The remarkable run of international attention aimed at solving the Israel-Palestine conflict has run its course. In the decades from the Security Council deliberations leading the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 to Secretary of State John Kerry’s peripatetic wanderings, no other issue so animated international diplomacy. This sustained, top-level attention was no mean feat in a world where disasters are the order of the day. But although it often seemed to be the case, the “peace process” could not rivet the world’s fickle attention forever.
The dance ended with a whimper in 2014. Today, there is less interest in a solution to the Israel/Palestine/Arab conflict than at any time since Israel’s creation almost seven decades ago. True, there are other issues commanding international attention. But the conflict’s absence from news headlines and the briefing books reflect much more substantive realities than the simple competition for headlines.
During the golden years after the Oslo agreement in 1993, diplomats and politicians alike contented themselves with the lazy analytical argument that the parameters of a deal were self-evident. Since “we all know what the endgame looks like,” the goal was simply to establish a mechanism that would produce a peace treaty between Israel and the PLO, conditioned by an agreed upon Israeli withdrawal from most (and as time passed decreasing percentage) of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Such silliness passed for statecraft during the Bush and Obama years, and empowered a more determined and hard–headed Israeli set of diplomatic priorities. Top on this list was Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements throughout the West Bank—a reflection of the enduring Israeli consensus in its favor. Next was the decision by an aging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to present Palestinians and his own successors with the fait accompli of an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a decision that broke all the rules of the U.S.-led peace process and has been ratified consistently since then in serial wars between Israel and Gaza’s nationalist-Islamist rulers. Today, Gaza remains the most dynamic arena where often clashing, but occasionally intersecting, Israeli and Palestinian interests compete.
The agenda of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government provides instructive insights into the current state of affairs. Netanyahu’s interest in a two-state solution has always been conditioned by his assessment of the terms of an agreement favored by the U.S., which formally embraced a two-state solution during the George W. Bush administration.
During the Obama years, Netanyahu easily parried Washington’s ham-fisted efforts to secure a settlement freeze—the original centerpiece of its first signature diplomatic initiative. Obama never established an agreed basis for substantive talks. Instead, Obama bequeathed to the Trump administration a historic unraveling throughout the Middle East. Palestine was delivered to the new administration as a scorched diplomatic landscape, characterized by despair and boredom with the continuing conflict.
Trump’s sympathies on Palestine are clearly with Israel’s revisionist right wing. He and his aides have little idea and even less interest about how to approach—let alone solve—the conflict. As a consequence, Netanyahu has abandoned any pretense of interest in or commitment to the evacuation of West Bank territory in order to make room for the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We are here to stay forever,” he declared at a recent ceremony marking one half century of settlement in the northern West Bank. “There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel.”
“This is the inheritance of our ancestors.” he said. “This is our land.”
In contrast to his attention on the expansion of settlements, Netanyahu gives little thought to Mahmoud Abbas, who is distracted by challenges to his leadership, and the sclerotic PLO leadership that he is meant to represent. Gaza, which fields the first sovereign Palestinian national army, remains Netanyahu’s primary Palestinian distraction. Netanyahu worries—to a certain degree—about preserving the stability of Hamas’ rule in Gaza from less disciplined, more radical challengers, but not enough to end the manufactured crisis that has plunged Gaza into penury and hopelessness for the last 15 years.
The strongest Arab states have been Netanyahu’s “enablers.” Since the adoption of the first Saudi peace plan in 1982 (to win Israel’s withdrawal) and the creation of a Palestinian state, this bargain at the heart of Arab efforts has been undermined by its proponents’ own readiness to advance their sovereign interests with Israel without any quid pro quo on Palestine. Egypt first, followed by Jordan, and most recently Saudi Arabia, consider the preservation of their own interests with Israel to be at odds with the Arab Peace Initiative—the centerpiece of which is an Arab readiness to live in peace with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state. The Arab Peace Initiative has disappeared from the peacemaking lexicon even as Saudi Arabia has signed on as a formal participant and strategic partner in upholding the terms of the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
This juxtaposition is no accident. In the current regional environment, shared interests between Israel and strong Arab states trump the Arab interest in Palestine or Israeli willingness to make territorial concessions on its behalf. In today’s world, the API, much like the idea of an Israeli withdrawal and removal of settlements, is an artifact of history.
More broadly, Israel’s longest serving prime minister has resurrected an old-fashioned, Orientalist view of Israel’s international role as the long, militant, if civilizing arm of the West. At the American ambassador’s residence in celebration of the Fourth of July, Netanyahu highlighted this self-interested if compelling narrative. “Israel is also an aircraft carrier,” he declared. “It’s an aircraft carrier for Western civilization; for the civilization of freedom.”
Netanyahu is not the first to declare such sympathies. His predecessor Ehud Barak famously described Israel as “a villa in the jungle.” Such bombast resonates, particularly in Trump’s world, and beyond. Greater Israel as a valued defender and enforcer of the West—that is of civilization itself—pushes the prospect of consequential Israeli territorial concessions in the West Bank off the table.