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Signs of a transitional moment in the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic

The fragility of the Palestinian Authority and growing support within Israel for direct control over the West Bank are reshaping the political dynamic.

President Abbas, former Egyptian President Mubarak, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama in a White House meeting. Time is running out for the Palestinian Authority (photo: Pete Souza / white house)

There are growing signs that the occupation/Palestinian issue is undergoing one of its transitional moments, after which new forces will be at play. On the surface, things are as static as they could be: Inside Israeli society, there is a total denial of the occupation – the Levy committee’s report being just one aspect of it. No major political forces are offering any new idea that could end the occupation. In fact, even the old ideas – a Palestinian state, for example – are no longer discussed.  I heard President Shimon Peres say at the Presidential Conference that we should wait, and things will happen in the longer run. The guy is 89, what long run is he talking about?

The same goes for the international community and the American administration. There is a widespread understanding that the peace process has ended, but no serious alternative has emerged. Diplomats see their mission today as “not making things worse.” In part, they are playing into Israeli hands, since it’s Israel that has an interest in maintaining the status quo. It has many benefits and none of the costs that a change would bring. This is the reason Netanyahu is willing to give some lip service to the two-state solution and demands direct talks, but not much more.

But the Israeli right’s years in power are bearing fruits, and expansionist forces are trying to change the paradigm under which Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank operates. (Netanyahu himself is moving in both directions.) After more than four decades of military occupation and two decades of control by proxy, mainstream forces within the Israeli bureaucracy and political system are flirting with the idea of full sovereignty in the occupied territory. The center and the left oppose this trend, so a strange paradox emerges: The “soft” left, which was the traditional force of change in Israel, is engaged in a rearguard battle to maintain the current model of occupation, while the mainstream right, and not just the settlers, is becoming a force of change.

I think progressive Israelis should give more thought to this dynamic.

It also seems that several forms of Palestinian opposition to the occupation are reaching their expiration date. The small unarmed protests in the villages that had many internationals and several Israelis participating were focused mainly on the effect of the fence of rural communities, but now the separation barrier is almost completed and international focus is shifting to other places in the region. (It’s hard to use civil rights tactics to highlight the plight of the Palestinians against the occupation when Syrians are slaughtered in the hundreds nearby. The issues are not related, but this is how the international debate works.) It’s also clear that as long as the Palestinian Authority continues to prevent the unarmed protests from spreading to the cities, the demonstrations, important as they may be for local communities, won’t have much of an effect on the fate of the occupation.

It was reported this week that Israel will start deporting international activists who are caught in the West Bank. (According to Israeli law one cannot visit the West Bank for more than 48 hours without a permit; the same unit that deports African refugees has received legal authority to deal from now on with the activists.) It is a move that should shed more light on the effective blockade of the West Bank; the Palestinians are indeed Israel’s prisoners, prevented from traveling or receiving visitors without special permits from the army. Yet the activists were also a stabilizing force, causing the army “to behave” and strengthening the model of nonviolent resistance. Without them, resistance could look very different (In this aspect, it’s worth checking out the voices demanding that Israeli supporters don’t come to the protests, or rethinking the nonviolence strategy altogether.)

Ultimately, everything comes down to the fate of the Palestinian Authority. The one piece that holds the entire structure together is also its most fragile one. Just like Netanyahu, both Hamas and Fatah have an interest in maintaining the status quo, for fear of losing ground to the rival party. But the PA is also dependent on its credibility with the Palestinian public, and recent arrests of journalists and violent repression of protests suggest that President Abbas doesn’t have much credit left, especially after his diplomatic strategy collapsed. Now that the UN bid is frozen and the statehood project is looking like a bad joke, more and more people are seriously asking what role is left for the Palestinian Authority.

