Israel’s most precious asset, peace, has been shattered. Continuation of the unequal war against Hamas in Gaza is not the greatest threat to the Jewish state’s future. Rather, the possibility of a broader conflict including Israel’s Palestinian citizens is a frightening abyss into which Israeli and U.S. policymakers alike must now stare.
If Israel continues to seize Palestinian land and treat Palestinians as third-class human beings, disaster is likely. With time running out, Washington can no longer ignore perpetual injustice for Palestinians.
Donald Trump’s agenda for relations with Israel was simple: absolute and unswerving support. His "Deal of the Century" dismissed Palestinian political aspirations by offering little more than Bantustan-style enclaves with only a vague possibility of future economic investment.
After destroying diplomatic options for negotiation, the Trump administration appeared to win Arab dictators’ support for its policy of marginalizing the Palestinians. The so-called Abraham accords normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab authoritarian regimes, most notably the United Arab Emirates, with the hope that Saudi Arabia would follow. Jared Kushner declared: "We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict."
The Abraham accords won bipartisan acclaim. Now that policy has blown up spectacularly.
So far the main hostilities are between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas. There is much to criticize about the latter, but Israel treats the densely populated territory, just 141 square miles, as an open air prison. Absent a peaceful settlement that frees Gaza residents, the lack of hope and opportunity will fuel future conflict, however the latest round of fighting ends. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views political objectives as paramount. Former defense minister Avignor Lieberman observed: "The strategic purpose of the operation is to improve the public opinion of Netanyahu."
The government’s expectation that brute military force will keep West Bank Palestinians as a captive labor force now looks increasingly unrealistic. They rejected Washington’s plan for permanent Israeli control. Popular frustration is growing with a system that Human Rights Watch recently described as apartheid. Palestinian Authority elections, last held 15 years ago, have again been postponed. Continued colonization of Palestinian lands by settlers with the Israeli government’s backing has made a two-state peace essentially impossible. Another intifada, or uprising – the last sustained West Bank violence ended in 2005 – is possible,
At the same time, ongoing Israeli efforts to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem – through "the courts when they could, and chicanery and fraud when they couldn’t," in the words of journalist Richard Silverstein – triggered public protests. In turn, Netanyahu launched a violent crackdown, which included security forces storming the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. Observers including Silverstein argued that Netanyahu calculated this step would foment protests and spread fear, blocking the opposition from forming a government.
In response Palestinian citizens in Israel marched. Jewish-Israeli mobs assaulted Palestinians in Israel, beating residents and destroying property. Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American commentator, observed that "The one seemingly new aspect of this violent episode shaking everyone’s sense of security in Israel, more than the indiscriminate missiles falling on Israeli cities, is the outburst of civil unrest in Israeli communities across Israel." Some Israelis have nervously suggested the possibility of a civil war.
Nearly seven million Palestinians face roughly the same number of Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. If the former – currently divided among Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank – see their fight as essentially the same, the entire region could ignite.
Although the Trump administration confidently dismissed the importance of the Palestinian issue, the ongoing conflict has inflamed the Arab Street throughout the Middle East. Younger Arabs have adopted the cause, demonstrating that Palestine remains in the hearts of Arabs and Muslims around the world.
The UAE and other signers of the Abraham accords have said little, hoping the storm will pass. Their silence came under fire from other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The likelihood of Saudi Arabia opening relations with Israel has dropped sharply.
Although the pro-Israel lobby retains a stranglehold over the Republican Party, dissension has emerged among Democrats. Younger and more progressive members have broken with their elders on lockstep support for Israel.
No longer can Washington, which arms and subsidizes Israel, ignore the plight of the Palestinian people. Said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J-Street, a liberal Jewish organization: "I don’t think that there’s any way that this occupation and creeping annexation process could have gotten where it is today if the United States had said no." Israel’s continuing land grab is making a peaceful resolution impossible. The US must insist that Israel recognize the rights and aspirations of Palestinians.
So far the Biden administration’s policy has been Trump-lite. However, better rhetoric and showy treaties are no substitute for providing justice for the Palestinian people. If the president wants a Middle East at peace, he must pursue a balanced and enduring settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Today a raging fire threatens to consume these kindred peoples. The time for Washington to act is short.
Khaled Saffuri is President of the National Interest Foundation.