Several events that took place at the end of 2017 and the beginning of this year brought to the attention the complex situation in the West Bank and the still not solved Palestinian problem. Some of these developments indicate a significant shift in the approach of the issue by the United States of America, until now the main power actor in the endless “peace process” in the region.
The West Bank in brief
The West Bank is a landlocked territory near the Mediterranean coast of Western Asia, most of it under Israeli control or under joint control of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The final status of the entire area is yet to be determined. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has a land area of 5,640 km2 plus a water area of 220 km2, consisting of the northwest part of the Dead Sea. The West Bank has an estimated population of 2,785,366 Palestinians and approximately 371,000 Israeli settlers, with approximately another 212,000 Jewish Israelis in East Jerusalem.
From 1517 through 1917, the area was part of the Ottoman Empire, included in the provinces of Syria. At the end of World War I, the winning powers allocated the region to the British Mandate of Palestine (1920-1947). In 1947, it was designated as part of a proposed Arab state by the United Nations’ partition plan for Palestine which was to replace the British Mandate with a Jewish State, an Arab State and an internationally administered enclave of Jerusalem. However, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the West Bank was captured by Transjordan (renamed Jordan two years after independence in 1946). The region was named then “West Bank” or “Cisjordan”, while “East Bank” or “Transjordan” designated the area east of the river. Jordan ruled over the West Bank from 1948 until 1967, when the West Bank and East Jerusalem were captured by Israel as a result of the Six Day War. With the exception of East Jerusalem and the former Israeli-Jordanian no man’s land, the West Bank was not annexed by Israel but came under Israeli military control until 1982. In 1982, as a result of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the direct military rule was transformed into a semi-civil authority, but the Israeli settlements were administered directly by Israel, under the name of “Judea and Samaria.”
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) officially controls a geographically non-contiguous territory comprising approx. 11% of the West Bank (known as Area A) which remains subject to Israeli incursions. Area B (approx. 28%) is subject to joint Israeli-Palestinian military and Palestinian civil control.
Area C (approx. 61%) is under full Israeli control, including control of all land-related civil matters. That means Israel controls land allocation, planning and construction and infrastructure. Area C also holds virtually all of the Israeli settler population of the West Bank.
The future of the so-called “two-state” solution[1] is playing out in Area C, which has most of the land of a future Palestinian state. It is also crucial for building and locating infrastructure such as waste treatment facilities and industrial zones, which cannot be placed in cities. This land has also vital mineral and water resources.
The UN General Assembly resolution 58/292 (17 May 2004) affirmed that the Palestinian people have the right to sovereignty over the area. The West Bank is considered to be the core of the would-be State of Palestine, already recognized by the majority of the UN member states, within the Palestinian Territories, which are recognized by Israel to constitute a single territorial unit.
From the legal point of view, a 2004 advisory ruling of the International Court of Justice concluded that events that came after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank by Israel, including the Jerusalem Law, Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan and the Oslo Accord did not change the status of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) as occupied territory with Israel as the occupying power.
Though 164 nations refer to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem as “occupied Palestinian Territory”, the state of Israel is of the view that only territories captured in war from “an established and recognized sovereign” are considered occupied and that since the West Bank wasn’t under the legitimate and recognized sovereignty of any state prior to the Six Day War, it shouldn’t be considered an occupied territory. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has defined the West Bank as “disputed territory”, whose status can only be determined through negotiations.
Recent developments
a) The chain of events started with the announcement, on 6 December 2017, of the U.S. Administration’s decision not to issue its customary six-month waiver to a 1995 law and to move theU.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which amounts to recognizing this city as the capital of Israel.
The move prompted protests in the Palestinian territories and major rallies in support of the Palestinians across the Muslim world. It was followed, in mid-December 2017, by a UN resolution to prevent any country from moving its embassy to Jerusalem. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Halley, used the United States’ first veto option in six years to prevent its adoption by the UN Security Council.
Also, an extraordinary Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting was held in Istanbul on 13 December 2017 in order to coordinate and counter the Muslim world’s response. The resulting Istanbul Declaration on Freedom for al Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem), calls the move “null and void”, and calls on the whole world to recognize an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its occupied capital. The declaration also mentioned that the U.S.’ new stance means it can no longer act as an “unbiased” sponsor in Middle East peace process.
On January 7, a meeting of foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Morocco, in addition to the Arab League Chief, supported the rights of the Palestinians in preserving their legal and historic rights in Jerusalem and in creating their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
b) Soon after the U.S. decision, in the last days of 2017, Israeli Likud Party’s Central Committee voted to extend Israel’s legal jurisdiction to the settlements in the West Bank. While the vote did not attract much attention, being seen as a mere legal nuance in the context of the 50 years of occupation, several analysts saw the move as a prelude to annexation. The vote called for Israel to “impose Israeli law on all liberated areas of settlement in Judea and Samaria.”
The resolution also mentioned: “On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the regions of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], including Jerusalem our eternal capital, the Likud Central Committee calls on the Likud’s elected officials to act to allow free construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty to all liberated areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria.” During the Knesset debates, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked vowed that Israel would remain in the occupied West Bank for “5,000 years”.
