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.

Signs of a transitional moment in the Israeli-Palestinian 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.