At first sight, the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian relations look bleaker than ever. And it would be ludicrous to suggest that the goal of creating a better Israeli-Palestinian relationship – still less achieving a conflict-ending agreement – could be anything other than extremely challenging. But a look behind the headlines suggests that there are more opportunities here than might appear immediately to be the case.
For one thing, majorities on both sides still support a two-state solution in principle. They are slim majorities, admittedly. But the very fact that there remain majorities in favour of the two-state solution suggests that the proposal has enduring appeal – or at least that there are few, if any, credible alternatives. And there is good reason to believe that the majorities would be a lot bigger if leaders on both sides were seen to be committed to doing a peace deal on a two-state basis.
Meanwhile, there could be changes to the Israeli political landscape that might open up new possibilities. While no movement towards better Israeli-Palestinian relations can be expected while Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister, the end of the Netanyahu era might now be approaching. One of the judicial investigations into his conduct in office could well bring him down. If this does not happen, the scandals surrounding him and his family may well mean that his Likud party does not select him to lead it into the next Knesset elections, due in November 2019. (All this, however, is subject to the caveat than Netanyahu is a consummate political survivor.)
If and when Netanyahu does leave office, there are new (or new-ish) Israeli politicians such as Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid whose parties (Labour and Yesh Atid respectively) might do well enough at the polls to permit the formation of a centrist government. Neither Gabbay nor Lapid is a traditional peace-process ‘dove’ but either could bring a fresh perspective to the question of relations with the Palestinians. (Encouragingly, the name of Lapid’s party means 'There is a Future' in English.)
A new Israeli prime minister could greatly improve the prospects of better Israeli-Palestinian relations or movement towards a conflict-ending agreement by mobilizing Israel’s Arabs (or Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin, as many now prefer to be called). Hitherto reticent about involvement in such endeavours, the Israeli Arabs represent a substantial reservoir of potential support, being a community of significant size (around one in five of the population) with strong representation in the Knesset and one which is very much in favour of a two-state solution.
On the Palestinian side, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has continued to declare himself ready to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict (even while he despairs of the present Israeli government), as his speech to the UN General Assembly showed. And while he has, since President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, rejected a US role in the peace process, he might well change his mind if a viable US peace plan emerges, once all the rhetorical dust has settled.
Such a plan would have to demand concessions from both sides, on a reasonably equitable basis. This is not impossible: after all, President Trump has spoken of Israel paying for his recognition of Jerusalem. And at the regional level, the Arab Peace Initiative remains on the table (it was re-affirmed by Arab leaders at their summit in March 2017) as a possible basis for negotiations. And those leaders could provide powerful backing to Abbas in any renewed negotiations with Israel.
Beyond national-level politics, there is a greater readiness on the part of Israelis and Palestinians to talk to one another than might seem to be the case. Some Palestinians are plainly unwilling to talk to Israelis and reject ‘normalization’ with Israel while movement restrictions remain in place and settlement expansion continues. However, a Chatham House workshop in East Jerusalem last November demonstrated that there are Palestinians who are prepared to take part in exchanges with Israeli counterparts.
The workshop also revealed the existence of a good deal of practical cooperation in business, including in the tech industry – where restrictions on physical movement are less problematic and the possibilities for cooperation are considerable. And whether in tech or in other areas of activity, parts of society that have often been underrepresented in discussions about peace – such as youth, women and religious people – can play an expanded role.
However improbable it might seem right now, the coincidence of some or all of these factors could create a more positive dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians, at several levels. That in turn could re-energize an international community grown weary of the apparent intractability of the conflict and pre-occupied with other matters.
Of course, the stars – the positive factors set out above – may not align in a constructive way, or prove resistant to attempts to nudge them into alignment. In that case, the future for Israelis and Palestinians is lose-lose, as the two peoples drift by default into an unstable and inevitably violent one-state reality.
Greg Shapland, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.