump, with President Biden now pursuing the same path while trying to avoid geopolitical losses as Russia and China expand their influence and pursue their interests across the Middle East. Russia and China have both offered to host talks between Israelis and Palestinians — offers unlikely to be seized by Israel, but which demonstrate a challenge to the traditional U.S.-dominant third-party role. Meanwhile, as fighting raged between Israel and Hamas earlier this month, China took the opportunity to accuse the United States of obstructing the U.N. Security Council’s efforts to take action on the conflict, as Washington opposed what it considered an unbalanced statement calling for a cease-fire and prevented the Council from taking any action.

For most of the international community, the years to come will be focused on post-pandemic recovery. This is on top of a host of preexisting and sometimes intertwined challenges — from conflicts and humanitarian crises to the growth of ultra-nationalism, terrorism and extremism; climate change; cyber security; population displacement; and weak multilateral institutions. While this may suggest that the international community will be so distracted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the parties can get away with business as usual, it may also lead traditional allies and supporters of Israel and the Palestinians to deprioritize the diplomatic, political and economic support. Moreover, the world has witnessed the rise of “people power” — popular demonstrations calling for change around the world, from the globally supported #MeToo campaign, to the Black Lives Matter movement that has also found resonance beyond the United States.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this type of activism has begun to manifest in cities around the world, as large-scale demonstrations against the latest war took place against the backdrop of four major developments:  

  • An open International Criminal Court investigation into the “Situation in Palestine,” launched in March 2021 and looking at the possibility of war crimes committed by both sides, and a statement by the court’s prosecutor that there was reasonable basis to believe war crimes may have been committed once again by both sides in the 2021 war.
  • Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing Israel of committing crimes against humanity in its treatment of Palestinians amounting to apartheid, following similar claims by an Israeli human rights NGO. While the Palestinians rejoiced, Israel, the United States and other members of the international community have rejected the characterization. Others have warned of it as a future possibility. This reflects a growing trend in how human rights advocates view the conflict.
  • Growing frustration with the Palestinian Authority (PA) from its strongest supporters, manifested in the EU threatening to withhold funding and to a certain extent in the normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries, which are surviving, despite the recent hostilities.
  • Israel no longer enjoys the same level of U.S. bipartisan support that it enjoyed for decades.

And Regional Disorder, too

In the region, two historic waves of Arab revolutions have wreaked havoc. They have led to geopolitical competition among regional powers; triggered devastating conflicts and civil and proxy wars; prompted military interventions by regional and external powers; and caused a few countries to lose their monopoly of force and control over parts of their territories. More people in the region are viewing their world through a sectarian, ethnic or tribal lens and extremism is on the rise leading to further tensions and instability. Unfortunately, the region is not equipped to address these challenges, particularly when compounded by pandemic-reinforced economic, social and political stagnation. Regional institutions are in disarray, and divergent interests in a divided Arab world have led to complex rivalries. As a result, the countries of the region have dramatically reordered their priorities and the Palestinian question is no longer the uncontested priority it once was, with the Iranian threat taking center stage.

Meanwhile in Israel

Israel has held an unprecedented four inconclusive elections in two years and is likely heading to a fifth. These elections took place against the backdrop of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, giving him incentive to try anything to remain in power. The war on Gaza all but destroyed his opponents’ possibility of forming a government.

But whether or not Netanyahu has convinced enough Israelis he has protected them from Hamas, there is a recognition that the rockets from Gaza have improved in range, firepower and accuracy since the last war, even though Israel still maintains overwhelming military superiority. After being targeted by Hamas, Israel was compelled to close Ben-Gurion Airport and halt production of its offshore gas platform. This does not augur well for possible future military confrontations. Painting a successful operation, Netanyahu said the operation achieved its objectives, damaged Hamas' ability to launch missiles at Israel and destroyed their extensive tunnel network and rocket factories. Meanwhile, critics have questioned this characterization and rationale as a military operation, with some traditional opponents of the government deeming it “the most failed and pointless Gaza operation ever.”