How central is the PA for the occupation? It’s enough to point to the fact that it was Israel that turned to the International Monetary Fund asking for another loan to the authority, which wasn’t able to pay last month’s salaries in full. The request was denied, because the PA is not a state (oh, the irony!). Security chiefs in Israel have voiced warning regarding the “inflammable” situation in the West Bank, and even Netanyahu is more careful than ever not to push Abbas into a corner. The Israeli prime minister even offered to release some prisoners and give more guns to the PA in exchange to a meeting with the Palestinian president.

Israel will have real problems going back to the model of direct control over the Palestinians; in fact, the one and only bargaining position Abbas has over Netanyahu is his weakness. My guess is that the West and the Arab regimes, which are looking for stability at all costs these days, will not let the PA collapse for now, but even if this crisis passes it’s clear that the PA has reached a dead end – it cannot sustain itself, and it’s not going to become independent. It seems that the Palestinian Authority will either disappear or deteriorate to direct and constant oppression of its own people. In either scenario, nothing will look the same.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Richard Witty

      Very compelling analysis. Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I would appreciate knowing exactly what Noam and the other “progressives” here would do if they were Prime Minister of Israel. We here a lot of complaining and exposition of Palestinian demands, but I would like to hear real ideas about how to make peace. Do the “Progressives” want a compromise peace reached by the two sides (again, assuming the “Progressives” here would be conducting the negotiations for the Israeli side), or do they envision some sort of foreign diktat imposing some sort of agreement? What would the terms of such a diktat be and how would it be enforced?

      Reply to Comment
    3. VickiV

      The PA/PLO can’t go back to direct talks without preconditions. The Palestinian people know that it’s pointless, so it’s not even a good PR move, let alone a good political move. Of course the Israelis know this, so they’re happy to sit back and recount the number of compelling offers they’ve made in the past, and hint at all the good stuff they’re willing to offer now. So, status quo it is for the foreseeable future. And in the meantime, the settlers are drunk with power and the land grab continues unabated. Alhumdullah.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Michael W.

      I second Witty. Very interesting and compelling analysis.

      Reply to Comment
    5. rico

      once a friend came up with this mind game: think about the bawab of the pa walks to the next checkpoint and hands over the keys to the 19 year old soldier, telling him “greetings from abu mazen & good luck!”

      Reply to Comment
    6. Kolumn9

      Excellent article Noam. Very good analysis.
      .

      Just one minor point. In the absence of a Palestinian leadership interested in a comprehensive resolution to the conflict the PA is a placeholder used by Israel to remove its direct control over the areas of the WB containing most of the Palestinian population. At this point for Israel the PA is neither central nor necessary to continue to not exercise control or responsibility over these areas. Whether it exists or not will not directly change the approach of Israel to the territory that the PA currently controls. Israel may have to in the future deal with the Emir of Nablus and the Sultan of Yatta which is more complicated than dealing with the Grand Poobah of the PA, but the belief among some that Israel will be forced to take direct ownership of those places is hopelessly naive.
      .

