Why you should care
This conflict is on its way to ruining the lives of a fourth generation.
The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Few foreign-policy prizes have been more eagerly sought by American presidents than a photo of themselves behind Israeli and Palestinian leaders as they shake hands at the White House or Camp David. The image, of course, symbolizes the president’s role in helping to solve one of the most intractable disputes of our generation. But winning that prize requires a significant investment of presidential time and energy.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump have reaffirmed strongly the U.S. commitment to Israel and implied they would work to thaw the U.S.–Israeli climate — frosty, as of late, thanks to the widely acknowledged bad chemistry between President Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. But improved personal chemistry is hardly enough to solve this decades-long conflict. In fact, a combination of fractious internal politics and Mideast regional trends may now have moved the Israeli–Palestinian problem into the category of “too hard.”
For starters, the regional context is entirely different than in 1993, when President Clinton presided over the signing of the Oslo Accord — in which Israel agreed that Palestinians would govern the West Bank, and the latter recognized Israel’s right to exist — or in 1978, when President Carter orchestrated the Camp David Accords, bringing peace between Israel and Egypt. Back then, Arab disputes with Israel were seen as the single most important roadblock to stability and peace in the Middle East. While Arab–Israeli tensions remain something of an obstacle to peace in the Mideast, they are overshadowed by the larger drama of war in Syria and Iraq, the regionwide tensions between Sunni and Shia and the general chaos that followed the 2011 Arab Spring.
In addition, at least five problems stand in the way of progress.
1. Both sides are deeply divided internally.
No one can speak authoritatively for all Palestinians, who are split between the radical Hamas government in Gaza and more moderate Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank. Contributing to the uncertainty, most observers expect that 80-year-old Mahmud Abbas, who governs the West Bank Palestinians, will retire soon. There is no agreed-upon replacement.
For their part, the Israeli coalition Netanyahu heads is predominantly right-wing, but it’s at odds with many in the opposition who want more flexibility in negotiating with the Palestinians.
2. Terrorism, attributed mostly to Palestinians, has been on the rise.
After several years of relative calm, the Israeli security agency says a sharp increase in terrorist incidents on its soil began last October, and by the end of 2015 amounted to a 284 percent increase over the preceding year.
3. The long-vaunted “two-state solution” seems increasingly out of reach.
The two-state solution envisions a separate, independent Palestine living alongside an Israeli state it recognizes. Partly because of internal division and increasing terrorism, many in the region no longer believe it likely. Surveys from the Pew Research Center show both Israeli Jews and Arabs pessimistic about the probability of a two-state solution, with Arab conviction dropping more than 20 percent since 2013.
In the background are Israel’s complicated demographics. The bottom line: If a two-state solution remains elusive, rapid Arab population growth within Israel means that in about 20 years the Jewish population would no longer be a majority, which would change the historic character of the country fundamentally.
4. Opinion surveys show rising Palestinian support for Hamas radicals.
I heard these surveys described at a Princeton University conference; they found that a Hamas leader would probably today win an election among all Palestinians by about 10 percent.
5. The Israelis have continued the practice of building “settlements” amid land occupied mostly by Palestinians.
Maps of any such land outside Gaza, which the Israelis vacated in 2005, look like Swiss cheese, so dotted are they with Israeli settlement pockets. Ongoing settlement building reduces the Palestinians’ incentive to negotiate — and guarantees that any agreement will be more complicated to reach and to implement.
Not all international actors have given up on a solution. Following strenuous but ultimately unsuccessful efforts by Secretary of State Kerry last year, France convened international leaders in June to discuss strategy. Egyptian leader Al-Sissi separately gave the effort a push, but there has been no notable follow-up.
Is there a way forward under which a new U.S. administration could help? Perhaps, but progress would be slow, halting and require extraordinary persistence and patience. We have almost succeeded before, most notably in 2000, when President Clinton’s Camp David meeting of the parties came as close to an agreement as anything I saw during my time in government.
Events since then have turned the clock back. So deep is the distrust today that the first steps would have to be simple “confidence building” measures, such as Israeli easing of travel restrictions and a tighter Palestinian clampdown on extremists. Even these steps would be controversial, however, and are unlikely to come about without dedicated and persistent third-party involvement.
Typically, such mediation has come via a senior U.S. envoy linked closely to and able to speak for the U.S. president. But the next U.S. president will have to weigh such an effort against a much broader array of competing demands in the Middle East than his or her predecessors. So the likelihood is that Israeli–Palestinian peace will not be as high on the U.S. priority list as in the past.
Which would leave solutions to the parties themselves. At this point, they appear in no mood to compromise.