The Israeli government’s intention to begin formally incorporating into Israel the West Bank does not come as a surprise, since the idea is consistent with the “Greater Israel” view of the right wing Israeli governments which more or less dominated the political arena since 1977.
Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas denounced the Israeli plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, saying they represented “an end to the remnants of the peace process” and would “lead to more Palestinian resistance”.
c) At the beginning of January 2018, the Knesset also approved the “Jerusalem Bill” which requires that any changes to Jerusalem’s status be validated through a supermajority of 80 of the 120 Knesset members. This would make difficult any concessions on the city in future negotiations.
While Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, who initiated the bill, tweeted afterwards that it puts an end to the possibility of a “shady political settlement” with the Palestinians, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement released after the passing of the bill that it was “tantamount to declaring war on the Palestinian people.”
d) Also at the beginning of this year, the U.S. threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, because of its refusal, since April 2014, to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Soon after, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of a $125m aid package earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). The State Department also announced that those funds are “frozen for future consideration” and that additional U.S. donations will be contingent on major changes by UNRWA. Another suggestion under consideration would require the Palestinians to re-enter peace talks with Israel.
The decision came at the same time when the U.S. Congress is close to passing the so-called Taylor Force Act[2], which would cut off Palestinian aid money unless it stops the “pay to slay” policy where the PA pays monthly salaries to convicted terrorists and their families. The draft legislation would make some aid conditional on the PA blocking payments to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis. A successful vote in the Senate would send the legislation to the president for approval.
While analysts pointed out that threats to foreign assistance might be seen as a means of leverage different than conventional negotiating strategies that failed, they also noted the risk that such a move might affect some of the most sensitive pressure points in Palestinian society and the peace process more generally.
The Palestinian camps run by UNRWA contain many of the poorest and most disadvantaged Palestinians, where the most radicalized of the Palestinian factions reside. From these camps emerged the first and second intifadas and both Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas were born there. Since the second intifada, the weapons still held by the factions have largely remained inside these camps, kept under control by the Palestinian security forces.
Defunding the UNRWA would mean cutting a flow of cash that has underpinned the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel, thereby checking the influence of Hamas on the West Bank. Also, it would indirectly affect the stability of the Palestinian Authority, which may require a return to Israeli responsibility for administering services in the occupied territories.
Such a move would also produce instability in the Middle East, affecting some of the key strategic allies of the West, notably Jordan, which is seen as a beacon of stability in a region that is still reeling from the convulsions of the Arab spring, the Syrian civil war and the Saudi Arabian-Iranian proxy wars. As a host to 2 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, Jordan would be unable to cope with replacing the services it provided and the costs are likely to be terminal for the Jordanian state, with serious effects in the region.
Similar scenarios play out in other countries where UNRWA has responsibilities. In the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which are controlled by Israel to differing degrees, there are nearly 3 million Palestinian refugees. In Syria, UNRWA serves about half a million Palestinian refugees, despite the civil war and under dangerous conditions. Without UNRWA assistance, they will be easy prey for Daesh, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
e) On January 15, The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Central Council, the second-highest Palestinian decision-making body, has recommended revoking recognition of Israel until the latter recognizes the State of Palestine in its 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The PLO said it “assigned” its Executive Committee “to suspend recognition of Israel until it recognizes the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders and revokes the decision to annex East Jerusalem and expand and build settlements.”
In a final statement read after the meeting, the PLO also said that the Oslo accords, signed with Israel in the early 1990s, “no longer stand” and that it would renew its decision to “stop security coordination [with Israel] in all its forms”. It also called on all Arab states “to sever all ties with any state that recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transfers its embassy to it.” However, several Palestinian political parties expressed their reservations on the final statement, and there was no clear decision to end the Oslo Accords, withdraw recognition of Israel and stop security coordination.
Israel: moving on with the West Bank settlements
According to many analysts, one of the reasons for which Israel is moving along with the West Bank Israeli settlements – which are considered illegal under international law and are seen as a major obstacle to peace efforts since they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state – is social and demographic. According to a May 2017 government report, Israel’s population will double in about 40 years, with some 29 percent (or 5.25 million of its projected 18 million residents) haredi Orthodox Jews, more than triple than the current 9 percent and overtaking Arabs as the largest minority.
If the report proves accurate, Israel – with a land area of some 8,000 square miles – will be more densely populated than the West Bank and the Gaza Strip taken together are today.
While the law in the West Bank states that the state is only allowed to expropriate private land for public Palestinian needs, this legislation is used by Israel to confiscate private land for building Jewish-only settlement roads, connecting them with one another and to Israel. In this way, 12 settlements were built in East Jerusalem on Palestinian property declared for “public needs”. In October 2017, Israel’s civil administration approved for the first time in 15 years the construction of 31 settlement housing units in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron.
Also, a controversial legislation passed in February 2016 allows the Israeli government to retroactively expropriate private Palestinian land where illegal outpost homes have been built, provided that the outposts were established “in good faith” or had government support and that the Palestinian owners receive financial compensation for the land.
