What should we be paying attention to now that Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy seems so unworthy of attention? Observers, including myself, have argued for some time that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has to be understood through the lens of long-term trends in demography and sociology rather than short-term diplomacy. This view is gaining traction, but rarely have its advocates been pressed for details about what it means.
I have presented elsewhere some thoughts on what international actors can do at present. But what should observers be watching? What trends will shape the forms and course of the conflict over the coming decades?
Is diplomacy distracting, or not? With growing recognition that it is, a set of ad hoc political arrangements that have been described as “unsustainable” since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005 are being deeply entrenched. Therefore, it is time to stop avoiding the question of what would happen without any viable political solution.
What passes for conflict-ending diplomacy today consists of a long-promised but as yet unannounced initiative by the Trump administration, along with short-term shocks making up in boldness what they lack in sagacity. But it is difficult to find many who believe that aid cutoffs to the Palestinians, visa denials, twitter spats, Delphic presidential bombast, attempts to define the Palestinian refugee problem out of existence, ill-informed bromides, and occasional critical European comments will produce an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinian national movement.
That may be precisely the point. As I have argued elsewhere, some of the main players in the Trump administration evince the view that there is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all and, on the Palestinian side, no national group with which to deal, only a collection of corrupt and violent leaders who have duped their followers.
For the short to medium term, then, diplomacy is likely at best to offer a limited distraction and palliative arrangements. But if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has now metastasized from a diplomatic dispute into a generational struggle, this does not mean it will disappear: Palestinians as people and as a people are not disappearing. Therefore, in the absence of a peace process what should we be watching?
First, we have to determine how extensive and sustainable is the grassroots organization that is taking place among Palestinians. Palestinian national institutions—the Palestine Liberation Organization, professional associations and unions, the Palestinian Authority, and even most political parties and factions—no longer lead. But younger Palestinians have been experimenting with less formal kinds of movements for over a decade. And some factions, including Hamas and even Fatah, have shown a measure of vitality at the base, at least in particular places.
The long-term trend worth watching is whether such organizational forms can display more than local ingenuity and coalesce into enduring national movements. Just as critical, does the new activism supplant the old movements and national structures, compete with them, or gradually meld with them? Does the old leadership coopt, resist, ignore, or incorporate the new movements?
Second, we need to watch the kind of international networks Palestinians are building. From the 1950s to the 1970s Palestinians built a series of movements and organizations designed to give themselves an autonomous voice in international affairs. Those bodies still have officials in key locations and formally represent Palestinians. However, those that seem most active—and garner the most Israeli attention—are not the formal ambassadors, but activists working to build networks that support movements opposing Israel, such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The BDS movement has generated enthusiastic support and bitter denunciation, but the long-term trend to watch is whether it can serve as the kernel of, or a model for, a new kind of international presence for the Palestinian cause. A secondary question is whether different attitudes toward Palestinians deepen divides among politically active Jewish communities, especially, but not solely, in the United States.
Third, it is important to observe whether various Palestinian communities can link up. The ties between the West Bank and Gaza have grown tenuous indeed. Jerusalem has been isolated. Many links between diaspora communities and those that remain in Palestine have similarly atrophied. The one set of linkages that has grown stronger in recent years—though only to a limited degree—has been with the Palestinian citizens of Israel. However, practical obstacles to coordination are as deep as they have ever been.
The long-term trend to watch is whether Palestinians scattered across many different countries and divided even within the former mandate of Palestine can find any organizational way to give expression to a national identity that still seems quite robust despite the political decay. Can they find issues, such as the fate of Jerusalemites or the Gaza blockade, that unites them?
Fourth, we need to also look at who handles mundane Palestinian matters. A Palestinian tenant facing a problem with a landlord; an unemployed worker; a family whose main breadwinner is imprisoned; an ailing senior citizen who wishes to be taken to Jerusalem to see a specialist; a customer who feels cheated by a merchant; a student who wishes to travel for a scholarship interview—all these are the sorts of problems that many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face. How do they handle them? Who makes relevant decisions? Who wields power? Who creates problems and who helps address them?
Such questions are important for individuals. However, what bears lasting attention is how the pattern of answers shapes deep social bonds, senses of loyalty and grievance, and networks of problem solving and resistance. Previous waves of Palestinian activism have sometimes surprised national leaders, but still followed local patterns quite comprehensible to those enmeshed in particular communities.
The problem for those interested in understanding the kinds of social channels, leaders, and grievances that are forthcoming is the steady increase in obstacles to the Palestinians’ travel and slow deterioration in their international presence. The nongovernmental organizations, diplomats, and international bodies that track such things soldier on, but many receive dwindling resources and attention, virtually guaranteeing that any development will come as a surprise.
Finally, we must also watch what diplomacy is actually taking place. It may seem odd to begin an article dismissing diplomacy and end it by pointing to diplomacy. It is not that all diplomacy should be dismissed. However, the “peace process” diplomacy—and its yet unspoken Trump-era successor—are distracting us from real negotiations between Israelis and various Palestinian forces (including most prominently Hamas). Over the years these exchanges have covered long-term avoidance of violence, the role of international forces, the release of prisoners, the flow of goods, the suppression of armed militants, the patrol of borders, and the supply of weapons. The negotiations—carried out through mediators, away from the media spotlight and often punctuated by violence that seems aimed at bolstering negotiating positions rather than destroying the adversary—are setting the patterns and contours for Israeli-Palestinian interaction on a local level.
The issue to watch is whether such arrangements ever entrench themselves as something other than the short-term palliatives that they have been thus far. Do arrangements over Gaza, for instance, gradually mutate over the years into a modus vivendi between Hamas and Israel? Do Palestinian security officials on the West Bank metamorphose into the agents of what British colonial officials once termed “indirect rule”? Both trends are in evidence now, but there is also considerable resentment about both among Palestinians. How much will such arrangements develop into deep, regularized patterns that are difficult to dislodge?
Rather than parsing today’s policy statements, paying attention to such questions and the way that answers are slowly emerging on the ground will give a far better view of the shape of the conflict that future leaders will be forced to manage.