Shifting sands for Mideast status quo

If 'Bibi' Netanyahu is ousted, chances are increased that an Israeli-Palestine peace process can begin. That's a big 'if,' but here are five reasons for hope.

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Columnists

June 9, 2021 - 8:35 AM

Israel's centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid. (Debbie Hill/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

After Bibi, can the Israel-Palestine peace process be resurrected?

This is the $64 billion question, if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is formally ousted, which looks pretty certain.

The conventional response is a resounding “no,” because the process is dead in the water. The Oslo peace plan for a “two-state solution,” which had been on life support for years, was administered the coup de grace by Bibi, the Trump team, and feckless Palestinian leaders.

Yet such fatalism — which seemed irrefutable until only recently — has been jolted by the recent Hamas-Israel war, and the likely new coalition government in Israel. Add to that some smart moves by the Biden administration, and one can see a plausible track for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Optimism about the Mideast is usually foolish. But here are five shifts in Israel and Palestine that I believe have undercut the status quo in a positive way.

Recent fighting

Let’s start with the recent fighting. The sequence of events — Israeli threats to demolish Palestinian homes and missteps on the holy Temple Mount, followed by Hamas rocketing of Israeli civilians and Israeli bombing — showed that the status quo of Palestinian quiescence no longer holds.

Shopkeepers try to repair their window closings on Omar Al-Muktar Street that was destroyed by an Israeli military strike during the 11-day escalation between Israel and Gaza military factions, which has now ended with a Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, in Gaza City, on May 24, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The deceptive calm of the last few years in the West Bank and Gaza hid tensions that are boiling over because Palestinians see no future. Yet donors won’t rebuild Gaza — a small sand spit of 2 million desperate people controlled by Israel and a corrupt Hamas — if they think another wave of warfare will destroy the reconstruction. And impoverished Gazans can’t emerge from Hamas’ hold unless the long-running Israeli embargo is lifted and they can breathe.

Bibi’s likely ouster

The ouster of Bibi by an impossible coalition of right- and left-wing parties, along with a conservative Arab Islamist party, Ra’am. Conventional wisdom notes that the new prime minister — for the next two years — is slated to be a religious nationalist named Naftali Bennett, who is further right than Bibi, and rejects any peace talks. He told me in an interview in December 2017 that he “vehemently opposed” a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and wants to annex much of the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett, left, Israeli parliament member from the Yamina party, on June 6, 2021. In power for 12 consecutive years, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces being toppled by a motley coalition of lawmakers united only by their shared hostility towards him. Under the agreement, the right-wing nationalist Bennett would be premier for two years, to be replaced by the centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party in 2023. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Yet Bennett inked a deal with left-wing parties that oppose annexation and expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. His coalition government will depend on the support of the Ra’am, which demands an end to Israeli demolition of Arab homes, and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Another blow to the status quo.

The smart tack by the Biden White House

“We believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely; to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy [and] to be treated with dignity,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Jerusalem visit after the fighting ended. The operative words here are “equal measures,” “freedom” and “democracy,” terms being repeated over and over by Blinken and his deputies when referring to Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the first leg of his four-day trip to the Middle East, on May 25, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Haim Zach/GPO/Getty Images/TNS)

“That language — equal measures — is new,” said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, on a webinar held by the Israel Policy Forum. He said it meant addressing rights for Israel’s Arab citizens as well as in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. “It is signaling that it is not OK to let things deteriorate when it comes to Palestinian rights just because no peace process is going on.”

So expect the Biden administration, having given Israel strong weapons support, to press hard on human rights issues such as home demolitions, settlement expansion and freedom of movement. Another jolt from the Trump-era status quo.

Campaign for Palestinian human rights

Palestinian grassroots organizers, having given up on formal peace talks and angered by the postponement of Palestinian elections, are also focusing on Palestinian human rights issues. Their momentum will be enhanced by U.S. support and the presence of Ra’am in Israel’s governing coalition.

Some Palestinians see the demand for equal rights as part of a changing Palestinian strategy that will push for a one-state solution with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, a goal embraced by some U.S. progressives. This is a goal I think can’t work in communally based societies such as Israel and Palestine, and won’t ever come to pass.

Push for more Arab-Jewish equality

I believe the conventional wisdom about the death of the two-state solution has also been upended. It has become clear the Palestinian status quo won’t hold, and the new coalition government, if confirmed, will push for more Arab-Jewish equality inside Israel. But, unless Israel is ready for a one-state solution in which Arabs outnumber Jews, equal rights for Palestinians can only be achieved by negotiating a two-state solution in the future.

As Blinken said in Jerusalem, the two-state solution is “probably the only way to really assure that going forward, Israel has a future as a secure Jewish and democratic state. …” A state that isn’t ruling over disenfranchised Palestinians.

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