Forget the Peace Process, the Focus Now Should be on Restoring Civil Rights to Palestinians

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The potential toppling of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister is even more important than it looks because it follows closely on two significant changes in the Israel/Palestinian political landscape earlier this year.

These changes were the replacement of President Trump, prepared to do whatever Netanyahu asked him to do, with President Biden, who is reverting to the traditional pro-Israel US posture, but without endorsing a fanatical far-right agenda. Secondly, the outcome of the 11-day Gaza “war” in May showed that the Palestinians cannot be marginalised and ignored as Trump and Netanyahu tried to do.

The permanent fall of Netanyahu remains highly uncertain, but if it does happen, it will end the career of the most powerful Israeli politician since its first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu, first elected prime minister in 1996, was the pioneer for a generation of populist nationalist leaders, with many features in common, who have since popped up all over the world. All rely on exacerbating and exploiting polarisation, and inflating real and imaginary threats for their own political advantage.

Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and likely successor, Naftali Bennett, is to the right of his former boss, but will lack his personal authority and international connections. Overall, the three new factors in the situation – the departure of Netanyahu, the arrival of Biden and re-emergence of the Palestinian question – have produced a period of maximum fluidity in Israeli/Palestinian politics.

Bennett may want to prove to his far-right followers that he has not betrayed them by launching airstrikes on Gaza if a single rocket is fired from there, and may push ahead with the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The centre-left in his eight-party coalition may not oppose this in their desperation to get rid of Netanyahu and they want, in any case, to give priority to improving relations with the Biden administration.

Most likely the anti-Netanyahu coalition is too fragile to do anything that will split it – “a Government of National Paralysis”, as one observer described it, though this does not make it markedly different from its predecessors. Yet preserving the present Israel/Palestinian status quo is not as benign or risk-free a policy as it might sound, for the situation is deteriorating. Israeli settlers and security services are putting escalating pressure on Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel itself. It was aggressive new evictions and restrictions that provoked the Palestinian upsurge last month.

Foreign governments sense that the Israel/Palestinian confrontation is erupting once again, and have returned to spouting moth-eaten cliches about “a two-state solution”, safe in the knowledge that this is not going to happen. On the contrary, such empty and discredited rhetoric about a non-existent peace process serves only as an excuse for not seeking practical ways to improve the lives of the seven million Palestinians – the same number as Israeli Jews – living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Pursuit of a chimerical Palestinian state that, in any foreseeable political situation, is not going to be more than a collection of beleaguered Bantustans, has become a culpable diversion from seeking equal civil rights and personal security for Palestinians.

A ground-breaking examination of an alternative option is spelled out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US/Middle East Project in a detailed study called Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo. This proposes a rights-based approach, notably freedom for the Palestinians from dispossession and discrimination and the assertion of their right to freedom of movement. This would confront and seek to reverse what the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have both denounced as a system of apartheid, enforcing inferior status on Palestinians.

The study points out that this rights-based approach “has the benefit of being more consistent with the Biden administration’s overall foreign policy posture”. It would foster much increased sympathy for the Palestinians in the US, particularly in the Democratic Party and among anti-Trump Americans.

One can see this radical shift in opinion in much of the US media, such as The New York Times, which carried pictures of each of the 67 Palestinian children killed in Gaza in May on its front page. An intelligent even-handed documentary on the origins and course of the Israel-Palestine conflict called The Tinderbox by filmmaker Gillian Mosely has just started being shown.

Despite very real changes, it is naive to expect Israel to dismantle restrictions on Palestinians, regardless of who is prime minister, because the balance of power is tilted so decisively in favour of Israel. Netanyahu may be disliked by a large swathe of Israeli voters, but his policies towards the Palestinians are popular.

Israel’s political and military strength, though, is not the sole reason why the Palestinians have been unable to put up more effective resistance to discrimination and the denial of their human rights. Israeli dominance is more vulnerable than might at first appear, as was shown by the recent mass protests and strikes in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Prolonged peaceful mobilisation of millions of Palestinians on the streets, wherever those streets may be, is their most powerful card and one which Israel would find it difficult to counter.

“This is a moment for the Palestinians to get their act together,” says one veteran commentator. “But their Achilles’ heel is the poor Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah is politically paralysed, a sort of Israeli proxy regime running a few semi-autonomous zones.” Hamas may have increased its credibility among Palestinians by confronting Israel last month, but it has no effective political strategy and its sectarian Muslim ideology makes it easy to isolate internationally.

Surprisingly, it may be in its relations with the Palestinians rather than the Israelis that the Biden administration could do most good without spending much political capital in the US – something it is averse to doing. It should stop pretending that the PA president Mahmoud Abbas, who has not held an election since 2005, represents more than an authoritarian clique. It should support the democratic election of real Palestinian representatives and not supinely accept the repeated postponement of elections.

Everywhere between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, the US should support equal rights and oppose the subjection of one community by another. It needs to roll back some of Trump’s measures favouring Israeli settlements on the West Bank, but steer away from pretending to disinter a moribund peace process in pursuit of a final settlement which nobody believes in and which has become a charade, excusing inaction on real issues.

As for the Palestinians, there are opportunities in the current turmoil, hobbled though they are by their useless leadership. This is not going to be displaced or relax its grip on formal power any time soon, but it could be bypassed. The best way forward for the Palestinians would be to establish a broad-based civil rights movement to mobilise their communities everywhere, using their great numbers to challenge systemic oppression and prevent further erosion of their rights

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).