In a January 2018 report by the Israeli Channel Two news, it was revealed that the Israeli government plans to give final approval to 3,829 new settlement units. The 3,829 new units expected to be approved will include projects in Ariel, Beit El, Tzofim, Rehalim, Nogohot, Hevron, Givat Zeev, Tekoa, Kfar Etzion, Avnei Hefetz, Nofim, Kochav Yaakov, Har Bracha, and Maaleh Michmas.
The units are set to be approved by the Israeli Civil Administration Higher Planning Committee. This is seen as a new development, since until now, although more than 600,000 Israelis have moved into colonial settlements over the past 25 years, most settlements were constructed without prior Israeli government approval. Once a colony establishes itself and gains a foothold on a site, the Israeli authorities provide plumbing, electricity and roads. The new decision will allow a rapid expansion of Israeli colonies without the colonizers having to go through the process of building illegally and then getting approval.
A future airport
The extension of the West Bank settlements also includes a 35 sq km plot of West Bank land that was confiscated several years ago and where the settlement of Maale Adumim, now home to 40,000 people, was built on the south-eastern corner. While most of the plot still remains empty, Palestinians fear another expansion of settlements and busloads of new immigrants – many arriving from war-torn Ukraine – and that the whole area will be annexed to Jerusalem, thereby not only cutting the city off from a hoped-for Palestinian state, but slicing the West Bank in two.
According to a master plan for 2050 – a non-government, private-sector initiative which works “in conjunction with all of the major municipal and government agencies” – a new airport will be built near Maale Adumim on land occupied by Nebi Musa, an ancient Muslim holy site dedicated to Moses. The airport will bring tourists and pilgrims to Jerusalem, who will stay in new hotel complexes connected by rail to Amman and Iraq to the east and Tel Aviv to the west.
Measures to counter protests
Since the extension and development of the West Bank settlements are more and more subject to international protests, the Israeli government is increasingly preparing to counter such reactions, especially those coming from the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. In late December, the government approved plans to dedicate $75 million to fight the movement.
TheBDS Movement is a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to end what it describes as violations of international law. The campaign calls for various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations, mainly to end its occupation and settler colonization the Palestinian land. It was started on 9 July 2005 by over 170 Palestinian non-government organizations and it is organized and coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The campaign is meant to echo the anti-apartheid campaigns against white minority rule in the apartheid time of South Africa, although critics of BDS repudiate the charge that Israel is an apartheid state and argue that the BDS movement does not motivate the Palestinian leadership to negotiate with Israel.
According to Israeli press reports, Israel has created a secret unit made up of ex-generals and a former UN ambassador to engage in an online propaganda campaign against the state’s opponents internationally. The entity was created by the Strategic Affairs Ministry in order to carry out “mass awareness activities” to counteract “the delegitimization campaign” against Israel internationally. The group, named Kella Shlomo, received $37 million from the Netanyahu government, and reportedly expects to raise the same amount through international donors, from “philanthropic sources” and “pro-Israel organizations.”
The organization will carry out “engagement in the online space,” targeting social media and organizing delegations of public opinion leaders “especially those who influence non-Jews.”
Among the group’s members are former UN ambassador Dore Gold, Yossi Kuperwasser, former director general of the Strategic ministry, Sagi Balasha, former director general of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and Ehud Danoch, former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles.
The same Strategic Affairs Ministry was behind the recent blacklist of 20 international BDS groups. Its clandestine activities are exempt from Israel’s Freedom of Information Law, and it is unclear whether Kella Shlomo will be too, as it is an extra-government body.
The activists of the 20 organizations on the BDS blacklist will be refused entry to the country due to their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Included on the list are Palestine Solidarity groups in Europe and the U.S. as well as BDS groups in Chile and South Africa. The U.S. organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which is made up of Jewish activists calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, has also been named as one of the banned groups.
Enforcement of the blacklist is expected to begin in March 2018 and will affect those who hold senior or important positions in the named organizations as well as key activists, even if they hold no official position.
The Palestinians: in search for a new strategy
For the Palestinian elite, the recent developments, especially the extension of the Israeli West Bank settlements, are seen as a political disaster which was partly facilitated by Palestinian complacency, security coordination and negotiations. The decision to annex the West Bank is considered a result of the Palestinian political approach that has enabled the Israelis to seize the land.
The Palestinian political leaders are accused of sticking to the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the state of Israel within the 1949 Armistice Line, which constitutes 78 per cent of historic Palestine. However, the state of Israel has still not declared where its borders are, and so they remain flexible enough to absorb any and all land resulting from a resolution annexing Palestinian or Arab territory. The same Palestinian political leadership is accused of paving the way for the Likud resolution concerning the settlements, through the security coordination.
Local observers note that, beyond the rhetoric, the Palestinians still don’t have a strategy for how to respond to the American and Israeli moves. On paper, the plan is to seek support for statehood from the United Nations: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently declared that he would again seek full membership at the United Nations (a step he also took in 2011, 2012 and 2014). Another element of this strategy, dating since 2011, is for the Palestinian Authority to continue the signing up of international treaties and conventions until the Palestinians have joined over 500 organizations. However, so far these repeated attempts to internationalize the conflict failed, since this international campaign was initially conceived not as a strategy for achieving statehood but as a tactic for increasing leverage against Israel in peace negotiations.
A Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) committee was formed to prepare documents for discussion during a meeting of the organization’s Central Council in order to decide upon the next Palestinian political steps.
One of the first moves would be for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to ask the European Union to recognize the Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. EU’s recognition would revive the internationally-backed two-state solution and help the Palestinian bid to get a full UN membership.
The next steps are based on the reality that the interim period with Israel had come to an end, and there must be a new political formula with multilateral sponsorship for the peace process. To this end, the future Palestinian approach is based on the declaration of the State of Palestine under occupation, after discussing all aspects of legal and possible consequences. The PA would also seek international recognition of Palestine as a state under occupation and request full UN membership, which requires extensive international support. Joining the United Nations as a member state requires support by nine out of the 15 UN Security Council members, from which five permanent members (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France) have a veto power.
Avoiding military confrontation
This strategy is seen as being combined with increased calls for popular protests and “days of rage”, but the Palestinian Authority leadership, especially Mahmoud Abbas, has quietly shown an unwillingness to let the situation escalate and threaten the security coordination with Israel. According to PA officials, a decision has been made at the highest political levels that there will not be any military confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank.
While the PA did take a harsher tone and backed the call to participate in protests, it did not announce a change in policy, such as exchanging its focus on the political and diplomatic front with a return to armed struggle.
Consequently, participation in the demonstrations was relatively thin, and the riots took place mostly on the seam line between the PA and Israel and on the Gaza border. There were also several stabbing attacks, and rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel after a long period of quiet.
Seeking alternatives and reassessing the Oslo accords
While rejecting the U.S. as mediator in the peace process, the PA has been seeking alternatives to negotiations with Israel, and stepping up its diplomatic struggle. The main principles of the new strategy are: replacing the U.S.-sponsored negotiations with an international framework that will seek to force Israeli compliance with U.N. resolutions; acting to join international bodies; demanding a recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; calling on more countries to recognize Palestine or declare the 1967 territories a state under occupation. It estimates that it would need two or three years to force the U.S. to accept such a framework to sponsor any future peace process or negotiations. PA officials declared that there was no intention of excluding the U.S. from the peace process entirely but only to minimize its role in favor of international sponsorship.
Another strategic step suggested was to threaten a reassessment of the Oslo Accords. At the Islamic Conference in Istanbul Mahmoud Abbas said: “Israel’s actions and aggression will cause us to extract ourselves from the agreements with it, and it will bear the burden of the occupation. We will not be an authority bereft of [real] authority”, and Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Shtaya declared: “The Palestinian leadership will carry out a new and comprehensive reassessment of the Oslo Accords, because the most important clause in it is the final settlement, centering on the issue of Jerusalem, and because the negotiations, in their former format, are done with and will never be renewed.” However, Abbas advisor Nabil Shaath took a cautious line, saying in an interview: “We will demand a reassessment of the Oslo Accords, but not necessarily to cancel it in full. We may cancel only some parts of it and reassess clauses that Israel is not implementing or honoring. A decision to cancel the Oslo [Accords] will not be taken in a single meeting, but gradually, step by step.”
On-the-ground response: Rawabi
A courageous Palestinian reaction to the West Bank settlements is the so-called Rawabi project, the first planned city in the West Bank built by Palestinians for Palestinians, a $1.4 billion metropolis built over the last nine years from bare rock.
The city, built by Palestinian developer Bashar Masri, is the most ambitious project in the Palestinian territories and today is the largest private-sector employer here. Rawabi is seen as a counter-narrative in the conflict in which Palestinians are often portrayed as terrorist or victim, living in refugee camps or dusty villages out of biblical times.
Rawabi is a metropolis concentrated around the “Q Center” (named after the city’s Qatari backers) with a 15,000-seat Roman-style amphitheatre and is destined to be seen as a “new normal” by the middle-class Palestinians. If successful, there is commerce, there are jobs and people. However, it might also collapse if the Israeli military government, which runs most of the West Bank, decides to turn off the water or electricity or to shut down the access roads.
The master plan for Rawabi calls for 8,000 homes and a population of 40,000 on the hilltop, surrounded by areas that today are under partial or complete control of the Israeli military. If completed, Rawabi will be bigger than all but a handful of the 126 Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Hamas: still unpredictable
One of the worrying elements in the situation assessments of the region is the reaction of Hamas which, according to Israel’s security service Shin Bet, present one of the biggest challenges for 2018.
In a report on 2017 and the main challenges anticipated for the coming months, recently presented by Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman at a closed session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Hamas in the West Bank and outside the Palestinian territories is eager to carry out terror attacks against Israel.
An operation against Israel, inside or from the West Bank, would weaken the control of the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s ability to respond would be limited. An Israeli attack against the Fatah-dominated PA would be of double benefit for Hamas. There is therefore an unprecedented effort underway by Hamas in Gaza and Hamas branches outside of Israel to instigate attacks in or from the West Bank.
The importance given by Hamas to the West Bank area is illustrated by the fact that former Hamas head in the West Bank, Saleh al-Arouri, was promoted in October 2017 to the rank of deputy chair of the organization. Arouri spends his time traveling between Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon and is being monitored by Israeli intelligence.
