Once again, we are killing each other. Palestinian youths, their minds awash with anti-Israeli incitement, awake in the morning and decide to kill a Jew and go looking for a Jew, knife in hand, and stab him in the back, the neck or the heart. Israeli citizens, their minds addled by anxiety, lynch Arabs or men who look to them like Arabs, because they tremble at the thought of the next knife to emerge.
After a decade during which the relationship between occupying Israel and the occupied West Bank was relatively calm (Gaza is another matter altogether), violence has returned.
The First Intifada (1987-93) was a popular uprising of stones. The Second Intifada (2000-2004) was a relentless terrorist attack by suicide bombers in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed. The present wave of violence is one of knives, Molotov cocktails and vehicular assault. The number of casualties – dozens to date – is still much lower than in the past because this time the terror is neither organised nor sophisticated. In fact, there is something distinctly desperate about it, even pathetic.
But the emotional and moral effects of the violence of autumn 2015 are shocking. Young Palestinians, spurred by oppression, desperation and extremism, want to kill. Young Israelis, consumed by panic, seek revenge. The Promised Land is caught in a spiral of hate, racism, xenophobia and murderousness. With no effective Israeli, Palestinian, or international leadership in sight, dark forces on both sides are inflaming each other and dragging the two peoples towards a chasm.
The most common questions heard over the past few weeks are: what happened? Why now? Why did the volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupt in September/October this year? But the question that should be asked is why this almost inevitable eruption did not occur three, four or five years ago. Given occupation, settlements, the turmoil in the Arab world, and religious radicalisation on both sides, why did Israel and the Palestinian West Bank enjoy seven years of such surprising calm?
Five factors are responsible for the relative quiet of the years from 2007 to 2014.
First is the terrible trauma suffered by Palestinian society when the Israeli army and the Israeli security service quelled the onslaught of suicide bombers in the early 2000s by reoccupying the West Bank, building the separation wall and breaking the spirit of the Palestinian population. The steep price the Palestinians paid for choosing the path of violence – under the influence of Hamas and the leadership of Yasser Arafat – brought about a deep reluctance to return to unrest.
Second is the fact that Hamas’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of 2007, after winning the Palestinian legislative election the previous year, and its totalitarian religious rule, led many residents of the West Bank to fear their extremist brothers no less than they fear Jewish extremists. Ironically, the threat of Hamas created an unspoken understanding between Israeli and Palestinian moderates, who preferred not to fight each other.
Third is Salam Fayyad. Unlike many others, the former Palestinian prime minister is a true peace hero. Born in the West Bank, the former economist and IMF veteran brought something altogether new to Palestine’s political life: clear-headed practicality. Fayyad’s work in the West Bank – imposing law and order, building institutions, advancing infrastructure projects and economic development – meant that for many years its residents enjoyed unprecedented growth of up to 10 per cent annually. Not only the restaurants of Ramallah were brimming with life; so were other Palestinian towns; and many Palestinian villages enjoyed a small, sweet taste of the good life. When the field is wet, it’s hard to light a fire. The relative prosperity and the modicum of hope that Fayyad brought to the West Bank anchored and secured the quiet.
Fourth is the diplomatic process. The (intensive) peace talks held by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel in 2007 to 2008 and the (wearisome) peace talks held by Abbas and the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in the four years to 2014 did not lead to the signing of a yet elusive final and comprehensive peace agreement. In many ways, they were idle talks based on tenuous assumptions. This is the reason why when Olmert made his Palestinian partner a generous and far-reaching offer under which Israel would withdraw from 93 per cent of the West Bank, Abbas disappeared, and when Netanyahu made a much more stingy offer, Abbas walked away. But the very existence of a sustained diplomatic process helped sustain the calm. Fruitless as it may have been, the diplomatic dialogue was an organising principle that prevented the odious demon of the conflict from escaping its bottle and wreaking havoc on innocent Israelis and Palestinians.
Fifth is the continuing chaos in the Arab world. Seemingly, the dramatic events that took place in Tahrir Square, Libya, Bahrain and Syria should have brought thousands of Palestinians to the street. After all, it was the residents of the occupied territories who in the late 1980s invented an effective and wide-reaching brand of Middle Eastern civil uprising. So given the (at first) exhilarating scenes being broadcast from neighbouring countries, the Palestinians could have been expected to mount a mass intifada. But the truth is that when the battle-weary residents of Hebron, Nablus and Jenin saw the bitter results of the Arab spring, their ardour for uprising quickly cooled. Despite the settlements and the Israeli army checkpoints that continued to mar their everyday life, they concluded that life under the Zionists in the occupied West Bank was far better than life under Arab tyranny in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. In its first four years, the historic windstorm that swept through the Middle East actually stabilised the gruesome system of sophisticated and surreptitious occupation in Palestine.
The five pillars of the present order proved resilient again and again. When negotiations between Olmert and Abbas broke down, nothing happened. When negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas imploded last year, the calm continued.
Neither regional upheaval nor local deprivation led to renewed violence. Time and again, the Israeli left’s prophecies of doom – without an end-to-conflict there can be no management-of-conflict, and so the conflict will surely resume – came to naught. Netanyahu cultivated his standing as Mr Security. And Abbas was seen as the boy who cried wolf. But the mutual dependence of these two leaders and their security services was such that the ever-smoking volcano of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not erupt.
Until suddenly the lava began to spew. So why now? And why in the fall of 2015?
