The world’s attention in the past month has been focused almost exclusively on the Covid-19 global pandemic. Yet in the midst of this crisis, politics continued at a frenetic pace in Israel, which in the span of just a few weeks held another round of Knesset elections, faced a constitutional crisis over the powers of the Knesset speaker, and moved forward with a national unity government under the continued leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While all of this happened, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essentially put on hold. Like the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas-led administration in Gaza were preoccupied with containing the spread of the virus in their areas. Eventually, however, the pandemic will be brought under control and life will return to some new normal, which in the Middle East includes the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What can we expect from the new Israeli government when it turns its attention to the Palestinians? What options are left for the Palestinians?
The new Israeli unity government came as something of a surprise in light of Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz’s repeated pledges that he would never join a government led by Netanyahu, who is facing a trial on corruption charges. Unable to form a government himself, Gantz ignored his pledge to voters and agreed to a government in which he and Netanyahu would rotate the leadership, with Netanyahu going first and Gantz, in theory, replacing him after 18 months. This led to a split in Gantz’s party. Netanyahu clearly showed his superior political skills compared to the neophyte Gantz, raising serious doubts about whether the unity deal will hold and a rotation actually take place.
For the Palestinians, another term in office for Netanyahu, even if it only lasts for a year and a half, is not a good thing. While an extreme right-wing government might have been worse for them, a unity government will not be much of an improvement, as Gantz’s views on Palestinian issues are not that different from Netanyahu’s. On the key issue of annexation of territory in the West Bank, particularly in the Jordan Valley, Gantz has expressed support, with the caveat that it should be done “in coordination with the international community.” Netanyahu will look to find a balance between maximalist demands from the right and the somewhat more nuanced approach of Gantz.
If the prime minister is able to proceed with annexation, the outcome could be the worst one possible for the Palestinians. Key parts of the West Bank would be taken off the negotiating table while the rest of the world is distracted in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The bleak outlook for the Palestinians reflects the weakness of their position with regard to the Israelis and their lack of an effective strategy to deal with Israel’s ongoing drift to the right and President Donald Trump’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. While the Palestinians have always been the weaker party in their conflict with Israel, never has the power relationship been so tilted against them. In the past, the Arab states and the international community helped bolster the Palestinians and brought some balance to the negotiating process, but the world seems to have lost interest in this issue, even more so now in the shadow of the global pandemic and the resulting economic disruption.
Tellingly, when the Palestinians sought a United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn Trump’s plan, they were unable to garner even the nine votes necessary to force an American veto.
The Palestinians also have been unable to develop a clear and effective strategy in responding to this dire situation. In response to the Trump administration’s recent moves, the Palestinians resorted to their traditional playbook, seeking support from the Arab League, the UN, and other parts of the international community. They achieved little from this effort beyond a pro forma resolution from Arab League foreign ministers.
The Palestinians also threatened to cut off all ties with Israel, including security cooperation. However, they have not followed through, fearing the very real consequences of an Israeli response, which could include a cutoff in revenue transfers or more aggressive intrusions by the Israeli military in Palestinian areas. The Palestinian Authority has said that Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank would be a red line that forces it to break with Israel. Yet the same constraints on the Palestinians would also apply in that situation and it is questionable whether they would act even then. The Palestinians are essentially trapped in the interim phase of Oslo, unable to pull back, but also blocked from any realistic opportunity to move forward.
In this difficult situation, what options are available to the Palestinians? Going backwards—dissolving the Palestinian Authority and “returning the keys” to the Israelis—would only increase the burdens of occupation on the Palestinian population and destroy even the limited benefits Palestinians have gained from self-government. Moving forward is also not a realistic option. Progress toward a two-state solution is impossible at this point, and Israel would never permit a one-state outcome in which Palestinians would benefit from equal status with Israelis. So that only leaves the status quo.
Tinkering with the status quo will not achieve Palestinian national aspirations. Nevertheless, there are things the Palestinians can do on their own that will improve their situation. First among these is ending their division into separate political entities in the West Bank and Gaza. This does not serve Palestinian interests and only weakens their standing with regard to Israel. While it may not be possible to resolve all aspects of this split at once, the unification of the non-security aspects of a Palestinian government may be possible and would improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
A second action the Palestinians could undertake on their own is improving the overall quality of Palestinian governance in both the West Bank and Gaza. Addressing mismanagement and corruption would go a long way toward improving the situation of Palestinians and increase popular backing for government institutions and leaders. This project would attract the support of international donors and possibly make additional resources available.
The future of the Palestinian national project remains bleak, but Palestinians would be better off focusing now on what they can do on their own to improve their lives and leave the problems they cannot resolve for the future.