5 Inconvenient Truths About Israeli-Palestinian Violence

And what we can learn from the past to understand the latest bloodshed.

Israeli security forces check a Palestinian man at Damascus gate in Jerusalem's Old City on October 20, 2015. UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned against any misuse of force as he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in a bid to calm nearly three weeks of Palestinian unrest. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli security forces check a Palestinian man at Damascus gate in Jerusalem's Old City on October 20, 2015. UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned against any misuse of force as he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in a bid to calm nearly three weeks of Palestinian unrest. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Israelis and Palestinians are at it again. During the past several weeks, at least 10 Israelis and more than 50 Palestinians have been killed and scores more wounded in a series of shootings, riots, and stabbings. Many wonder whether this is the start of the Third Intifada.

As we watch the current round of conflict unfold, it might be useful to look at the efficacy of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not in the breathlessness of the moment but with some perspective. And when we do that, several highly inconvenient and politically incorrect truths emerge.

The bottom line is clear: Violence has been a constant companion in the Holy Land for more than six decades. It has both preserved the status quo and changed it. It cannot be an effective tool to realize Palestinian national aspirations or to guarantee Israel’s security. It is, however, likely to remain a default tool for both sides. Israelis use violence to defend themselves against and to control Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Palestinians use violence as a weapon to remind Israel that they still demand a state. Here are the five points that everyone — policymakers, journalists, Israelis, Palestinians, and curious observers alike — should keep in mind as we watch what is unfolding in Jerusalem, Israel, and the West Bank. 

Nothing changes without pain: Political leaders only take truly momentous, risky decisions when circumstances compel them to do so. That’s why crisis — including war and insurgency — has laid the basis for every breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Just look at the record. Without the 1973 war, Egypt’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal, and the war’s traumatic impact on Israel, there would have been no disengagement agreements, no Anwar Sadat visit to Jerusalem, no Camp David, and no Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Without Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign to push him out, there would have been no opportunity for a Madrid peace conference in 1991. And without the First Intifada, which began in 1987 and lasted for nearly six years, Rabin would not have begun to recognize that Palestinians couldn’t be broken by military force nor could they embrace Jordan as their surrogate.

If you want omelets in the Arab-Israeli arena, you must break eggs. That doesn’t by itself guarantee results, of course. And it’s a tragic comment on the state of affairs that violence or war is required to have any chance of a diplomatic breakthrough. But it’s true pretty much without exception. Violence and war can create urgency, focus leaders on acting, and also provide outside mediators opportunities for diplomacy. The current crisis has now resulted in a visit from the U.N. secretary-general, the upcoming mission of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the region, and a French proposal for a U.N. Security Council resolution to deploy international observers to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City.

But pain must be accompanied by prospects of gain: Trauma may be necessary to turn crisis into opportunity, but it is not sufficient. Indeed, if pain were all that was needed, we would have had Arab-Israeli peace decades ago. But disincentives must be paired with incentives.

Consider the following examples of where pain actually produced gain, too: In 1979, Sadat got Sinai back and a new and lucrative relationship with the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin got a separate peace with Egypt and, by giving back Sinai, preserved control over what he deemed the bigger prize — the West Bank. In 1991 at Madrid, Israel got a symbolic international peace conference with no authority. That created a smokescreen to hide multilateral negotiations with Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Worried about a failing Soviet Union, Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s president at the time, began to explore a new relationship with the United States and a commitment to U.S. forces in the Golan Heights. Jordan got a get-out-of-jail-free card from Washington after backing Saddam. And Palestinians, backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, got recognition on the world stage and eventually found a way to get the PLO into the formal process. And in the Oslo accords, however flawed, Yasser Arafat got personal and organizational recognition that he and the PLO were the legitimate and only partner for Israel and the United States. In return, the Israelis got an incremental, interim process with no restrictions on settlement-building and no commitment to Palestinian statehood.

None of these trades were perfect. Some were fundamentally flawed and hard for the parties to accept. But all were deemed good enough quids to produce the necessary quos. And, more to the point, the gains allowed leaders and publics alike to rationalize the price of the pain paid.

Sadly, the violence in recent years, including the Hasmonean tunnel crisis in 1996, the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005, and three wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, has offered up only pain without any real strategy or opportunity by Israeli and Palestinian leaders and American mediators. This is likely to be the case during the crisis, too. If Israel confirms that it will maintain the status quo on, for example, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, that may calm the situation for a while. Similarly, another Israel-Hamas cease-fire may buy some peace and quiet. But the bottom line is stark: An end to conflict will require resolution of the big issues, including Jerusalem and borders. These seem out of reach, and that means there’s no real prospect of gains.

Power of the strong vs. power of the weak: When it comes to the use of violence, the weaker party, the Palestinians, suffers the most in terms of deaths, injuries, and the destruction of livelihoods. Casualty counts are inherently asymmetrical in large part because of Israel’s power and capacity, sophistication of weaponry, defensive capabilities, U.S. support, and, of late, acquiescence and support from Arab states, such as Egypt. None of this is intended to trivialize the trauma and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian terror and violence.