Arouri was replaced as Hamas commander in the West Bank by a close associate, Jordan-born Maher Obeid, 59. He has good ties with the regime in Tehran and he has visited Iran on several occasions in recent years as part of official Hamas delegations. Obeid was among the 400 Hamas officials expelled by Israel to Lebanon in 1992, and has been a member of the Hamas leadership since 2010.
Hamas’ “West Bank Headquarters” divides the area to three different sectors: the southern West Bank, the central West Bank and the northern West Bank. Operations in each sector are led by a Hamas commander who hails from that sector and rose in the Hamas military ranks there. The commander of the southern West Bank sector (Hebron and Bethlehem area) is Abd al-Rahman Ghanimat, the commander of the central West Bank (east Jerusalem and the Ramallah area) is Abdullah Arar, and the commander of the northern West Bank (Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Tubas and Qalqilya) is believed to be Farsan Halifa. The three are tasked with establishing military infrastructure for Hamas in the West Bank and launching terror attacks, each in his sector.
During 2017, the Shin Bet uncovered and detained 148 Hamas cells in the West Bank. In total, the Shin Bet says it uncovered and foiled 400 terror attacks that were being hatched in the West Bank. Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman spoke of a “misleading quiet” currently prevailing in the region. He said that instability is prevalent in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and as 2018 dawned, “the defense establishment is facing a significant challenge.”
The international and regional power actors: new and different priorities
While there is an almost general opinion that the developments in the West Bank and, more generally, the Israeli-Palestinian issue definitely needs an international effort to reach a solution, the interests of the main international and regional power actors are more or less overtly moving away from this issue.
The United States: no more the main peace broker, but a plan in the making
Washington’s role as a broker of a peace settlement goes back 40 years, to the Camp David Accords that brought about a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and called for the introduction of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. Soon after the Gulf war in 1991, President George H W Bush convened a summit of Arabs and Israelis in Madrid. Meanwhile, in secret, the “Oslo” process was underway, which led to a historic handshake on the White House lawn between the then Israeli Prime Minister Yizhtak Rabin and Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat.
In 2000, President Clinton brought then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David for two weeks in an effort to reach an over-arching deal, and more recently, President Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry tried hard to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, the efforts failed and the peace talks ended in 2014.
The current U.S. Administration is seen as having an unorthodox approach to the issue and some Palestinian officials suspect that the White House has the bigger goal to build a coalition between the Gulf monarchies and Israel in a historic realignment, with Iran as common enemy and the Palestinians as an afterthought.
In recent months there has been mounting pressure on the Palestinian leadership from both Riyadh and Washington to accept the terms of a less than favorable peace deal. The blueprint is understood to contain steps leading to a two state solution, but without the right to return for Palestinian refugees or full sovereignty.
An impasse in talks generated by the Palestinian rejection of the U.S. as peace broker would complicate Washington’s efforts to get Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to unite with the U.S. and Israel against Iran. Many states were already reluctant to get to close to the Israelis without progress on the Palestinian issue, and will need far more convincing now.
In this context, the U.S. officials decided to continue the scheduled inter-agency meetings on their plan for Middle East peace. Jared Kushner, the President’s senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations, refused to allow confrontations with the Palestinian Authority to affect their peace plan, a working document that has produced hundreds of pages of ideas, and that will include for the first time U.S.-led proposals addressing the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The plan’s authors hope that it would be accepted by the main Arab powers, who responded mutedly to the Jerusalem move purportedly in anticipation of this lengthier, more substantive proposal. Assuming Arab capitals support the contents of the peace plan, Washington hopes they will apply pressure on the Palestinians.
U.S. allies in Europe called for the U.S. to expedite the launch of the new peace initiative. Both British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron indicated they would withhold judgment of the U.S.’ overall strategy until after the administration presents its plan.
The Arab world: the Palestinian issue no more a priority
For decades, powerful Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, while privately acquiescing to Israel’s continued occupation of territory the Palestinians claim as their homeland. But now a de facto alliance against common enemies such as Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State militants and the Arab Spring uprisings is drawing the Arab leaders into a closer collaboration with Israel.
The Palestinian issue also reflects the changing dynamics in the region, from being a sacrosanct Arab cause (with Yasser Arafat its champion) to split loyalties (and territory) between Arafat’s Fatah movement and Hamas. Also broader Arab loyalties are different: Qatar’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the reasons for its confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The Arab world – especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt –have a different main preoccupation: Iranian expansionism in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
After the Washington announcement on Jerusalem, most of the state-owned and pro-government news media across the Arab world were almost unemotional about the status of Jerusalem, a response that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, much less during the period between 1948 and 1973, when Egypt and its Arab allies fought three wars against Israel.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, while publicly denouncing the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the kingdom quietly signaled its acquiescence for the Israeli claim to Jerusalem. Days before the U.S. announcement, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Ben Salman, privately urged Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to accept a vision of statehood without a capital in East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’ version of events. Saudi Arabia publicly disputed those reports.
