In the past month, the attention of the world was again reverted to the brewing crisis in the Middle East as Israel carried on with its occupation-in-perpetuity of the Palestinian lands. In the latest episodic and structural violence, the ethnic cleansing enabled by Israel’s settler colonialism in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem morphed into a wider war with Hamas in Gaza. Hamas launched a salvo of rockets toward Israel proper resulting in the death of few Israelis. Israel retributed with a significantly disproportionate offensive operation against Hamas, which resulted in the death toll of hundreds of Palestinians and a massive loss of the infrastructure in the Gaza strip.
Soon after the hostilities garnered international attention, global and regional actors swung the narratives straight out of their usual playbook of appealing for an end to the violence while stating their firm stance that the question of Palestinian statehood must be resolved through a two-state solution. Notwithstanding the nobleness of persistent hope over cynicism, these intentions do not necessarily pave the way for noble resolutions every time. What this assertion fails to understand is that this playbook has lost its vitality and appeal.
Four strategic trends are shaping the behaviour of Israel toward the question of Palestinian statehood. Though set in motion in the last decades of the past century, these trends are now matured and embedded in the Israeli power structure with potent ramifications for the regional and international environments.
- Ascent of the Right
It might be an irony of historic proportion that the current right-wing, religious authoritarianism in Israel is not the default political behaviour of the Israeli state. The current dominant religious nationalism was not always a part of the Zionist mainstream or was in the mind of Theodore Herzl. For much of the history of the Zionist movement, and even in the aftermath of the establishment of the Israeli state, the power structure was dominated by secular and socialist politics until the 1970s. The trajectory of Israeli politics shifted from that point onwards with the electoral victory of the right-wing Likud party under the leadership of Menachem Begin.
It might be an irony of historic proportion that the current right-wing, religious authoritarianism in Israel is not the default political behaviour of the Israeli state.
Subsequently, the failure of the Oslo Accords in establishing peace between Arabs and Jews, determining Palestinian statehood, and the Israeli intricate apartheid system, which lead to the second intifada, allowed the Israeli right-wingers to cement their power and consolidate their position in Israeli politics. This dynamic from secular nationalism to a religious one is now encompassing all of the Israeli society, from people to the army. The power hierarchy of the country now is firmly in the grasp of the right-wing nationalist forces. Due to their potency in the electoral performance and immersion in society and military, those belonging to the far-right political spectrum enjoy a near-monopoly over political power in Israel.
- Normalisation and Recognition
The second strategic trend is the continuation of the normalisation of Israel’s relationship with its neighbourhood and subsequent recognition of Israel’s statehood. Consonant with its long game, the Abraham Accords serve as a conduit toward achieving Israel’s key strategic objective; recognition of its statehood without the recognition of Palestine. In the latest normalisation process, three nations normalised their relations with Israel: United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sudan and Morocco. Naturally, in the aftermath of this normalisation, much of the international opinion concerns itself with the notion of morality and the question of Palestinian statehood, identifying these nations as betrayers to the Palestinian cause.
However, in similarity with the high rhetoric of a two-state solution, much of the world ignores the actual intention of these agreements as they have more to do with the national interests of these nations than a transnational cause such as the Palestinian liberation. Moreover, they also failed to account for the fact that the Abraham Accords are a continuation of a process that started in the past few decades; it is, in essence, not a novel matter. Egypt normalised its relations with Israel in 1978, known as Camp David Accords. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) reached an agreement with Israel in 1993, popularly known as Oslo Accords. The main point of the accords is the surrendering of “liberation’” and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the sole representative of the Palestinians. Jordan reached an understanding with Israel in 1994 and an agreement known as Wadi Araba Treaty was signed. Abraham Accords, then, essentially follows a similar trajectory of normalisation, long set in motion, keeping in view that Israel must secure itself from immediate dangers and not have a repeat of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars.
- Fragmentation of the Palestinians
By concluding Oslo Accords, Israel ensured that the political leadership of the Palestinians in the form of PLO ceases to exist, and PA would dedicate its newfound authority to control its seething population and their anger against Israel. Though PA was intended as a political force to mobilise the Palestinians around the cause of the liberation, it resorted to authoritarianism and suppression of the Palestinian rights within its territory instead of marshalling them in opposition to the Israeli apartheid system.