Because the five pillars of order are crumbling. The trauma of the Second Intifada has dissipated and the memory of the destruction it wreaked on the Palestinians has grown faint (especially among the teenagers who are leading the present wave of violence). The threat of Hamas is less of a deterrent because the Gaza war of 2014 during which more than 2,200 Palestinians and 75 Israelis died in 51 days of mutual attacks, the corruption in Fatah and the dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority have all buoyed the popularity of the organisation (closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) in the West Bank. The hope that Salam Fayyad engendered began to die when he was ousted from office two years ago by Abbas and the economic prosperity he brought about is fading fast. What of the diplomatic process? Since the collapse of the US secretary of state John Kerry’s peace initiative, in spring 2014, negotiations between the two sides have ceased. And the paradoxically soothing effect of Arab world chaos (in its first few years) is gradually being replaced by the destructive influence of Isis and religious fervour among many young Palestinians, who have no rights, no jobs and no hopes for the future. None of the factors that underpinned the quiet in Israel-Palestine is as powerful as it was for most of the past decade.
And over the past year, two dangerous accelerants have been thrown into the powder keg: the systematic radicalisation of religious-nationalist Jews and Islamic-Palestinian incitement.
Jewish radicalisation has many guises. At the legitimate end of the spectrum are the Israeli public’s drift to the right, the rise of the settlers’ political parties and Netanyahu’s resounding victory in the elections of March 2015. At the other and unlawful end of the spectrum is a group of a few dozen Jewish terrorists and hooligans who attack Palestinians in the West Bank, with a clear and declared intent of fomenting an all-out war. Somewhere in the middle are the irresponsible nationalist politicians who over the past few months have brazenly insisted on ascending the Temple Mount and praying there, creating a glowering provocation that got out of control.
Palestinian radicalisation also has many guises: the anti-Israeli (and sometimes anti-Semitic) incitement in the Palestinian media; the menacing actions of extremist Islamic factions in Jerusalem, and finally the spreading of out-and-out lies, designed to create the utterly false impression that Israel seeks to take over the holy mosques of al-Haram al-Sharif.
The increasing friction between the quickly eroding factors stabilising order and the acceleration of the two radicalisation processes disrupting order finally lit the fire. With no hope, no economic prospects and no diplomatic horizon, incitement and provocation succeeded in raising to the surface the ever-bubbling rage of Palestinian society and the deep-seated fear of Israeli society. And like warring twins whose fates are nevertheless eternally entwined, they once again grabbed each other by the throat and refuse to let go.
But what the difficult events of this dark autumn have revealed is something far more sinister: the true and terrifying meaning of an increasingly fashionable idea – the one-state solution.
Since 1988, the widely accepted paradigm of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the paradigm of two states. In response to the growing economic, military and diplomatic might of the Jewish state, more and more Palestinians understood that they cannot hope to wipe out their sovereign adversary, against whom they had been fighting for generations. And following the First and Second Intifadas, ever more Israelis understood that they cannot prevent the people with whom they share the land from exercising their right of self-determination and founding a Palestinian state. As a result, the Oslo Peace Accords were signed (1993-95). And later, the Camp David peace summit was held (2000), followed by the Annapolis Conference (2007). The Palestinian leadership, the Israeli leadership and the international community all adopted the idea of the two-state solution and converged on the path towards two states, which was meant to divide the land, end the conflict and bring peace. But the failures of the various peace initiatives, the unceasing building of settlements and the rise of the naysayers in Israel as well as Palestine have meant that the two-state solution has lost its charm. The Israeli right has spared no effort in burying it. A majority of Palestinians have abandoned it. Internationally, the chattering classes have turned their back on it. Strangely, both the extreme right and the radical left in Israel, Palestine and Europe have fallen in love with the idea of one state.
The one-state solution has been tried in the past in the Middle East, namely in a nation state called Syria. The idea that Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and Christians can live together in harmony, under the common roof of one state, led to catastrophe: the most horrific present-day convulsion on our planet, with more than 200,000 dead and millions of refugees. A gargantuan nightmare. Is there any chance that a similar experiment in the Holy Land will yield different results? None. In today’s Middle East – which often resembles Europe of the 11th century – the expectation that Israelis and Palestinians will get over their grievances and live together in a Scandinavian-like social democracy is quite frankly absurd. Even worse, this expectation is a lethal one. Like a shiny red apple full of poison, beautiful without, deadly within.
But although the day-to-day reality of the Middle East proves just how irresponsible and perilous is a one-state solution (see also Lebanon, Libya and Yemen) the fundamentalist right and the fringe left have adopted it. Both the messianic religious nationalist right and the intellectuals of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement have authored different forms and versions of this insane and deadly idea. At the same time, the situation on the ground has advanced towards the reality of one state. An intransigent Netanyahu government, a vision-lacking Abbas government and moribund American and European governments have created a process of deterioration leading to ever more dangerous tumult.
We all hope that the present round of violence will die down in the coming days. It could very well be that, thanks to the king of Jordan’s plea, the firefighter John Kerry will douse the flames that threaten to engulf the mount on which once stood the First and Second Temples. But even if this respite comes, it is clear that, without profound change, sooner or later the fire will be reignited. Because what has occurred in the Promised Land over the past few weeks should be heard as a powerful wake-up call. A wake-up call that says there is no other solution than the two-state solution. A wake-up call that says the one-state solution is a deadly solution. A wake-up call that says that if we do not resume the march towards peace, we will find ourselves in a horrific, all-consuming war against which all previous wars will pale.
Ari Shavit is a senior columnist for Haaretz newspaper in Israel and the author of the acclaimed book “My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, published by Scribe
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?