      The Palestinians have no options but to make peace in a way that takes into account Israeli security needs. Their other options basically boil down to dealing with various shades of the current status quo while praying that something somewhere changes.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Noam has been saying for some time, I think, that full soverignty is inevitable, and he sounds right to me. PA funding has bought off the cities, creating an unobserved division within the West Bank. Those funded by the PA have money–and debt, this latter strong motivation to be silent as you pay your bills. The PA decision to disavow the Wall protests, probably motivated in part by the loss of Gaza, so wanting no autonomous “popular” opposition, made Abbas much of diplomatic puppet. His only tool is refusal, and that seems to be exactly what the Israeli State under Bibi wants. Colonial occupation pays the local elite off; eventually, violent groups emerge outside of the payoff. The Wall protests have been the only obvious alternative to the emergence of such; if they fail or disipate, there can be only violence and internal strife. I really fear that the Israeli State has misinterpred the calm they have induced.
      .
      The Electronic Intifada link on the “obsession with nonviolence” Noam provides urges Israelis to try and change their own society. With de facto occupation (which will be hidden legally for some time, I suspect), the only arena of battle I see, the only one I have ever seen, is rights formation in the courts. Here is a never to be story: if the Citizenship Law case had changed by one vote, Palestinian spouces, after probably a year or more “venting” delay, would have been allowed to reside in Israel with their Israeli citizen partner. That would slowy allow a new perception of life on the Bank through these spouces, and might have motivated either new cases, or new thought on old subjects. An equal protection victory in that case would have had no real impact in the Bank. But it would suggest a new terrain within Israel, and placed a bar on the pure racial integrity war played out in much of Israeli discourse. Which would have been all the more important as de facto Israeli soverignty in the Bank proceeds.
      .
      The case went otherwise, by one vote. Yet it shows how the law might truly have lent support to treating Bankers as real people. Latent in the Courts vote is an issue which you have yet to resolve: does the law exist beyond the Knesset, or is the Knesset the sole locus of law? Perhaps one of those winning Citizenship Law case votes went that way to avoid the inevitable confrontation between the High Court and the Knesset. What happens in the Bank defines what the law of Israel truly is.
      .
      To XYZ,
      .
      Use your real name, as I. I grow tired of anonymous fights for purity.
      .
      What could be done now? Freeze the settlements. Begin Justice Ministry oversight of the acts of the vanguard settlers. Announce that in principle a large majority of settlements will have to be dismantled, compensation to new lives for those presently there. Begin some transfer of resource rights (so control) to the PA. None of this is remotely possible, and the suicide bombings have convinced you that Greater Israel is the only form of security. But you cannot expunge the inapprobiate residents. As Jimmy Carter said, at some cost in the US, you will have apartheid, three classes of “citizens”: Israeli Jews, Palestinian Israeli citizens, and all others. It will eat at your past stories and true hopes, just as in South Africa. You have won, and refuse to look in the mirror.

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      Greg P-
      (1) Thanks for answering my question.
      (2) You have given the “Israel shows its good will” first steps, but what about a final peace agreement? This is what Ariel Sharon claimed he wanted to do….give them a state without a final agreement, but the Palestinians rejected such a move. There is still the “return of the refugees” problem. How are you going to tackle that, or do you really believe it can be shelved for the time being?
      (3) What difference does it make what my name is?

      Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ,
      .
      I cannot architect a final peace agreement. What I suggested I believe essential to start; without it, nothing follows. And true monitoring by the Justice Ministery of the vanguard settlers (which excludes those just living in subsidized housing in large places like Ariel) is just morally right. Without doubt, settlers are being allowed to enroach in such a way that their protection will necessitate full soverignty. Without doubt, a version of Torah is being enabled which asserts the ordained control of this area by “the land of Israel.” The State hides behind this vanguard settler motivation, and I am very tired of the game.
      .
      The right of return fails. Those interested in practical possibility know this. I do believe, however, that constitutional implementation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence must open property control to Palestinian Israelis; if the State wants to hold title directly or by proxy, as was done say in medieval England, that’s its choice. But you cannot have the full rights of social equality, promised by the Declaration, if most land in Israel is controlled by an authority which only sells use rights to Jews; I have a vauge memory that a High Court decision moved in this direction, but can’t swear to it.
      .
      There is an ideological escape on the right of return: a) sale of land within Israel, between Israeli citizens, should not be controlled by the State save for general conservation rules (character of building, environment), as said; b) those Palestinians outside Israel, able to show a direct ancestor lived in now Israel at 1947-8, should be able to buy land in Israel on the open market. Now (b) would indeed cause some funded land buys, where these “returners” are proxies; one could mandate they must live in their purchase for so many years to limit this, similary on business property. Money would come in, just like it has for Jews. You could limit inflow by allowing, say, 20% of all yearly sales, lottery style, up for “return sale”; but Israelis proper could also bid on these sales. Result: housing inflation on the lottery sales as, sorry, Jews, try to prevent return entry. I don’t see this as a real option, but state it just to show one could find a compromise on some part of return. And most Palestinians in camps could never afford purchase, they lead impoverished, imprisoned lives, so it would not be liked there. It is tortuous ideology to promise they will someday return, enabling their continued incarceration in camps. Any compromise on return will harm many people; full, imaginary return would seriously harm the economy, forgetting the social consequences.
      .
      You are heading to a tri-partitioned State (Jewish citizens, lesser Palestinain citizens, resident Palestinians without citizenship), and it will not be pleasant. You have to decide: do you want apartheid or not. Frankly, I think the tradition of the dispora will not like this child of nationhood. When you win with weapons, things change hard. The great sensitivity of much Jewish thought evolved in discrimination, grief, ostracism. Winning makes people hard.
      .
      Names are important because one can’t hide. I have taken postions which are not at all popular in the United States. I am a socio-economic failure (and having so said have said more than just about every blogger herein) so it doesn’t matter. But I was an academic. Searching “Greg Pollock” could truly limit by possibilities if I were still alive in that. We love to police through fear. Putting out an opinion faceless just keeps the anger, hate, sterotypes thriving. We should take resonsibility for what we say. That’s why I admire the journalists of 972 so very very much. Most are young. Do you think they can apply for the same range of jobs given what they have done herein? Of course not.
      .
      Having said that, people like Ayla and Vicky who blog herein should remain masked. It’s hard out there.
      .
      I have no real rancor to you. I usually don’t check back after commenting, because I find repeated exchanges makes me, at least, crazy. So if I fail in other replies, it is not because of you.

