Israel and Palestine entered the post-Oslo era in late 2008 when then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert made an end-of-conflict offer to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). From an Israeli perspective, this comprised an extremely moderate set of proposals. From a Palestinian standpoint, as Abbas later stated, “the gaps were wide,” meaning Olmert’s terms were insufficient.
In retrospect, it was then that the Oslo paradigm for peacemaking became irrelevant. Nothing significant has transpired in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since, and no better circumstances for implementing Oslo can be contemplated. The one attempt to mediate between the two sides, by then U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in 2013–2014, repeated previous failures grounded in the Oslo framework, without recognizing the need for a new paradigm.
By that time, the Israeli political scene had fallen under the control of pro-settler, right-wing parties who opposed a Palestinian state. Recent coalitions have been led by a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is dedicated to expanding settlements while barely paying lip service to the two-state solution. He is backed by an Israeli public that still supports two states in the abstract but in practice is thoroughly disillusioned about its feasibility.
Even Netanyahu’s possible departure from politics in the face of looming corruption charges is not likely to change this reality. The Israeli public will remain skeptical about peace in the coming decade due to a host of contributing factors. In Israeli eyes, the Palestinian suicide bombings of the second intifada painted Palestinian society in a monstrous light. The Palestinian response to Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip—rocket attacks and a Hamas takeover—sent a message that any future Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be interpreted as weakness, inviting Palestinian aggression. Growing Israeli public awareness that Palestinian negotiating positions on “narrative” issues—such as the right of return for refugees and the status of the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif)—had remained unyielding in final-status negotiations in 2000 and 2008 apparently dispirited many of them who favored the Oslo process.
Then, too, Palestinian disunity that emerged in 2007 between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza was a harbinger of the broader Arab collapse into chaos in 2011. The dysfunction in several Arab states surrounding Israel seemingly reinforced an Israeli mindset that now is hardly the time to create yet another chaotic Arab state.
Finally, by 2017, an aging and ailing Abbas was rebuffing efforts to generate an orderly succession process in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas was waxing hot and cold: it chose as prime minister its most militant leader to date, Yahya Sinwar, while simultaneously creating an impression that it was moderating its charter. Israel’s (and Egypt’s) inability to come up with a coherent strategy for dealing with Gaza virtually guaranteed more conflict in the years ahead.
The Israeli intelligence establishment is far more worried about an Iranian challenge from Syria and southern Lebanon than a new intifada or the next conflict with Hamas—however real these last two contingencies. Those Sunni Arab states that are still relatively functional are more interested in quietly collaborating with Israel against the twin Islamist dangers posed by Iran and the Islamic State than in expending valuable assets in support of a PLO-PA establishment that has disappointed them. Paradoxically, it is precisely this Sunni Arab collaboration that places Israel in an ideal position to offer far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
By 2017, Israel and Palestine were slowly sliding down a slippery slope toward a single political entity. Ultimately, the substance of that entity will fall somewhere between an apartheid state—in which West Bank Palestinians are third-class citizens and Arab residents of Israel are second-class citizens—and a binational Jewish-Arab state. Politicians from the Israeli right have aligned themselves with one variation or another. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is an advocate of full citizenship rights for West Bank Arabs. Education Minister and Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett supports permanent autonomy for residents of areas A and B in the West Bank—which are either under full Palestinian administration or administered jointly by the Palestinians and Israelis.
As all Palestinian issues become “domestic” for Israel, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the functions of the Israel Defense Forces, as an occupying army, and of the Israel Police, with its responsibility for Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of East Jerusalem. Israel’s government will proceed with legislative initiatives to restrict organizations and institutions dealing with Palestinian, or for that matter Israeli, human rights and will consider annexing parts of the West Bank. A primary constraint on Israeli policies will be the attitude of the United States toward the Middle East.
All other things being equal, this situation can be expected to continue throughout the coming decade. It will be uneven and conflicted. Under certain circumstances, it could drag in neighboring countries. Israeli interaction with Gaza will almost certainly be violent. Israel’s support base among U.S. Jews will continue to erode. But the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement will have only a marginal impact on Israel’s robust postindustrial economy.
The speed of Israeli-Palestinian dynamics and the prospects for reversing it depend on the kind of game-changing events that periodically visit the Middle East. A major U.S. peace initiative could freeze the downward drift. This could conceivably take the form of a full-fledged revision of U.S. (and potentially Russian) relations with the Arabs and Israel against the backdrop of the war in Syria. On the other hand, the absence or failure of any new U.S. two-state initiative could accelerate the slide. New Israeli and Palestinian leaders more committed to overcoming the barriers to two states—leaders of the caliber of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin—could conceivably reverse the drift. However, the emergence of more hard-line leaders appears more likely.
Then there is the input of Arab leaders and events in the neighborhood. In the coming decade, the threats posed by Shia or Sunni Islamists, or both, are likely to increase. Key Arab leaders could become so reliant on security collaboration with Israel that they would turn a blind eye to ongoing Israeli absorption of the West Bank. Alternatively, a major military blow to Israel, presumably at the hands of Iran and its proxies, or alternatively a humanitarian catastrophe such as mass starvation in Gaza, could radically affect Israeli strategic thinking about compromise and peace. That is what the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war did, painfully.
These are hypothetical projections, at a fragile juncture in the Middle East’s modern history. Hence, the slippery slope is the only relatively reliable prediction. Sooner or later, if we reach the bottom of the slope, we will encounter the end of Israel as a Zionist democratic state, a violent daily reality for both Israelis and Palestinians, and, as a consequence, possible additional destabilization of the Arab Middle East.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and former co-editor of bitterlemons.net. His latest book is No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.