As for Egypt, according to recent press reports, in several recent TV interventions, Egyptian intelligence representatives[3] mentioned that while Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, would denounce the Israeli decision in public, strife with Israel was not in Egypt’s national interest. One of the officers called Capt. Ashraf al-Kholi told the hosts that instead of condemning the decision, they should persuade their viewers to accept it. “We, like all our Arab brothers, are denouncing this matter,” Captain Kholi mentioned. But, he added, “After that, this thing will become a reality. Palestinians can’t resist and we don’t want to go to war…The point that is dangerous for us is the intifada issue,” Captain Kholi also explained. “An intifada would not serve Egypt’s national security interests because an intifada would revive the Islamists and Hamas. Hamas would be reborn once more.”
Such a change of attitude is explained as being triggered by the Arab leaders’ concerns about their own stability, which made them signal that, while they may not like the decision, they “will find a way to work with it,” and “with a White House that is prepared to break with what had been taboos in American foreign policy.”
Russia: ready to become a mediator… but with what chances?
After the UN Security Council’sresolution on Jerusalem[4] was vetoed by Washington last December, the Russian deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov declared that Moscow was ready to become a new mediator in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also added that Russia is ready to host direct talks between the two sides.
Also, Palestinian presidential adviser Nabil Shaath declared that Russia may host the first new meeting on the issue of the Middle East (something that was decided in Madrid in 1991 and in Annapolis 2005), but not to conduct the talks alone, but as part of an international forum.
While, at the expert level, in Russia there is some consensus that the U.S. decision will provide Moscow with additional opportunities to strengthen its influence on this process, opinions differ between experts and policymakers on whether Moscow needs to step up its peacemaking efforts now. Some believe Russia should take advantage of what they see as favorable political conditions and try to revive the settlement process, this time managed by Moscow. Others consider it necessary to keep monitoring the latest developments on Jerusalem, but to be modest in actions given that the parties’ own readiness to negotiate is at best minimal.
According to several sources, three options are being taken into account:
a) to attempt to force the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down at the negotiating table under the auspices of Moscow, pointing to Washington’s inconsistency as an intermediary in this delicate matter. Merely beginning such talks would demonstrate Russia’s influence in the Middle East. However, even if Moscow manages to organize bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks formally, the odds are slim that negotiations would produce any kind of success.
b) to employ a “Syria First” strategy. If Russia successfully manages a process of political normalization in Syria, the experience gained there would allow Moscow to be more effective in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, and the emergence of a new political reality in the region might create some conditions to settle the conflict. However, despite Russia’s military successes in this area, it is hard to envisage how successful Syria’s own political transformation will be.
c) to set up a low-profile trilateral group of experts to brainstorm proposals to solve the Jerusalem issue. The group might include experts on the region representing Israel, Palestine and Russia. The group should come up with several approaches to a solution that would embrace the interests of both parties in the conflict. In this case, there is a chance that some fresh approach could develop. If this were to happen, the proposal could be brought to the political level. If not, political risks would be minimal, and the group’s work would remain a useful experience because of the experts’ cooperation.
Some observers see Moscow as a good candidate for mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. President Putin has good relations with all the major actors in the Israeli-Palestinian arena (Fatah, Hamas and the Netanyahu govern­ment) and with all Middle East governments. Moscow also indicated in April 2017 that it was willing to consider West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, showing a desire to accommodate both sides.
However, the ability to talk with opposing sides does not necessarily enable an outside media­tor to settle a conflict. Even though Moscow can talk with all sides, this does not mean that it can broker peace between them. Especially given the economic con­straints from Western sanctions that Russia faces, it is simply not in position to offer anything to Israel that would induce it to accept a Palestinian state, much less East Jerusalem as its capital. Similarly, it is doubtful Russia can of­fer anything to the Palestinians that would induce them to accept the loss of East Jerusalem in exchange for the establishment of a Palestin­ian state in the West Bank and Gaza (assuming Israel would agree to even that).
Russia neither can credibly threaten to impose costs on either (much less both) if they do not accept a reasonable set­tlement. Any Russian threat against Israel would simply drive it closer to the United States and if Israeli forces have been unable to compel the Palestinians to back down, it is difficult to see how Russia could do so. Not only would trying to do so be unproductive, it would hurt Moscow’s efforts to portray itself as friendlier than America to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In this context, analysts consider that Russia’s mediation offer might be generated by Vladimir Putin’s interest in portraying him­self as more “even-handed” than U.S. President Donald Trump. For even if Putin is seen to try but fail to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, this outcome will be widely blamed by Arabs, Muslims and many others on U.S. support for Israel and not on Putin. At the same time, a Russian-sponsored mediation process that does not result in Israel having to make concessions to the Palestinians preserves Russia’s economic and security cooperation with Israel. In other words, offering himself as an Israeli-Palestinian mediator holds out the prospect that Putin can gain even if he fails to make any progress.
Other “candidates”: France, Norway, Japan…
a) France also seems to be tempted by a possible role of peace broker, and French President Emmanuel Macron conferred with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas one after the other, raising speculations over whether Macron aspires to become mediator in the protracted peace negotiations.