      Reply to Comment
    10. XYZ

      K9-
      Prof. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University says the same thing you brought up….he believes that ultimately there will be several autonomous Palestinian enclaves, each pretty much independent of the others. The biggest is Gaza, now run by HAMAS. He says that the traditional groups and clans in places like Shechem (Nablus), Hevron, Ramallah, Tulkarem, etc don’t really like each other and they want to control their own turf without outside interference. This, in effect, is what is happening. During the whole Arafat-Olso period, leading up to the suicide bomber war, Arafat NEVER tried to impose his control over the whole territory in the West Bank. He didn’t want to, he felt the anarchic situation would serve him well when he finally decided to cut loose and launch the major suicide bomber attack on Israel. I heard from a well-informed person that Arafat never once dared to set foot in the Balata refugee camp near Shechem. Abbas did decide to improve things and calm the situation down and give his people a better, more prosperous life. He did this NOT by sending troops into anarchic places like Balata, but simply paying them off and putting them on the payroll as one of the myriad “security forces” the Palestinians have. If they would stop terrorizing the people of nearby Shechem, he would pay them. It has worked pretty well, but they say it is breaking down in Jenin where everybody’s favorite actor Julian Mer-Khamis was murdered and no one is interested in investigating the case or arresting the guilty parties (his widow said in an interview in Ha’aretz some time ago that she “understands”). Also there was the shoot-out that lead to the death of the Governor. So we see that situations like this are fragile.
      However, Kedar goes further and says this is the pattern the whole Arab world is entering. We see this in Iraq and Libya and now Syria is going that way. Central control is breaking down and whoever takes power will not be able to assert real control over the various groups and clans that are now well-armed with the breakdown of central control. The only option is to try to buy them off and get their cooperation, even if it is temporary. The creeping Islamization of the political system in the Arab Middle East encourages this because it is anti-nationalist. We are entering a new era, and the Palestinians are part of it. They can’t go off on their own and sign “peace agreements” against the will of their own people and the will of their newly Islamized neighbors like Egypt .

      Reply to Comment
    11. PAUL

      If or when the “life support machine” of the Palestinian Authority is eventually turned off, a yawning gulf, a temporary political vacuum instantly emerges.
      A minority of Palestinians (and Israeli Jews) may feel that a new REALPOLITIK will have thus emerged propelling them inexorably forward to One-Man-One-Vote. It is likely however that Palestinian majority will believe the clock has been turned backwards to the 1980s – “direct” Israeli occupation without hope.
      So before the “progressive Israeli left” get too excited about new possibilities, dynamic new geographies and conceptual 3-dimensional models of multiplicity of citizenship (all worthy of discussion) its worth remembering who continues to suffer, who’s lives are blighted.
      In otherwise no matter how fashionable it is to dismiss the two-state solution as a failed unrealisable relic of past thinking, be careful what you wish for… and remember who ultimately pays the price in unstable political vacuums..

