Rami G. Khouri
The dangerous and destructive situation on the ground in Israel-Palestine is painful for both parties, though Palestinians are being killed at a rate seven times faster than Israelis, so the situation is not a symmetrical one that should elicit simplistic calls for all sides to restrain themselves and stop killing each other. Restraining oneself and stopping the killings are useful acts which we should aim for; but they would be almost meaningless if Israel’s existing occupation/colonization/annexation/siege and apartheid-like policies remain unchanged. Because in that case the outbursts of violence by both sides would certainly resume some months down the road as they have since 1967, in fact regularly since 1947-48. If the underlying problem is not resolved, we will continue in perpetuity to experience the symptoms of the violence and loss of life on both sides.This is bad enough news to grasp, but there is something even more troubling in the immediate situation, and for the coming two years at least. This is the advent of the traditional two-year pause in American involvement in mediating Palestinian-Israeli peace. (Some more sinister than myself would say we have actually just experienced a 20-year pause in serious American mediation, which has achieved zero results since the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994.) Traditionally, American presidents who try to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement stop trying in the third year of their second term, because they are considered lame duck presidents who should leave any new diplomatic initiatives for the next president and Congress that are elected.
Then the newly elected president usually requires one year to name key officials in the new administration, get briefed about the complexities of the Middle East, work out relations with Congress and the assorted lobby groups in Washington, D.C., and meet the main actors in the region and abroad who must be engaged.
The danger today stems from the fact that conditions on the ground in Israel and Palestine do not partake of this two-year pause. Pubic opinion and political elites both continue what they were doing, which is a terrifying combination of fear and extremism that spill into criminality among public opinion, and equally criminal incompetence or lack of seriousness on the part of the two leaderships.
Public opinion in both Israel and Palestine has hardened and shifted dangerously toward accepting, advocating or anticipating violence and death as inevitable for both of them. This is evident in the street murders that both sides continue to carry out, which are all the more worrying because they are the work of angry individuals who are beyond the control of organized political groups or government forces. When spontaneous murder becomes institutionalized in the daily fabric of ordinary citizens’ lives, society has a very serious problem on its hands.
This is made worse by recent public opinion polling data that shows how widespread these sentiments have become. Israeli polling last week showed that a small majority of citizens accepts that Israelis should shoot to kill any Palestinian they see attacking, or is believed to be planning to attack, an Israeli. No arrest, no evidence, no proof, no rule of law – just shoot to kill if you feel threatened is now the policy of a majority of Israelis.
Things are just as troubling on the Palestinian side, also according to new polls that show that a majority of all Palestinians (57 percent) supports the use of violence to end the Israeli occupation. Among the younger generation of 18-29-year-olds that is doing most of the street fighting and killing of Israelis, that support reaches 72 percent (compared to lows of 15-20 percent support for violence 20 years ago right after the Oslo Accords were signed).
So putting on hold now for two years serious diplomacy aimed at reaching a permanent peace agreement will only allow these attitudes of militancy and murder to continue their upward trends.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, also notes that his latest poll this summer showed two important new trends among Palestinians: 80 percent believe that Palestine is no longer the primary Arab cause, and around two-thirds have lost confidence in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. In fact, two-thirds of Palestinians demand the president’s resignation, alongside a majority that supports a return to armed intifada.
This is not a situation that can be put on hold for two years. It requires serious Arab, Israeli and international diplomatic efforts – akin to the recent Iran talks – that engage a range of important world powers who find a way to respond to the legitimate needs and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. The Americans have shown they cannot do this on their own.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in THE DAILY STAR and can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2015, on page 7.