According to French Senator Natalie Goulet, neither the U.S. nor the Arab states can mediate in the process as it stands now. Even though the Arab authorities issued a joint statement to condemn the decision, they remain “deeply divided” as the majority of Arab leaders act in accordance with their own political interests and they are not willing to imperil their own economic interests with the U.S. She also said that the effectiveness of Israeli lobbyists in affecting U.S. policy also fails to help bring any peace to the Middle East. “The U.S. has lost all its credibility and I am that sure France will be the best mediator in the process.”
b) Based on the experience of the Oslo accords, Norway is also seen as a possible peace broker. At the beginning of January, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and lead negotiator Saeb Erekat met with Norwegian foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. Following the meetings, the foreign minister declared that leaders in both Palestine and Israel want Norway to facilitate future peace talks between the two countries. Søreide also stressed that the situation remains difficult and that she was realistic about the peace process. However, she stated that she believed there was “a willingness to resume processes and discussion, including with the Americans.” Before the Palestinian, the Norwegian foreign minister met with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I think we should be cautious, but I can see the will to find answers [to problems],” she declared after that meeting.
c) Palestinian and western diplomatic sources said at the end of December 2017 that Japan has prepared a long-term plan to revive the peace process through vital economic projects that serve both sides, such as joint industrial, agricultural and tourist zones that lead to create mutual interests. In order to maintain these interests, political solutions for the conflict should be reached.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Oman and Turkey from December 24 to 29. He met with President Mahmoud Abbas and with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and offered them the idea of Japan’s funding of economic projects to help “rebuilding confidence” between both sides.
Japan is funding a series of such economic projects, such as “the Jericho Corridor for Peace” which seeks to encourage tourism to Palestine, Israel and Jordan. These projects also include the industrial zone in Jericho. Tokyo’s approach is based on the assumption that economy represents a significant key to rapprochement between both parties until they reach a political agreement and the Japanese foreign minister suggested reviving the political process through economic means.
Diplomatic sources also said the Israeli side had leaked news that Japan offered hosting a summit meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu in Tokyo and that Netanyahu expressed his willingness to take part in such a meeting only if it was under U.S. auspices.
New and different “peace plans”
Another kind of “Arab Peace Initiative”
While the declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the U.S. embassy is seen as historically significant to Israel’s control of Jerusalem as the Balfour Declaration was to recognizing the rights of the Jewish people in Palestine, according to new revelations, the announcement could be part of a grander plan to help Israel wrest from the Palestinians the control of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank, leaving the Arabs with Gaza only[5].
According to a senior Palestinian official, a surprise meeting took place on 6 November 2017 between Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO), and Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne, as part of the latter’s effort to engineer a joint Arab-U.S. offensive against Iran and its allies.
During the meeting, Mohammed Ben Salman announced that the Arab Peace Initiative – a Saudi-sponsored project promising Arab recognition of and peace with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital – was effectively dead. Instead, he offered the prospect of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, fattened by undetermined Egyptian transfers of land in the Sinai Peninsula. When the startled Palestinian leader asked about the place of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in this scheme, Prince Salman replied, “We can continue to negotiate about this.”
While the prince offered increased financial support for the Palestinians, the offer was one that Abbas could only refuse because it involved a Palestinian state with “noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory (Gaza).” The vast majority of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal by most of the world, would remain.
The creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza has long been viewed by key Israeli officials as a way of compelling Arab acquiescence to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
According to several sources, the idea might have been transmitted to the Saudi side by the U.S. envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt who traveled to Riyadh for late-night deliberations with the crown prince only days before his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas.
While officially denied by all sides, the talks – which were confirmed by several sources – offer a new context to the Jerusalem declaration, which was most probably based on the Saudi support for the Gaza option and its agreement to a strategic collaboration with Washington, Egypt, and Israel, independent of progress on Palestine.
End of the “two states solution”
The physical reality of the West Bank, mainly the roads, cities and other infrastructure that the Israelis have built since they began settling the West Bank have closed off the possibility of the so-called “two states solution” and vastly increased the likelihood that an Israeli government would annex this territory.
The towns, cities, hilltop outposts, roads, tunnels, and infrastructure for water, electricity, and telecommunications constitute a clear indication that the Israelis plan to be forever in the West Bank, which Israeli politicians call Judea and Samaria.
While a peace process, even one that did not result in peace, was seen as making annexation impossible by holding Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian violence in check, in fact, the number of Israeli settlers doubled between the Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993 and the turn of the millennium. During the same seven years (before the second intifada), Palestinian groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah competed in attacks against Israelis.
While the idea of two states existed in the minds of people charged with developing, reporting and analyzing the peace process, in reality both sides reject the two-state solution. Neither side is willing to share Jerusalem, neither side recognizes each other’s right of return nor recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s claims.
Supporters of the Palestinians argue that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, cannot make concessions in a peace process because Palestinians have nothing left to give and Israel holds all the power in any negotiation. On the other hand, the Palestinians have never come to terms with a vision that accommodates Israeli claims to the land.
Israel, for its part, is unwilling to meet any Palestinian demands for peace because to do so would mean the disruption of its long-held aim to annex the West Bank. The combined weight of about 575,000 settlers (including East Jerusalem), Palestinian weakness, and international distraction and indifference means that subterfuge is no longer necessary. 