      Reply to Comment
    12. Noam W.

      Interesting analysis Noam.
      .
      Considering the ongoing abandonment and privatization of infrastructure on the West side of the Green line, I can only imagine what will happen when the PA collapses. The government will “sell” the right to provide services to private stakeholders and never take a second look.

      Reply to Comment
    13. sh

      For those who don’t know who Mordechai Kedar is, he lectures in the Arabic Department of Bar Ilan University and is responsible for disseminating views such as these:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68Yh6YAjeYg&feature=related
      Draw your own conclusions about his reason for specializing in Arabic in the first place and the motivation behind nature of his views.

      Reply to Comment
    14. sh

      I refers to XYZ’s post citing him as a mavin.

      Reply to Comment
    15. sh

      Oh yes, he’s expressed the same kind of thing in English on BBC. He’s on the board of Sion (stands for Stop Islamization of Nations), along with the likes of Pamela Geller who I believe presides the organization. In fact The Guardian wrote about Sion last April when Breivik’s trial was about to begin.
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/14/breivik-trial-norway-mass-murderer

      Reply to Comment
    16. I’m violating my personal health rule by coming back to the same page more than once. But here I go.
      .
      Paul, above:
      .
      ‘before the “progressive Israeli left” get too excited about new possibilities, dynamic new geographies and conceptual 3-dimensional models of multiplicity of citizenship (all worthy of discussion) its worth remembering who continues to suffer, who’s lives are blighted.
      In otherwise no matter how fashionable it is to dismiss the two-state solution as a failed unrealisable relic of past thinking, be careful what you wish for… and remember who ultimately pays the price in unstable political vacuums’
      .
      1) Multiple levels of citizenship and residency will be a curse. But it is an inevitable product of expansive occupation. There is not, in my mind anyway, any intention to disregard the sufferings of these people in order to fit them into categories; rather, ultimately the categories imposed will fail to control the consequences of these truncated lives.
      .
      2) The two-state solution is not being dismissed by the left; Bibi (whose last name is too hard for me to remember how to spell) has just about made one state apartheid not a solution, but likely reality.
      .
      Finally, if PA funds retract, competition for what resources there are will grow; this will yield violence within the Bank–and renewed advocacy and attempt at violence against Israel. And the State of Israel, as always, will reply. This is why, in my view, the demonstrations against the Wall were and are so important. They offer an alternative locus of actualized conflict as the PA shrinks. That doesn’t mean they will dominate; but active alternative, and courage, will be dearly necessary then. At least to those, as myself, who think killing will go nowhere.
      .
      XYZ,
      .
      You cannot have autonomous enclaves which Arafat you say wanted while he later coordinates all suicide bombings. I am no Arafat worshiper, but it just didn’t happen that way. There is solace in thinking “peoples” battle one another; but the reality is just about always messier than that. I do not think, to this day, we understand the genesis and maintenance of suicide bombing. Social science is more difficult than political position. Anguish, anger, fear do not necessarily lead to causal explanation with some hope of validity. Political ideology and science are not identical.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Kolumn9

      XYZ, Yeah, I agree that there is a general trend in the Arab world about the breaking down of centralized government. Secular centralized control just doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for societies that are based on a permanent state of clan/tribe/religious competition for public resources, dominance and space. This might go back to the Ottoman approach of controlling their very large empire as a quasi-feudal system whereby they basically granted legitimization to whoever managed to come to power in the provinces as long as the taxes and conscripts were sent up the chain. The same policy was used by the governors in dealing with their vassal rulers of cities/towns/villages. In practice this system supported and nurtured a system where on the local level there is constant conflict between family/clan groups for public dominance while the loyalty of the local ruler to the governor was a function of the capacity and willingness of the ruler to either use force or make lucrative arrangements to ensure compliance. Ultimate authority of Istanbul at the top of this food chain came from a combination of religious authority (caliphate) and military power. The basis for this system collapsed totally when the Ottoman Empire went nation-state under Ataturk. Within the former Ottoman provinces however there is no real legitimacy granted within this framework for the secular concept of a state as there was in the West as a result of the vesting of legitimacy within the state as a representative of the nation.
      .