It was around the same time when right-wing forces were ascendant in Israel in the 1970s. The character of the Palestinian liberation gradually morphed into a more religiously motivated resistance form culminating in the development of Islamic Jihad (IJ) and then Hamas. These religiously motivated resistance forces are the unintended consequence of the Israeli state policy to undermine the secular nature of the PLO. In the aftermath of Oslo, Hamas, the primary force in the array of Palestinian resistance organisations, gained prominence in the popular consciousness to the extent that it won elections in the Gaza strip in 2006 and thereafter established itself politically.
It was around the same time when right-wing forces were ascendant in Israel in the 1970s. The character of the Palestinian liberation gradually morphed into a more religiously motivated resistance form culminating in the development of Islamic Jihad (IJ) and then Hamas. These religiously motivated resistance forces are the unintended consequence of the Israeli state policy to undermine the secular nature of the PLO.
Notwithstanding Israel’s frustration with the occasional rocket barrages from Gaza by Hamas, Israel is keen on maintaining this three-state reality, wherein: Israel would rule over the occupied territories and provide external security, Hamas would rule Gaza internally, and PA would domestically rule West Bank. Israel has been pursuing a long term strategy of maintaining a fragmented Palestinian existence in terms of demographics, administration, geography, and political leadership. Within Israel and its occupied territories, Israel’s goal is not to have a demographically significant and geographically composite Palestinian state but weak, fragile and fragmented pockets of Palestinian existence.
This existence, punctuated by Israel’s apartheid legal regimes and the presence of the occupying structures of violence, enables Israel to inflict administrative and structural mass fear and collective excruciating pain on the Palestinians without attracting too much international attention.
- Militaristic Foreign Policy and Undermining of Strategic Competitors
The primal fears of the Israeli state stemmed from the threat of being overwhelmed by its far powerful and militarily stronger neighbours. These fears were actualised in the wars after the establishment of the state of Israel, thus impregnating the newfound state with an acute paranoia in its security outlook. In the context of this security paranoia, Israel attempted to develop its symmetrical and asymmetrical capabilities to compete with its strategic competitors.
With the full backing of the United States (US), Israel, sensing a national security threat, kinetically destroyed nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria in 1981 and 2007, respectively. Following this kinetic approach, Israel forged peace with Egypt, the most powerful military force in the region at that time, in the Camp David Accords and then with PLO (now PA), thereby neutralising military threats to its occupied territories. Meanwhile, with the ascendant clerical rule in Iran and its military strategy of asymmetrical warfare with the pursuit of the nuclear programme, Israel resolutely confronts Iranian strategic threats through its shadow war on Iranian nuclear reactors, scientists, and proxy forces within Iran, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.
After the Six-Day War (1967), Israel understood that to preserve its territorial gains and strengthen the security of Israel proper, it needs a robust military strategy, fusing aggressive asymmetrical methods with diplomacy and occasional application of its conventional forces. Recognising its strategic vulnerabilities, it sought to cultivate strategic depth in the occupied territories while surgically competing with its rivals. This trend of preemptive strikes and degradation of its adversaries’ military capabilities through asymmetrical warfare is one of the core tenets of the Israeli right-wingers’ strategy, which came to dominate its politics.
Today, Israel enjoys a qualitative military edge over the regional militaries. No adversary of Israel, including Iran, is in a position to annihilate it out of existence. This allows Israel to operate with undeterred freedom in an unchallenged space and aggressively pursue its asymmetrical strategy to degrade its adversaries’ capabilities, the one we witnessed in the recent disproportionate exercise of violence by the Israeli occupying forces against Hamas in Gaza.
These four strategic trends drive the Israeli policy toward the Palestinian question. Without the consistent material support of the neighbouring countries as well as international actors, Palestinians are left on their own to fight their political struggle for statehood and identity. Ascension of the Israeli right only ensures the perpetuation of Israel’s settler-colonial project with the episodic application of violence; normalisation process allows the countries in the Arab World to prioritise their national interests over Palestinian interests; deeply polarised and divided Palestinian political representation allows the Israeli state to maintain the status quo and play each force against the other.