The “stalemate solution”
While the peace process’ rounds of diplomacy included affirmations of the urgency of peace or warnings of the closing window, perhaps even the last chance, for a two-state solution, each neglected to see that no agreement was reached previously because at least one of the parties preferred to maintain the impasse.
The Palestinians chose no agreement over one that did not meet the bare minimum supported by international law and most nations of the world. For years this consensus view supported the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines with minor, equivalent land swaps that would allow Israel to annex some settlements. The Palestinian capital would be in East Jerusalem, with sovereignty over the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary or al-Aqsa mosque compound, and overland contiguity with the rest of the Palestinian state. Israel would withdraw its forces from the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners. And Palestinian refugees would be offered compensation, a right to return not to their homes but to their homeland in the State of Palestine, acknowledgment of Israel’s partial responsibility for the refugee problem, and, on a scale that would not perceptibly change Israel’s demography, a return of some refugees to their pre-1948 lands and homes. Although years of violence and repression have led Palestinians to make some small concessions that chipped away at this compromise, they have not fundamentally abandoned it.
Israel, for its part, has consistently opted for stalemate rather than agreement, since the deal’s cost is much higher than the cost of making no deal. The damages Israel would risk incurring through such an accord include perhaps the greatest political upheaval in the country’s history; enormous demonstrations against – if not majority rejection of – Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem and over the Temple Mount; and violent rebellion by some Jewish settlers and their supporters. Israel would lose military control over the West Bank, resulting in less intelligence-gathering, less room for maneuver in future wars, and less time to react to a surprise attack. It would face increased security risks from a Gaza-West Bank corridor, which would allow militants, ideology and weapons to spread from Gaza training camps to the West Bank hills overlooking Israel’s airport. Israeli intelligence services would no longer control the Palestinians’ enter and exit the occupied territories. The country would cease extraction of the West Bank’s natural resources, including water, lose profits from managing Palestinian customs and trade, and pay the large economic and social price of relocating tens of thousands of settlers.
It is irrational for Israel to absorb the costs of an agreement when the price of the alternative is so comparatively low. The consequences of choosing impasse are hardly threatening: mutual recriminations over the cause of stalemate, new rounds of talks, and retaining control of all of the West Bank from within and much of Gaza from without. Meanwhile, Israel continues to receive U.S. military aid and presides over a growing economy, rising standards of living and a population that reports one of the world’s highest levels of subjective wellbeing. Israel will go on absorbing the annoying but so-far tolerable costs of complaints about settlement policies. And it will likely witness several more countries bestowing the State of Palestine with symbolic recognition, limited calls for boycotts of settlement goods, and occasional bursts of violence that the greatly overpowered Palestinians are too weak to sustain.
Less than optimistic perspectives
The recent events, especially the new tension created between the PA and the U.S. may leave the peace process at an impasse and distance the Palestinians from the achievement of their political goals.
Among the Palestinians, who say their interests were never pursued by their leaders, the peace process has little meaning and would likely not be affected by the recent developments, especially since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is seen as not being a man who takes decisive decisions, and he is not in a position where he has any choices. According to Palestinian analysts, the fact that the Palestinian cause has been on a steady decline is primarily the fault of the PLO and Palestinian leaders. Signing the Oslo Accords and defending Israel’s security sends a message to the world to recognize Israel and its rights.
The recent decisions are also seen as an indication that Washington has at least for the moment renounced to its role as a responsible custodian for Arab-Israeli affairs. Right-wing Israeli officials will see a license for freedom of action in all of Greater Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders will share this appraisal, albeit as pretext to abandon altogether any semblance of a peace process now or in the future. Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states will find no suitable replacement to fill the opening. Indeed, the Jewish state and its neighbors are entering a new chapter in their relations, one in which external actor may be largely absent.
A new international effort to resume the peace negotiations must not lose sight of the popular demand of the majority on both sides to live in peace, because on their own, they will not come to terms with one another. It has become increasingly clear that only international intervention would provide the practical channel for the peace negotiations and motivate or incentivize both sides to come to terms with the inevitability of coexistence.
“The people of Palestine have lived through half a century of occupation, and they have heard half a century of statements condemning it. But life hasn’t meaningfully changed. Children have become grandparents. But life hasn’t changed. We issue statements. We express concern. We voice solidarity. But life hasn’t changed.” (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 27 January 2016).
[1] A Jewish state and a Palestinian State recognizing each other.
[2] Named after a U.S. citizen who died during a terrorist attack in Israel.
[3] Television talk shows play a formative role in shaping public debate in Egypt, and Egyptian intelligence services often brief the presenters of the programs about messages to convey to the public.
[4] The resolution was drafted by Egypt and declared any decisions aimed at altering the status of Jerusalem null and void, calling for them to be rescinded. The document was approved by 14 UNSC members, with the US being the only member to veto it.
[5] The recent book “Fire and Fury”, chronicling U.S. President Donald Trump’s rise to power and first year in office mentioned that Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief political adviser, was pushing to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Trump’s first day in office. He also wanted to finally kill the two-state solution by announcing that Jordan will take back the West Bank and Egypt will assume control over the Gaza Strip. In the book’s first chapter, he is quoted telling Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News about this plan.

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