Two intifadas increased Israeli willingness to make territorial withdrawals. Wars in Lebanon and Egypt led Israel to withdrawals from those territories. Despite all that, the Palestinian Authority is trying to maintain quiet and security for Israelis but receives nothing in return. If I were Palestinian I might come to a disturbing conclusion.
One axiom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Palestinian violence pushes the Jewish public rightward. Due to violence, common wisdom goes, the willingness of Israeli Jews to make concessions or compromise decreases, and Palestinian independence or equality becomes more of a pipe dream. Only refraining from violence will bring Palestinians closer to their goal. This has become a truism across political camps: you hear it from the Right, Left, and center, as well as from various international actors. Reality, however, is much more complex, and sometimes the exact opposite. As Israelis and Palestinians seem headed into another prolonged and bloody escalation, it’s important to face the facts.
From a simple historical perspective, the claim that “quiet” brings us closer to peace is simply untrue. In the first 20 years following the Six-Day War, when Israel held onto the occupied territories with relative ease, the idea of withdrawal or establishing a Palestinian state was completely taboo. Israel gave up on the Peres-Hussein London Agreement in 1987, which would have transferred partial responsibility for the occupied Palestinian territories back to Jordan’s King Hussein, leaving the PLO out of the process. Only six years later, Israel recognized the PLO and accepted Arafat back to historic Palestine. It was the First Intifada that made the difference. At the beginning of the uprising, the Israeli public shifted to the right, but after four years it elected Rabin on a peace platform.
A similar process took place after the Second Intifada: Israelis broke right and chose Ariel Sharon, but the Israeli government then disengaged from Gaza; Sharon’s successor presented the Palestinians with the most far-reaching proposal to date. Under Netanyahu, however, when the number of Israeli casualties decreased significantly, the Israeli public drifted to the right and became far less willing to make compromises.
The logic that violence pushed Israel to agree to things it had previously rejected applies on other fronts, too. Take, for example, the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, or the peace agreement with Egypt, which was the direct result of the 1973 War. Israel rejected the pre-war peace offers that were far less costly than the accord it ended up signing. We paid a pretty penny for what had previously been offered for far cheaper.
The Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University’s “Peace Index” is a monthly poll that has looked at Israeli support for peace-related issues since 1994. The questions have changed over the years, but they remain consistent enough for us to identify several trends.
For instance, according to one summary of poll results from 21 years, Israeli support for peace dropped drastically during the suicide bombings of 1996, as well as during the first years of the Second Intifada. These findings are consistent with the popular narrative, according to which terror pushes the public to the right. But in the deadly years between 2002-2004 — the peak of the Second Intifada — the number of Israelis who supported negotiations actually went up. On the other hand, in 2010-2014, when the number of Jewish casualties dropped significantly, support for the peace process also decreased. In fact, 2012 was the first year in four decades when not a single Israeli Jew was killed in the West Bank yet support for the peace process hit an all-time low that year — lower than following major suicide bombings.
Another study based on the Peace Index findings, conducted by Ella Heller, shows that there has been a sharp decrease in the percentage of Israelis who believe in the importance of diplomatic-political (i.e. peace and Palestinian) issues.
How can these findings be explained? The answer is tied to a combination of quiet in the West Bank and the bad outcome of the Gaza disengagement. Against the backdrop of violent confrontations around the Gaza Strip, the fact that the West Bank was quiet caused Israelis to believe that withdrawal would entail security dangers, and that occupation actually presents the best solution. In other words, the Palestinians Authority’s security coordination didn’t work in favor of the Palestinians as a trust-building measure — quite the opposite: it made Israelis want to maintain the status quo.
The Israeli public’s behavior can be explained as follows: rational actors want to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs. During the first and second intifadas, Israelis gradually became more willing to accept changes because the cost of the status quo was high. Netanyahu’s time in office has changed the equation: the status quo in the West Bank and East Jerusalem looks like the more reasonable option, while the results of the Gaza Disengagement raised the perceived cost of another withdrawal.
The terrifying conclusion of this calculation is that should the tables turn — that is, if the current violence continues and intensifies — Israeli willingness to make concessions may grow significantly. Even worse is the fact is that the Israeli government is going to great lengths to send this exact message to the Palestinians. It’s enough to see the patronizing language Israeli officials use when they refer to the Palestinian Authority and Abbas, as opposed to the respect — verging on panic — which they show Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State. If I were a Palestinian, I might end up thinking that violence is the only way to get Israel’s attention.