      The creeping Islamization is a result of the absence and/or collapse of a legitimizing authority for the exercise of secular power superimposed on a feudal structure. This is true for the Palestinians as much as it is true for much of the Arab world. Many of the conflicts in the Arab world can be seen as struggles over public legitimacy rather than actual wars for control (a la Europe). One of the most interesting things for me was to see what happened in Gaza after Hamas came to power. Most clans that were allied with Fatah went over to Hamas extremely quickly and with minimal friction. Other clans that refused immediately to swear fealty were brought over after almost symbolic displays of power by Hamas. For a revolution it was almost bloodless (120 dead) and this is out of tens of thousands of men that both sides had under arms (with Fatah having numerical superiority). The interesting thing to me about this process is that increased Islamist control over governments might have the impact of counteracting the current trend towards decentralization even if the autonomous groups have their own firepower.
      .

      I also agree that under the current regional conditions the PA/Fateh couldn’t make and stick to a deal even if they wanted to. They have no legitimacy left to make deals and are holding on to their present position almost entirely on the basis of Western aid. The PA will collapse in its present form sooner or later regardless of what Israel does and it will be replaced by largely autonomous statelets that rhetorically swear their fealty to some larger body that might still call itself the PA or alternatively Hamas or the PLO or the Caliphate or Palestine. In any case they will be practically independent because for obvious reasons it is unlikely that any such larger body will be in a position to impose centralized control in any meaningful way.
      .

      Yeah, I generally like Kedar and that video where he makes a fool out of the AJ anchor is priceless.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Adam Keller

      “The the mainstream right, and not just the settlers, is becoming a force of change.I think progressive Israelis should give more thought to this dynamic.”

      Yes, we should give a thought to this dynamic – keeping in mind that it is a negative dynamic from which nothing good can possibly come. There are many schemes in the Israeli right wing towards full Israeli sovereignty in the Occupied Territories, but NONE of them include equal rights to the Palestinians. Each and every scheme from the Right always does and always will include some nullifying clause which would make sure that Jews would remain the bosses from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In some plans it is very obvious Some of them, such as Naftali Benet, propose to annex only the C areas and leave the Palestinians in non-annexed “autonomy” in the A and B enclaves. Others such as Uri Ariel are more subtle, proposing to annex the whole territory and let Palestinians “apply for Israeli citizenship after five years”. NONE of them do or ever would propose a system of “One Person – One Vote”. If you think you saw somebody on the right proposing that, look more carefully and you will find the catch. Please don’t be misled by wishful thinking!

      Reply to Comment
    19. sh

      “NONE of them do or ever would propose a system of “One Person – One Vote”. If you think you saw somebody on the right proposing that, look more carefully and you will find the catch.”
      .
      Isn’t Rabbi Froman considered right wing? There was a long, interesting interview with him in last week’s Hebrew Haaretz in which he seems to favor across-the-board equal rights. http://www.haaretz.co.il/magazine/ayelet-shani/1.1774107

      Reply to Comment
    20. Kolumn9

      Sh, Rabbi Froman is considered a right-wing eccentric if it isn’t entirely obvious from the article. Not only that, but even he doesn’t propose a system of “One Person – One Vote” over the entirety of the land of Israel, but is a proponent of a Palestinian state in the WB where Jewish settlers stay as citizens.
      My favorite part of the interview which demonstrates his eccentricity:
      “ההתנחלויות הן אצבעות היד המושטות לשלום”
      “The settlements are the fingers of a hand reaching out for peace”

      Reply to Comment
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