As efforts to stabilise the Gaza front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue in Cairo (as of mid-August 2014), the impact of the third Gaza war on the larger conflict could be ominous. Coming just a few months after the collapse of US efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the future of peace negotiations and the two-state solution might now be more in doubt than at any time since the early 1990s. Failure to permanently stabilise the Gaza front could also deliver a further blow to the larger political process.
Three dynamics are likely to contribute to this outcome. Firstly, Hamas and its strategy of military resistance, with its accompanying narrative of ‘victory’, will no doubt emerge stronger than ever in the post-Gaza-war environment. Public support for Hamas might grow considerably stronger and demands in the West Bank to emulate Gaza might attract greater support.
By contrast, the status of the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, and his strategy of non-violence and peace negotiations might suffer a considerable setback. Abbas might find himself quickly forced to confront Israel in various international forums, including the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). His ability to back away from such a confrontation has now been greatly constrained by the huge humanitarian suffering and the likely findings of the recently appointed UN commission of inquiry into possible human rights violation and war crimes committed during the latest Gaza war. Israeli reaction to Abbas’s diplomatic challenges might lead to a great destabilisation in the West Bank and the eventual collapse of the PA.
Thirdly, the war in Gaza might make the Israelis even more concerned about security arrangements in any permanent agreement regarding the West Bank. Many Israelis will accept the argument that maintaining greater security control in the West Bank is the most prudent position. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was quick to point out in the early days of the Gaza war that one should expect a toughening of Israel’s security demands in future negotiations, including a continued Israeli military presence in and access to the entire West Bank. A withdrawal from the West Bank, Netanyahu implied, would place Israel in intolerable danger, exposing its heart to West Bank rockets and tunnels. If, as expected, the war strengthens Netanyahu domestically, there will probably be little or no internal pressure on him to compromise with the Palestinians; indeed, he would be too strong to make peace, as President Obama implied in a recent interview.
Options for the Palestinians
The Palestinians confront hard choices. A return to armed resistance might be more popular today than it was before the Gaza war. Yet most Palestinians realise that a return to a third Intifada or the emulation of a Hamas model in the West Bank will most likely bring wholesale devastation to Palestinian life in this area and push the PA to certain collapse. Abbas is determined to oppose violence, viewing it as destructive of Palestinian interests. If Palestinian violence is resisted by the PA security services, such a strategy might lead to internal strife and discredit the PA altogether.
A second approach, a non-violent resistance campaign, while supported by most Palestinians, is not seen by the public as an effective way of ending the Israeli occupation. Even during the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 only a few were willing to participate in such a campaign.
A third approach, a plan to dissolve the PA and force Israel to confront the choice between ending its occupation or fully reoccupying the West Bank, is supported by most of those who favour a one-state solution. But it lacks popular support, because most Palestinians continue to want the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel and view the PA as the midwife of such a state. Moreover, the PA has failed thus far to take any serious steps to mitigate the serious negative consequences the implementation of such plan would inflict on the Palestinians.
Although Abbas has from time to time been flirting with the options of non-violent resistance and dissolving the PA, his actions have indicated a preference for the fourth option mentioned above: waging an international diplomatic campaign to isolate Israel and delegitimise the occupation.
Various Palestinian and pro-Palestinian groups are likely to accelerate the efforts to wage boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. The next critical step in this approach is the signing of the Rome Statute constituting the ICC. Signing this treaty would allow Palestinians to go to the ICC and accuse Israelis of committing war crimes in the occupied territories. The US and many European countries are opposed to such a Palestinian step. The US and Israel will most likely impose financial and other sanctions on the PA if it takes this step, which in turn might threaten the viability of the PA.
Options for Israel
Israel’s choices are hard too. To weaken Hamas’s appeal, it has to bolster the notion that Palestinians can succeed without resorting to armed resistance. To do so it has an interest in strengthening Abbas, because he too needs to demonstrate that his approach is as effective as or even more effective than that of Hamas. Yet Netanyahu and most of his coalition partners do not view Abbas or his reconciliation government as a viable partner. Without such a partner, some Israelis who worry about the demographic implications of continued occupation for the Jewish nature of Israel have called for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. Yet those who advocate such a step find themselves having to explain how it would prevent the transformation of the West Bank into another Gaza.
Maintaining the status quo – the preferred option for most Israelis at the moment – will not be cost free, even in the short term and even if Palestinians do not resort to violence or dissolve the PA. Israel’s image in international public opinion has been hurt by the scenes of civilian death and destruction in Gaza. Such an option will expose Israel to an increasing boycott, divestment and sanctions threat, while Abbas and the PA will be left with no alternative but to pursue their UN and ICC options, regardless of the risks involved.
This article was first published here in the NOREF expert analysis series on August 19, 2014.