One of the historical examples that is not discussed enough in Israel is France’s war in Algeria between the years 1954-1962, and the failure of politics to deal with the constant escalation in violence there. France controlled Algeria for 130 years; over a million French settlers (“pieds noir”) viewed the country as their home. In fact, France did not view Algeria as a colony, but rather as an extension of the country, and thus was run by the Interior Ministry, rather than the Ministry of Overseas France.
As “the Algerian problem” worsened over the years, every solution or proposed reform was torpedoed by the settlers and their French supporters in parliament in Paris. As the violence grew, the French agreed to more “concessions” — but at every stage they proposed something that was relevant two-to-three years prior. The war that eventual broke out left nearly a million victims in its wake. In its final stages, it deteriorated into an orgy of terror attacks and counterattacks that led Charles de Gaulle to completely abandon the idea of compromise and flee Algeria along with the settlers.
Violence in Algeria wiped out the moderate, pragmatic forces on both sides. Major decisions were dictated by those who could kill the most people. Terror attacks from both sides followed one another in a tragic cycle of violence. The armed uprising eventually defeated the occupation, but the truth is that everybody lost. Algeria after the occupation became a dictatorship that degenerated into civil war in the 1990s — a clear consequence of the war and the forces it unleashed.
The harsh truth is that I cannot think of a single occupying society that woke up one morning and decided to end an occupation of its own volition, especially when there was a civilian claim to the territory involved. But unlike in other places, we Israelis have already been through so many violent cycles. Do we really need another round? It won’t end with knives in the streets, that’s for sure.
Having lived through the first and second intifadas, we know what to expect: in the first months or perhaps even years of the next violent outbreak, Israelis will move rightward. But if the violence lasts long enough, up to the point that the two societies grow really tired of spilling each other’s blood, at some point a leader with a strong right-wing or security record will rise to power in Israel, and surprise surprise, will agree to make concessions that today seem unacceptable. Just as Menachem Begin did in Sinai. Or Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo. Or Ehud Barak in Lebanon. Or Ariel Sharon in Gaza.
To live or die together
Jews and Palestinians live side by side in every part of this country. In the West Bank, Jerusalem, Galilee, the Negev, and the coastal plain. That’s why recent events are so worrying. The current wave of violence seems almost spontaneous, and surely not something that can be stopped by orders from above. Desperation on the ground provides the incentive, and the violence engulfing the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, adds inspiration for those who need it. At the same time, Palestinian politics remains fractured in two, a fact that serves Israel in the short term but poses a serious challenge to when Israelis might eventually search for a political path forward.
It is clear that the government has no serious plan for dealing with reality, but it does have many ideas for how to make matters worse. The empty accusations against Abbas, outlawing the Islamic Movement, attacks on Palestinian members of Knesset — these will only lead us downhill. Those who are not satisfied with the current Palestinian political actors in Israel and the West Bank will either get militant politics or pure anarchy. Any political arrangement will be much harder to achieve, since everyone will try to retroactively justify the blood spilled.
The alternative to this horrible cycle begins with recognizing that Jews and Arabs will need to continue living in this land side by side, whether the arrangement is called “two states”, “one state,” or any other name. There will never be complete separation — so we must start with creating a shared life based on fairness and equality.
The lesson we ought to learn from the disengagement is that unilateral steps are a recipe for disaster. We must strengthen those who are willing to play the political game today, whether it is Fatah, Palestinian MKs, and even Hamas. We must show, with actions, that there is an end to the occupation in sight. Even if currently there is no path for a final-status agreement, we must demonstrate to young Palestinians that they have a future in this country. Not “under Israel,” but as people who have the power to determine their own future. Perhaps not everyone will be convinced, and maybe not immediately. Regional developments may complicate things. But the fact is there is no other way.
The chance of all that happening is slim. Currently, Israeli leaders are actually competing with one another over ideas for collective punishment against Palestinians — a well-known recipe for pushing more people into the cycle of violence. Everything feels so familiar, so futile. Expulsions, home demolitions, shutting down newspapers, administrative detention — it went the exact same way in previous rounds. The Jewish public is moving rightward. History teaches us that, at some point, it might change its mind. This won’t help the dead. The worst is still ahead of us.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.