The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new phase that’s less hopeful but more honest

Because Mahmoud Abbas wants to be more than just a guy at a long table with a picture of Jerusalem plastered to the wall.
Because Mahmoud Abbas wants to be more than just a guy at a long table with a picture of Jerusalem plastered to the wall.
Image: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed
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Like its failed bid earlier in the week to get a United Nations security council resolution calling for a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) application on New Year’s Eve to join the International Criminal Court (ICC)—along with 19 other international organizations and treaties—may not lead to much. It’s far from clear (paywall) that the court will try, let alone convict, any Israelis the PA attempts to drag before it, and besides, ICC membership is a double-edged sword—Israel could bring its own cases against the Palestinians, specifically Hamas.

But, as with the UN statehood resolution, what matters is not the outcome, but the taking part. By making these moves, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is declaring the era of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks officially over. The peace process had been effectively dead for years, kept on life-support by a coterie of professional peaceniks on all sides trying to preserve their own careers. Now, with Israel no longer pretending it wants to talk peace, the PA is going on the diplomatic offensive.

Israel has already had to suffer several reversals on the international stage this year—various countries have passed resolutions (albeit toothless ones) recognizing a state of Palestine, the EU took Hamas off its terrorist blacklist, and the 22-nation Arab League, which for over a decade had supported peace talks, pivoted and threw its weight behind the UN statehood bid instead. Expect that momentum to keep building this year, with the PA making as much noise as it can in international forums to help it along.

Abbas knows this won’t push Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu back to the negotiating table. But I also don’t think he shares the US’s hope that a new peace process can start if a more pliant leader wins the Israeli election this March (just as the PA’s ICC membership takes effect). Instead, he is poking the hornets’ nest, trying to make Israel more angry and isolationist just as the rest of the world is turning against it. Seeing as how Israeli politics has been getting steadily more hawkish in the past 15 years, he’s likely to succeed.

Part of Abbas’s reason for doing this is personal desperation. A week from now he will reach the 10th anniversary of his presidency (even though his term officially expired years ago) as little more than the glorified administrator of a semi-autonomous West Bank bureaucracy, stymied by the intransigence of both Israel and Hamas. Taking Palestine’s case to the international stage is a way for him and his circle of aged cronies to revive their own legitimacy as well as that of the cause.

But there is also a different kind of desperation—the action of a people who have little left to lose. Pushing Israel into a corner is a dangerous move. Netanyahu has promised “retaliatory steps” for Abbas’s ICC bid, and there is plenty Israel can to do to make Palestinians’ lives even more miserable than they already are. The more international pressure there is, the less placatory Israel is likely to be. The goal of Abbas’s new strategy appears to be to win the Palestinians their statehood by coercion instead of negotiation—to crank up the animus against Israel, and the corresponding Israeli backlash, until the country is made such a pariah that it is forced to submit.

That, certainly, is the hope of the international “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement allied with the Palestinians—that under sufficient diplomatic opprobrium and economic pressure, the Israeli occupation will crumble just as South African apartheid did. What BDS-ers tend to overlook is that what ultimately triggered the fall of apartheid was the fall of the Soviet Union, which deprived the African National Congress of one of its key benefactors while robbing the South African regime of one of the justifications for oppressing it—namely, the perceived threat of communism taking over the continent. That made it easier for both sides to come to the negotiating table.

What equivalent event might change the game for Israel-Palestine? For Israel, the perceived threat lurking behind the Palestinians—the equivalent of communism in South Africa—is radical Islam in the rest of the Arab world. That’s not going to change any time soon; al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and all their offshoots will see to that. Nor are the Palestinians at any immediate risk of losing a big benefactor; first, they don’t have one big one, and second, the Arab League, which in the past had shown signs of being quite fed up with the Palestinian leadership, now seems to be coming back on their side.

Who does have a big benefactor is Israel, and the benefactor is, of course, the United States. Under Obama and Netanyahu, Washington-Jerusalem relations have been at historic lows. And with the peace process dead, the US has lost one of the levers of influence it used to have over both Israel and the Palestinians. Its biggest remaining levers are its military aid to Israel and its UN security council veto. Withdrawing those might indeed be a game-changer that would bring Israel back to the negotiating table; but such is the support for Israel in US politics that things would have to get very bad indeed for that to happen.

So for the foreseeable future, we can expect the conflict to look like this: Angrier, more painful, more unstable, and dangerous for a lot of people. The one redeeming feature is that it will be more honest: no longer is this about two sides pretending to like each other and trying to iron out their differences. Now they’re openly acknowledging that this is still a war—whether fought with bombs and bullets or with economic boycotts and diplomatic documents—whose end will most likely come only when one side forces the other into submission.