The deadly attack in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, which claimed the lives of four Israelis and wounded several others, presages what could be a long hot summer between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the challenge goes deeper than just the immediate threat of summer violence. Indeed, a number of factors are emerging to create what could be the new Israeli-Palestinian normal — one in which a highly functional Israeli state interacts with two separate, highly dysfunctional and weak Palestinian polities in the West Bank and Gaza.
This new status quo will be marked at times by competition and violence and at others by cooperation and coordination. Sadly, it is a road that at least for now promises not a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to a series of pretty unhappy outcomes.
Several new factors define the new normal.
First, the attack in Tel Aviv appears to have been intended as a mass casualty assault with firearms, and could signal the beginning of a new trend in Palestinian terror. Of the attacks since September 2015, more than half — 151 — were knifings, according to the Israeli government. There were also 92 attacks using firearms, and 43 using vehicles.
Although Hamas praised the attack, it did not claim responsibility. But it many respects that may not matter. The bloodiest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 — the killings in San Bernardino — was inspired but not directed by ISIS.
In the Tel Aviv attack, two people identified as Palestinians in their 20s from a village in the southern West Bank opened fire in the Sarona Market. Both Israeli Defense Forces and Shin Bet sources say they are concerned that new terror cells along these lines may be forming in the West Bank to carry out similar attacks.
Second, the recent addition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister will create additional pressures on what is now arguably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu will still make the final decisions, but the motivation to get tougher — particularly in the face of new terror attacks — will inevitably rise.
The Israeli response so far has already been tough, but could easily become much harsher. The West Bank has been sealed off for the next several days; 83,000 Ramadan and family visit travel permits have been suspended; and the West Bank city of Yatta has been blocked off.
Liberman, meanwhile, will have to balance his own need to be tough (he was a bitter critic of what he believed was the weak response to the Gaza conflict in 2014) with his desire not to overact and make the situation on the ground worse by undermining Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.
Third, the Palestinian Authority has no good options and is drifting. Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has an interest in maintaining security cooperation. But not at the expense being perceived as Israel’s policeman on the West Bank. The harsher Israel’s security measures become the more tenuous his position will become. The truth is, though, his condemnation of the Tel Aviv attack — quite detached and general — will satisfy nobody, particularly compared with Hamas’ praise for the operation.
Meanwhile, Abbas’ international campaign to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood has stalled and he is reportedly suspicious about new contacts between Israel and the Arabs states. So reports that he will be meeting with Hamas political leader Khalid Meshaal in Qatar soon do not come as any surprise. Real unity between Fatah and Hamas is magical thinking. But it plays well for Abbas domestically.
Fourth, the other potential flashpoint, of course, is the possibility of another serious escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza. Three such confrontations in the past eight years — 2008/09; 2012; 2014 — do not inspire confidence regarding the various sides’ ability to avoid another. Indeed, Hamas’s dedication to resistance against Israel; a deteriorating economic situation in Gaza; Israel’s blockade of the strip; more Hamas tunneling along the border into Israel; and no prospect of Hamas buying into diplomacy — all make another confrontation seemingly inevitable.
Defense Minister Liberman has, for his part, talked tough about destroying Hamas. Yet for now, it’s unclear what benefits a confrontation would have for Israel or Hamas at the moment.
Ultimately, the latest incident has taken place against the backdrop of this stark reality — rarely, has there been a period in the past decade or more where the prospects of a credible peace process, let alone a solution, have seemed so gloomy.
The Americans are caught up in their election; the French initiative has fizzled in Paris; the Arabs are preoccupied with their own internal problems and with Iran and Sunni jihadis. And while Egypt has flirted with some sort of regional meeting involving Netanyahu and Abbas, it’s hard to see where such a meeting would lead, given the enormous gaps on the big issues between Israelis and Palestinians.
With no possibility of a political solution, and with a distracted international community, Israelis and Palestinians will be left to cope with the new normal by themselves. And if history is any guide, the outcome is certain to be an unhappy one.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.