As international attention increasingly focuses on the Palestinian Authority’s coming bid for UN recognition of a Palestinian state and Middle East watchers incessantly speculate on the possible ramifications of this latest development in the seemingly never-ending saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Whatever happens at the UN in September, what really matters is the fact that the peace process is now well and truly over and a new phase of the conflict is beginning. Twenty years after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began at the 1991 Madrid Conference and eighteen years after the start of the Oslo peace process, the bilateral negotiating track has reached a dead end.
The end of the peace process has, of course, been announced many times before. The collapse of the Camp David summit meeting in July 2000 between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, the outbreak of the second Intifada, the demise of the Bush administration’s Roadmap for Peace have all led onlookers to gloomily declare the death of the peace process. Yet somehow, defying expectations, the process has limped on, or at least it continued to show faint signs of life. As these past failures testify, the peace process—always more process than peace—has suffered setback after setback, but it was still the only game in town. Despite all its limitations and frustrations, it always remained the only way that Israelis and Palestinians could hope to achieve their national objectives—security for the former, self-determination for the latter.
Now neither side in its heart of hearts believes that bilateral negotiations can succeed in giving it what it wants. After two decades of talking, arguing and cajoling, both Israel and the Palestinians have effectively given up. Not publicly of course. That would be impolitic. It would certainly not be well received by the Obama administration, which is now the only true believer in the peace process. But Israeli and Palestinian official declarations about their willingness to negotiate should not fool anyone. Both sides are more concerned with avoiding blame for the lack of negotiations than they are with actually resuming talks. Even if they do finally get around to negotiating again, it would only be for show (as last year’s short-lived negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas were), and future dialogues are almost certainly going to end up like all the others—in acrimonious failure.
The bitter truth is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are in no mood to compromise. Traumatized and embittered by their long conflict, they remain deeply suspicious of each other and implacably hostile, at least for the foreseeable future. Nor are their leaders any more conciliatory. To be sure, President Abbas is as moderate a Palestinian leader as one could possibly hope for, but even he cannot meet Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demands. On all the core issues—the delineation of final borders, the future of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—the bottom lines of the current leaderships in Jerusalem and Ramallah are still far apart (notwithstanding all the assurances to the contrary of those in the “peace process industry”). Nor are there any potential leaders waiting in the wings who will be much more accommodating on these issues.
Since a negotiated final settlement of the conflict is currently out of the question, where does this leave us? In the past, violence would have been the most likely outcome. That’s what happened when the Oslo peace talks broke down. This time, however, a different scenario is more likely. The violence of the second Intifada brought the Palestinians nothing but misery. Armed resistance to Israel—the siren song of Hamas and Hezbollah—no longer enthralls Palestinians as it once did. Instead, they are drawn to a different means of resistance. Nonviolent, large-scale popular resistance is now seen by many Palestinians as their last hope to end Israel’s occupation and achieve independence. Having unsuccessfully tried negotiations and armed struggle, this appears to be all that’s left.
The massive popular demonstrations of the Arab Spring and the peaceful overthrow of President Mubarak and President Ben-Ali have only added to the allure of this strategy. “People power” has now become the preferred means of political action across the Middle East, even if it has been met with violent repression in many places. We have already witnessed the first stirrings of this among the Palestinians with the Nakba Day marches that took place in May as tens of thousands tried to overwhelm Israel’s borders, with bloody consequences. More such events are likely to occur, and more frequently.
Together with mass popular mobilization against the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians are likely to increasingly rely on international pressure against Israel. Getting the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution in support of Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 lines is just the latest and most publicized attempt to do so (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiative by Palestinian civil society is another). In various international forums, governmental and nongovernmental, Palestinians will try to marshal international support and isolate Israel. In doing so, they hope that the global community will eventually get Israel to give them what it has been unwilling to give them at the negotiating table. By internationalizing the conflict, the Palestinians hope to impose a settlement on Israel.
Whether mass civil disobedience, nonviolence and international pressure will achieve for the Palestinians what negotiations and terrorism have not is another question entirely. They seem to be strategies born more out of desperation and despair than careful consideration of what Israel will constructively respond to. Israel is not Apartheid South Africa or Mubarak’s Egypt, and Israeli Jews are more likely to react with disregard and defiance in the face of international condemnation.
The future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then, looks set to become a kind of peaceful war of attrition (possibly accompanied by the occasional outbreak of violence). Will the Palestinians succeed in making Israel such an international pariah that Israelis will eventually conclude that agreeing to Palestinian terms for a final settlement is the lesser of two evils, or will Israel dig in long enough and maintain enough diplomatic support to counter this strategy? Will Israel have moved enough settlers into the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make any future territorial division effectively impossible? These are the fundamental questions that will determine the course of this conflict, not how many votes the Palestinians get in the UN or what kind of official status the PA receives.
Finally, what does this mean for the United States’ longtime role in trying to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It can only be concluded that Washington, under successive presidents, has failed in this effort. As such, its future role will not be as a peacemaker but as Israel’s diplomatic bodyguard, trying to shield it from the mounting international opprobrium that Israel is bound to face. Indeed, the United States has already been playing this role for some time.
There is, however, another option for Washington. The failure of the bilateral negotiating track could lead the United States to decide that its own national interests necessitate that it put forward its own solution to the conflict and compel both sides to accept it, even if only reluctantly. To be sure, this option comes with real political risk for any administration that pursues it. But a second-term president willing to jeopardize domestic political capital for the big prize of Israeli-Palestinian peace may take such a chance. Will Obama be that president?