There are analysts who paint a bleaker overall picture for Israel when considering its other fronts. Years after Hezbollah reached a surprising deterrence capability in its 2006 war with Israel, Maj. Gen. Uri Gordin of the Israeli army warned that in the first days of a future war with Hezbollah, Israel will be hit by 2,000 missiles a day (around 3,970 were fired during the entire 2006 war). Hezbollah had an estimated 13,000 missiles in 2006 and is now believed to have 130,000-150,000, including long-range missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel which will probably overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

Adding to the threats facing Israel, Iran will likely seek opportunities to take retributive action following credible claims that Israel assassinated a leading Iranian nuclear scientist and all but confirmed claims that it was behind a cyberattack on Iran's main nuclear facility. With Iranian support, the Houthis disrupted almost half of the oil exports of Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that the capabilities of Hezbollah and the Houthis will reach Gaza sooner or later.

After this latest war, some argue the real existential threat to Israel is the confrontations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Not seen during previous wars, the moral fabric of Israel’s society appears threatened as Israelis witnessed the burning of synagogues, fire bombings of Arab homes, vicious attacks by members of each community on the other and destruction of businesses owned by both sides. As violence escalated, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin warned of an Israeli civil war. All this is taking place at a time when more and more people have concluded that the conflict has reached the tipping point of irreversibility, making a two-state solution almost impossible.

The Situation is no Less Daunting on the Palestinian Front

Despite the regional turmoil, changing priorities of leading Arab countries and the rise of Iran as a main threat, particularly for the Gulf, Palestinian West Bank leadership was taken by surprise by the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and the subsequent Israeli agreements with Morocco and Sudan. They feared that the world was on its way to ignoring Israel’s status as an occupying power and, by extension, the Palestinian cause.

Political divisions among rival factions distracted Palestinian leaders and led to an erosion of support for their cause. What the Palestinian leadership missed was the need to continuously compete for the hearts and minds of the Arab people and beyond. President Mahmoud Abbas’ expected but last-minute postponement of the Palestinian elections scheduled for May 22 led to a further loss of legitimacy among an already-disillusioned Palestinian public, and Arab leadership tired of the PA’s bad governance, corruption and reactive diplomacy. Several Arab countries have been equally, if not more, frustrated with the policies and practices of Hamas, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Egypt at one point in time.

The Time Has Come for Bold Leadership

In a dramatically changing world and region, there is a dire need for Israeli leadership that recognizes that as long as occupation continues, and maximalist, extremist voices are afforded political legitimacy, its character and stability will be threatened.

There is also a need for a unified and representative Palestinian leadership, committed to pursuit of the same platform, to the marginalization of violent extremists, and that recognizes continued division, eroding legitimacy, repression and bad governance is a recipe for ongoing disarray and weaker regional and international support. Without such unity, democracy and accountability, they will not be able to face the formidable challenge of ending occupation and pursuing peace.

Israelis and Palestinians were close to reaching a two-state conflict-ending agreement before. Visionary leadership on both sides would yield a United States and international community more ready to help, and a renewed chance to achieve peace. Absent such progress, as events in Jerusalem preceding the latest war suggest, the religious dimensions of the conflict will deepen, and Palestinians will have no choice but to struggle for equal rights within a one-state option — a demand increasingly championed by young Palestinians. This outcome will be strongly rejected by Israel, as maintaining the country’s Jewish character is supported by a clear Israeli majority. The resultant struggle could endure for decades and exacerbate the already enormous cost of the conflict to both sides.

Global and regional trends are not on the side of the Israeli or Palestinian leaderships. The payoff for changing course in serious pursuit of peace is enormous for the parties and will be reaped regionally and internationally. The price of continued conflict will be paid by Israelis and Palestinians for generations to come.

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