Palestinian Issue Off Agenda, as Conflict Overshadowed by Regional Developments
Despite recent terror attacks, summit in Israel with Arab countries generates more headlines
After a series of deadly attacks against Israelis and a flurry of regional diplomacy in the last week, the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the Middle East have become even more visible. One of those changes is the status of the long-standing Israel-Palestinian conflict. Once a regular supplier of headlines for news bulletins around the globe, it appears to have lost the interest of its audience.
While not at the forefront, the conflict has not been resolved and there are ever-present reminders.
In three attacks in Israel in the last week, 11 people were killed. While the first two attacks were carried out by Israeli Arabs who claimed affiliation to the Islamic State, or ISIS, the latest attack, on Tuesday evening, was carried out by a Palestinian man from the West Bank. Five people were killed in that attack in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, in what served as a bloody reminder that the Israel-Palestinian conflict still exists.
The photo-ops at an historic regional summit which Israel hosted at the start of the week could have blurred that fact, but the violence on the ground did not allow it.
“The conflict has not disappeared,” said Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an international relations expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “But Arab countries, which are interested in cooperation with Israel on the Iranian issue and on technology, are not willing to wait anymore for a compromise. This doesn’t mean they are ignoring the issue.”
As Israel hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab nations in the Negev desert, Palestinians voiced their dissatisfaction with the summit.
“Arab normalization meetings without ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine are just an illusion, a mirage, and a free reward for Israel,” Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, tweeted.
“There used to be only one conflict in the Middle East – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Moein Odeh, a lawyer and human rights expert from east Jerusalem. “Now we have other conflicts, from the bloody Syrian conflict, to the Arab Spring and events in different places such as Yemen. This took the attention away not only from the international community, also from the Arab world.”
For decades, the Palestinian cause united Arab countries against Israel and kept the issue continuously in the headlines.
“Priorities in the Arab world are pushing the Palestinian cause down the list,” Odeh said. “The international community is also exhausted, they spent billions of dollars and many hours to figure out how to solve the problem with no success,” he added.
Because of this, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians largely has been sidelined in recent years. The last time both sides sat at the negotiating table was in 2014, in yet another failed attempt at a peace agreement. Since then, there have been periodic flare-ups. Yet, as the years go by, both sides appear to have gotten used to the violence.
“The current status quo is good for leaderships on both sides,” said Odeh, “For Israel there is no peace, but also no war. For the Palestinians, as long as there is no solution Israel can be blamed for everything … the Palestinian leadership is not looking to be held accountable.”
The conflict has not disappeared. But Arab countries, which are interested in cooperation with Israel on the Iranian issue and on technology, are not willing to wait anymore for a compromise. This doesn’t mean they are ignoring the issue.
So, it is not only the majority of the international community that has given up on coaxing the sides to talk or find a solution; it appears that Israelis and Palestinians have become reconciled to being tied up in a perpetual conflict.
“There needs to be an understanding that we need to stop managing the conflict and try to resolve it, and only when this changes is a solution possible,” said Odeh.
A major hurdle to any future solution is the internal Palestinian rift between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The realization that the Palestinians are not united under one leadership has further reduced interest in the conflict. The split that has existed for over fifteen years makes negotiations with Israel a non-starter.
Ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, tensions are running high again. Last year, at the start of Ramadan, tensions in Jerusalem culminated in an 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel.
“Peace with the Palestinians is the gateway to security, stability, peace and economic prosperity in the region,” read a statement from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry released as the regional summit hosted by Israel began.
For years, the majority of the international community believed and acted according to this principle.
Israel found itself largely isolated in the Middle East, with a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians as a pre-condition to normalization with other Arab countries.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 saw a shift in the decades-old paradigm. As Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco, the Palestinians were left behind; but the issues that have been plaguing the region for decades have remained.
“Regional developments are continuously pushing more governments closer to Israel,” said Odeh.
The Negev Summit, which included meetings between officials from Israel, the United States, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE, was a vivid display of the downgrading of the Palestinian issue. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed their support for a two-state solution and kept the issue on the table, the statements were more lip service than substance.
Blinken also made a visit to Ramallah while he was in the region, reiterating the US commitment “to the basic principle of the two-state solution.”
Jordan, which has shared diplomatic ties with Israel since 1994, did not participate in the summit. As leaders from the Abraham Accords countries and Egypt met in the Negev desert in southern Israel, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank. The timing was not coincidental. It was an affirmation that Jordan is still committed to the principle that progress on the Palestinian issue must be made before making further gestures to Israel.
For Palestinians, it appears there are few active champions of their quest for statehood.
Optimism surrounding the summit was dimmed by the attack in the Israeli city of Hadera on Sunday. While ISIS took responsibility for the attack, it was a reminder that Israel is still facing major challenges from within, regardless of its strengthened regional position.
International leaders have very low expectations about the prospects of a political solution. There is little belief in that option anymore.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly voiced his opposition to a two-state solution, making prospects for negotiations with the Palestinians very slim. The US, while encouraging steps to reduce tensions between the sides, seems to have adopted the Israeli position that the time for resumption of negotiations is not now.
“International leaders have very low expectations about the prospects of a political solution,” said Navon, “There is little belief in that option anymore.”
Events of recent days and the rising tensions ahead of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover emphasize that while the focus is not on the conflict, it still needs to be addressed.
“Maintaining the status quo doesn’t necessarily mean everything has to be frozen,” Navon added, “Policies can be changed, the economic situation (in the Palestinian territories) can be improved. In the absence of a political solution, the situation can be managed in a creative manner.”
All odds are stacked against a solution to the conflict, guaranteeing the waning interest in it. With the sides almost numb to the bloodshed, there is little room for hope.