The Israelis suffer, too. Israel wields the power of the strong. It can impose closures on West Bank or East Jerusalem neighborhoods, create settlements, confiscate land, and restrict the movement of Palestinians all the while maintaining an environment of normalcy in a highly functional state. But Palestinians wield the power of the weak — a terrifying and formidable power largely based not on what they have but on what they lack.

The Palestinian national movement is divided and dysfunctional. It looks like Noah’s ark: two constitutions, two security services, two sets of patrons, and even two separate visions of where and what Palestine really is. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas lacks control, let alone a monopoly on the use of violence in Palestinian society. This means Palestinians can applaud Hamas’s military and terror operations against Israel and take pride in them as they did during recent Israeli-Hamas confrontations in Gaza. Moreover, as the weakest party to the negotiations, under occupation and without rights and liberties, Palestinians can engage in and support suicide terrorist attacks and glorify martyrs. Anger, humiliation, hopelessness, and impotence sustain popular resistance. These conditions create a grievance narrative that rationalizes low-tech violence such as stabbings and vehicular attacks, which Palestinians see as legitimate forms of resistance and Israelis regard as pure terrorism. In this way, Palestinians have the capacity to deny Israel security and disrupt the rhythm of daily life and the normalcy that any Israeli government must preserve and protect.

In recent years, this kind of violence has undermined the Palestinian cause. Not since the First Intifada in 1987 has sustained violence led to diplomatic breakthroughs. Indeed, it makes it worse. Palestinian leaders like Abbas know this. The bitter consequences and damage done to Palestinians in the Second Intifada have so far prevented a third. But the young Palestinians wielding knives in the streets of Jerusalem were in grade school during those dark days and may not have absorbed the full impact of suicide terror or Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank. A June poll found that 61 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem support armed struggle. If Palestinians can’t live normal lives, they will try to ensure that Israelis won’t, either. And that’s one of the unstated messages of the recent outbreak of violence by young Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Proximity guarantees an uneasy status quo: To paraphrase Mark Twain, proximity breeds children and contempt. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and the role violence plays in it — makes it distinct from the Israeli-Arab conflict on the interstate level. Egypt and Israel were separated by an international border and hundreds of kilometers of Sinai desert. Israel and Syria are separated by the U.N.-monitored Golan Heights. Since the last conventional Arab-Israeli war, in 1973, interstate conflict has all but ended. Instead, Israel has fought three asymmetrical wars with Hezbollah and three with Hamas and has dealt with two Palestinian intifadas and the daily violence and confrontation that plays out between the occupier and the occupied.

Israeli and Palestinian lives are inextricably linked together — not as equals and not as friends. But in places like Jerusalem there is daily contact and interaction. Today, even amidst the current violence, tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians work either legally or illegally in Israeli settlements or in Israel proper. And strange as it may seem, according to a poll in June, 52 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem would prefer Israeli citizenship with equal rights to citizenship in a Palestinian state.

For Israelis and Palestinians, proximity ensures that violence doesn’t just flare up from time to time but is a constant companion. When there’s a peace process, there’s violence and terror. And when there is no process, there’s violence and terror. Indeed, some of the worst attacks by Palestinians came in the wake of the Oslo accords. And the worst act of settler terrorism against Palestinians — Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron — came during the same period. The bitter truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there can be no comfortable status quo because of proximity. And no walls, separation barriers, cease-fires, or status quo arrangements can trump this.

The sustainable unsustainable status quo: And yet there is an even more painful reality to consider, too, when it comes to war and peace in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. That the status quo is ever-changing doesn’t mean it changes for the better, let alone in the direction of anything resembling a two-state or comprehensive solution. The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is framed by two unchangeable realities: First, there is no military solution. (That is, the defeat of one side by the other.) Second, unlike traditional colonial situations where the occupying power is driven out by an unacceptable level of violence and pain (as, say, the French were in Algeria), the Israelis aren’t going anywhere. They’re already home. No amount of violence or terror or external pressure is going to force either side into capitulation on terms they don’t accept. And demographics alone won’t produce a Palestinian state, despite the challenges and threats posed to Israel by the increasing number of Palestinians under its control. Nor has this threat yet produced a fundamental change in the Israeli government’s approach to the Palestinian problem.

The brutal reality is that, until now, the costs of maintaining this unhappy status quo are less threatening to both sides than what would be required to change it. Neither Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing, able, or ready to make the decisions required to produce an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security. Even if Israelis and Palestinians are able to tamp down this latest round of violence — and they may — there just doesn’t seem to be the will and skill required to convert this crisis into an opportunity to move forward to resolve the broader conflict.

For the foreseeable future, Israelis and Palestinians will operate now in the narrow space that exists between a two-state solution too important (still) to abandon and one that’s just too hard to implement. And as they do, tragically, violence rather than diplomacy is likely to remain an all too familiar companion.

Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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