Israeli-Palestinian: Shrinking the conflict?

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer.

Q: What is ‘shrinking the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict’ and why is it being talked about these days?

A: The concept of shrinking the conflict is based on the assumption–its proponents would say recognition–that there is no near-term prospect of a Palestinian-Israeli end-of-conflict agreement. Accordingly, it makes sense for Israel, the United States and others to look for ways to reduce the profile and intensity of the conflict in order to improve the lives of West Bank Palestinians and thereby render actual conflict less likely. Ultimately, in the long term, this is supposed to make peace easier to attain.

Burning forever? 

Prime Minister Bennet has used the term ‘shrinking the conflict’. Foreign Minister Lapid has used similar terms like ‘minimizing’ the conflict. The actual term shrinking the conflict was first introduced by Micah Goodman, a writer and philosopher, a settler, and reputedly an unofficial adviser to Bennet.

Thus far, in little more than 100 days in office, Bennet’s government has sought to shrink or minimize the conflict by improving commerce with the West Bank. It has opened Israel to additional Palestinian day-laborers from the West Bank and a few thousand day-traders from Gaza. It is upgrading Palestinian telecommunications and has loaned money to the PA and facilitated provision of covid vaccinations. It is regularizing the citizenship status of Palestinians married to Israelis.

Bennet believes that an emphasis on “economy, economy, economy” in dealings with the Palestinians will provide them with dignity and a future.

Q: That just sounds like the old ‘economic peace’ concept of the Israeli right, applied to the Palestinians.

A: Indeed, and as we have seen time and time again, it doesn’t work because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not economic. It is ideological, religious, territorial and historical, but not economic. At best, economic peace addresses one area in which the conflict finds expression: deep economic gaps between Jews and Arabs. But these ideas completely and deliberately ignore the political aspirations of the Palestinians.

Here we need to note that the originator of ‘shrinking the conflict’, Goodman, has gone further in his concept. He proposes measures like expanding the land borders of the Palestinian Authority, currently some 40 percent of the West Bank, and building roads exclusively for Palestinians. He wants to increase “Palestinian freedom . . . to build, freedom of movement . . . . Palestinian self-governance”.

It is also notable that the original Trump-Kushner ‘deal of the century’ plan appears to have embodied Goodman’s concept. And then some: along with a territorially-expanded Palestinian Authority, it proposed a network of roads, bridges and tunnels to somehow physically separate Israeli settlers from the Palestinian areas that they have deliberately settled in the midst of. The resulting map, as imagined by Jared Kushner, looks a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Q: Well, given the current situation, surely these ideas are better than nothing . . .

A: The current situation is characterized by leadership paralysis within the Palestinian Authority, open Islamist ideological enmity from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and political/ideological paralysis on the Israeli side.

In Ramallah, aging Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), after mismanaging and then cancelling elections, no longer enjoys significant popular support. In Gaza, Hamas at best prefers a ceasefire to any sort of peace process with Israel. In Jerusalem, both the left and the right components of the Bennet government agree to avoid any political initiative vis-à-vis the West Bank–from new settlements to unilateral withdrawal or a peace plan—because it would inevitably undermine the coalition from within and return Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

Meanwhile, the ongoing development of commercial relations with the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, based on normalization agreements reached without recourse to any sort of parallel political progress with the Palestinians, inevitably reduces any sense of urgency in Israel about the Palestinian issue. So do improved relations with Jordan and Egypt. Then too, there are regional developments that distract attention from the Palestinians: the total economic collapse of Lebanon, Iran’s ongoing hegemonic drive to Israel’s north, and the specter of American withdrawal from the Greater Middle East.

Under these circumstances of paralysis, non-political measures that improve Palestinian lives can hardly be portrayed as a bad idea in and of themselves. Abu Mazen has not rejected Israel’s loan, and Palestinians will take advantage of the (limited, almost symbolic) opportunity to upgrade their telecommunications and build a few hundred dwellings in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

Yet as a long-term reality, this becomes apartheid, pure and simple. At a temporary level, it all might make sense and seem positive if settlement-expansion were to stop, settlers were to behave as good neighbors, and the Palestinian Authority were to govern energetically. In other words, if all other factors were positive. But that is not the case–dramatically so.

Q: Are you implying the existence, in parallel with ‘shrinking the conflict’ measures by Israel, of ‘expanding the conflict’ activities by settlers?

A: Definitely. Attacks by ‘hill youth’ and other extremist settler elements, many living in so-called ‘illegal’ outposts, have increased dramatically over the past two years. The attacks target Palestinians in their fields and olive groves, and in the southern West Bank in their traditional cave dwellings. They target the Israelis who come to the West Bank seeking to stand up for Palestinian civil and human rights. Lately these settlers even target the IDF soldiers who are ostensibly dispatched to keep the peace between settlers and Palestinians. Nor can the IDF be absolved of a perverse inclination by a few officers to physically punish Palestinians and Israeli peace-camp supporters–rather than their settler aggressors.

These settler attacks are clearly intended to intimidate Palestinians and those who seek to protect them. They are the antithesis of shrinking the conflict. And because settlers form Bennet’s political ‘base’, he does not seem eager to constrain them.

Q: And what’s the problem with a weak Palestinian Authority? How does this issue enter the picture?

A: Here is outgoing Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman issuing a warning last week: “The absence of dialogue between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, along with steps taken by Abu Mazen, have weakened the PA both economically and in the public consciousness. . . .  The current reality is a strong Hamas and a weak PA. The relative quiet we have enjoyed in recent years in Judea and Samaria is a deceptive quiet. There are constant efforts to initiate attacks. The quiet stems from the quality of our preventive efforts, not from a lack of trying [by extremist Palestinians].”

Prime Minister Bennet refuses to meet with Abu Mazen, whose capacity to govern is being weakened by Bennet’s approach much as it was weakened under Netanyahu before him. The message from Argaman is that this strengthens Hamas and is detrimental to Israel’s interest. Does anyone have any doubt what the West Bank would be like after a Hamas coup? But Bennet knows that he will lose what is left of his settler-based constituency if he takes any positive political initiative in Abu Mazen’s direction, as Argaman provocatively proposes.

Q: Bottom line?

A: We are looking at three parallel directions of Israeli activity, or the absence thereof, regarding the West Bank. Looking at them together, we should be worried.

First, the Bennet government has adopted the ‘shrinking the conflict’ slogan, albeit on a limited basis that in effect constitutes a form of ‘economic peace’–an approach that offers possible short-term material benefits but no peace whatsoever. Second and in parallel, the Israeli political approach weakens the PA and strengthens Hamas in the West Bank. Here we must note that Abu Mazen’s weakness and misgovernance contribute too. Third, growing settler violence, not curbed by the IDF and the Israel Police in the West Bank, sends a message that can only provoke Palestinian violence.

Is the conflict shrinking? No. On the contrary, the writing is on the wall.

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