The World

Why This Round of Israeli-Palestinian Violence Feels Different

There’s no more “peace process” to go back to.

A man walks amongst the aftermath of targeting Al-Jawhara Tower in central Gaza on Wednesday in Gaza City.
The aftermath of an attack on Al-Jawhara Tower in central Gaza on Wednesday in Gaza City. Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

After days of escalating tension and violence, Israel and Palestine appear on the verge of all-out war. Israel’s bombing of Gaza has now killed at least 49 people, including 14 children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have launched thousands of rockets, at Israeli towns and cities, and while the vast majority have been intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, at least six Israelis have been killed.

It’s possible for outside observers to look at this as just another of this long-running conflict’s periodic eruptions. The Israeli demolitions of homes in East Jerusalem that began this escalation are part of a long-running campaign, and there have been violent confrontations in the past over access to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The situation has escalated much faster and with more ferocity than expected, and there’s a serious possibility of a repeat of something like the devastating 2014 Gaza War, but the conflagration still seems likely to die down in the coming days or weeks and return to the grim status quo without much lasting change for Palestinians or Israelis.

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Still, the surrounding international context makes this round of violence feel different. With enough of an optimistic squint, it was still possible to view previous eruptions over the three decades since the Oslo Accords as deviations from the “peace process,” the dominant political paradigm holding that Israel and Palestine were moving in fits and starts toward the creation of two sovereign states. This week’s events, by contrast, are taking place in a world that is moving on from that paradigm, if it hasn’t abandoned it completely.

Yes, the “two-state solution” is still endorsed by the Biden administration and most American politicians from the center to the left (though not all of the left). But other longtime American adherents of what veteran Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller once called the “religion” of the Mideast peace process are starting to lose the faith. Some prominent progressive Jewish commentators like the journalist Peter Beinart now openly advocate a one-state solution. A recent Carnegie Endowment paper called on the U.S. government to shift to a “rights-based” approach that prioritizes the “rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis over maintaining a peace process and attempting short-term fixes.”

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At least some of this is a response to the Trump administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government’s obsequious embrace of each other, which probably did more to break down the bipartisan U.S. consensus on support for Israel than decades of left-wing activism. The Trump administration did use the words “two-state solution,” but Jared Kushner’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan imagined Palestinians with only limited sovereignty over a noncontiguous territory completely surrounded by Israel—hardly a “state” by any recognized international standards.

The Trump plan for the Israelis and Palestinians was dead on arrival, since the Palestinian leadership had not even engaged with the administration after its decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump’s more lasting legacy was the Abraham Accords—a series of deals, brokered by the U.S, normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries that had previously shunned the Jewish state. The premise of these accords was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an unwelcome distraction from the region’s bigger problems (Iran, in the view of those involved).

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As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor notes, the idea that the Palestinian issue could simply be sidestepped isn’t looking great this week. Likely in an attempt to maintain at least some credibility with their own populations, the governments of Bahrain and the UAE, which normalized relations with Israel under the accords, have condemned the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and affirmed their solidarity with the Palestinian people, but these regional allies made clear in the Trump years what their real priorities are, and helping the Palestinians achieve statehood is not that high on the list.

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The Biden administration also seems to wish this situation would just go away. It has taken some steps to undo Trump’s legacy, such as restoring the funding to the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees that was cut by the previous administration, but avoided more provocative political moves like reversing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It has certainly steered clear of more aggressive moves such as making military aid to Israel conditional on its policies toward the Palestinians, an idea now endorsed by some congressional Democrats, though not most.

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In contrast to Trump’s bear hug, Biden has kept Netanyahu at a distance. He conspicuously did not call the prime minister during his first month in office and did not mention U.S. support for Israel in either his first major foreign policy speech or his first address to Congress. Biden has not yet named an ambassador to Israel or reopened the Jerusalem consulate, closed by Trump, which previously handled U.S. relations with the Palestinians—both of which seem like questionable choices this week. This hands-off approach may be in keeping with Biden’s desire to extricate the U.S. from long-running conflicts in the Middle East in order to focus on bigger priorities in Asia, but it is also a sign that the administration doesn’t see much to gain from engaging in a concerted way with the Middle East peace process, given that the current Israeli government has no interest in engaging with it either.

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There were times in the past, even after the 2014 Gaza War, when Netanyahu expressed at least theoretical support for a Palestinian state under certain unlikely circumstances. Now, after he’s worked to shore up his support from the right through a truly absurd number of national elections, even that pretext is gone from his rhetoric.

But the problem isn’t just Netanyahu. If anything, these days he’s less the standard-bearer of the intransigent Israeli right than the main obstacle in its path. The reason Israel is still without a formal government a month and a half after its fourth election in two years is that the Israeli right is divided over whether to continue to serve under Netanyahu—a highly divisive figure currently on trial for corruption. Take him out of the equation and right-wing parties would hold a 72 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, a fairly comfortable mandate for continued settlement construction and opposition to territorial concessions—including some far-right violent extremists.

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A potential government formed by the anti-Netanyahu “change bloc” would likely include Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman—two of the most prominent advocates of the settlement movement—and the more moderate Benny Gantz, currently the defense minister overseeing the bombardment of Gaza. Despite what some liberal supporters of Israel might hope, a return to the peace process is not just one election away.

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On the other side, Biden recently carried out an exchange of letters with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss concerns about the current situation. But the Palestinian Authority Abbas leads—itself one of the most tangible products of the peace process framework having been formed out of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s—is looking awfully irrelevant this week as violence escalates between Israel and Abbas’ rivals, Hamas. In late April, Abbas moved to postpone Palestinian elections in which his Fatah party was likely to lose ground to Hamas. At least some of the decision by Hamas—which controls Gaza—to escalate this crisis with its rocket barrage seems to have been motivated by a desire to portray itself as the legitimate defenders of Palestinian interests and Jerusalem.

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An Israeli government with no interest in compromising on the occupation, a Palestinian government with little remaining legitimacy quickly losing ground to violent extremists, an international community with no interest in engaging: All of these factors make the notion of an agreement on anything more than a short-term cease-fire seem almost surreally fanciful.

But just because the old paradigm seems out of date doesn’t mean there’s a new one to take its place. Studies suggest that the only things Israelis and Palestinians dislike more than the two-state solution are any of the suggested alternatives to it. Rather, we’re entering a new phase in which, as the political scientist Nathan Brown recently wrote, “all the injustices and insecurities that afflict inhabitants of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are now so deeply ingrained in daily life that no diplomatic framework can address them now.” It’s a world in which old phrases like “peace process” and “two-state solution” ring pretty hollow.

To understand more about the Palestinian perspective on the current violent unrest, listen to this recent episode of What Next.

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