Israel / Palestine - Dowty

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Welcome to Israel / Palestine online by Alan Dowty

In Alan Dowty’s fantastic introduction to the politics of Israel/Palestine he is able to demystify the conflict by putting it in broad historical perspective, identifying its roots, and tracing its evolution up to the current impasse. The situation in the area is constantly changing and so to keep readers of his book completely up-to-date, he will be adding updates to the news section of the website. Here is his first installment, in which he discusses events in the region between June 2007 and January 2008.

This material has been specially produced for the Israel/Palestine website, and is only available online:

Latest news - May 2012

When the third edition of Israel/Palestine went to press in late 2011, diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was still stymied by the issue of expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  PA President Mahmoud Abbas would not renew talks unless Israel instituted a settlement freeze on all new building in the occupied territories, while the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to renew a previous settlement freeze that had expired in 2010.  (Officially no new Israeli settlements have been built since the early 1990s; the issue is expansion of existing settlements, where the population has more than doubled in this period.) 

This impasse remained unchanged in mid-2012.  The legalization of three “outposts” by the Netanyahu government in April 2012 only complicated the issue.  While the Israeli government posed no preconditions to the renewal of talks, the fact that President Abbas still exercised control only over the West Bank, and not over Hamas-ruled Gaza, clearly reduced the incentives for Israel to make more far-reaching concessions in order to return to the negotiating table.  Even if an agreement were reached, the PA would not be in a position to implement it in Gaza, and would even face considerable opposition to implementing it in the West Bank.  And Israel has consistently refused to negotiate with any Palestinian body that included Hamas, on grounds that Hamas does not meet the basic conditions set by the international community, as well as Israel, for inclusion in the process:  acceptance of previous agreements, recognition of Israel, and renunciation of terror.

The government of Jordan made a brief effort to restart talks in January, inviting Israeli and PA representatives to meet in Amman, but again the initiative ran into the same obstacles.  By this time President Abbas was making renewed efforts to bring about unification of the West Bank and Gaza through negotiation with Hamas, despite the position of Israel on talks with Hamas.  In any event Palestinian unity would be essential in any real negotiation in the future, and more immediately it was important in backing up the Palestinian bid at the United Nations for membership and international recognition.  The diplomatic deadlock was leading to open talk, on the West Bank, of more forceful alternatives including the dismantling of the PA or even the renewal of intifada, at least at the level of widespread non-violent protest.

The bid for UN membership in the fall of 2011 foundered when the PA was unable to muster the nine votes on the Security Council needed to force the issue (though even then it would be subject to a promised U.S. veto).  The option of trying to seek recognition as a non-member observer state, like the Vatican, was not immediately followed.  But at this point all of these developments were overtaken by the question of efforts to reunify the West Bank and Gaza, and accordingly the outcome of the competition between the PA (and its main constituent, Fatah) on one hand and Hamas on the other.  Agreement in principle for reunification had been achieved already in May 2011, but would the two sides be able to reach a workable agreement on sharing power, and most importantly on the conduct of new elections, now long overdue?  As usual the devil was in the details.

Hamas received a great boost in prestige from conclusion of its deal with Israel, in October, to exchange Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (held captive since 2006) for 1027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.  It was also assumed that Hamas would benefit from the impact of the Arab Spring, the wave of unrest that had swept the Arab world during 2011.  Not only did this discontent pose a challenge to existing regimes, but by year’s end it seemed clear that Islamist parties would emerge from the confusion in positions of greater strength – above all, bringing to power in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Hamas was historically tied.  There were, however, two sides to these developments: the Muslim Brotherhood, with its own interests at stake, was apparently pressing Hamas into a less confrontational stance, and the outbreak of civic strife in Syria led to the loss of the Hamas base in Damascus and to a weakening of Iranian support.  All of this was reflected in the Hamas move to negotiate with the PA for reunification and to explicit adoption of a political rather than military strategy against Israel.

Both the PA and Hamas, therefore, had reason to negotiate seriously on the basis of the May 2011 agreement.  Further agreement was announced in November, including consent by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to step down (since Hamas opposed him) and the conduct of presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2012.  But agreement was not yet reached on the all-important issue of control of the administration of the elections, or on the equally vital question of how security forces of the two sides would be unified.  It was agreed in February 2012 that Abbas himself would be the compromise Prime Minister, and it had been agreed previously that the unified government would pursue a program of Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 lines, non-violent resistance, and PA control of international activities; this represented significant concessions by Hamas.  But the ultimate outcome of the move to unity remained in suspense.

There were sporadic rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza during this period, but generally by smaller radical groups rather than by Hamas.  Israel began to deploy its Iron Dome missile defense during 2011, and in March 2012 succeeded in shooting down many of a barrage of 200 rockets fired from Gaza in response to a targeted Israeli attack.  But because of the cost of each intercepting missile – estimated at $40,000-$80,000 – it did not seem that the Iron Dome could provide complete protection in case of massive attacks.

The impact of the Arab Spring on the Arab-Israel conflict was a continuing focus of discussion.  As Islamist parties gained power, it became clear that new governments would not necessarily be more democratic or more moderate toward the conflict with Israel.  This was particularly true regarding Egypt, still Israel’s most important neighbor, where Islamist parties gained almost 70 percent of the seats in the new parliament and all parties anxiously awaited the result of presidential elections scheduled for May (first round) and June (second round).  The Muslim Brotherhood, which had initially decided not to nominate a candidate for President, changed this position after their parliamentary success.  Since the Brotherhood had opposed the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, there was concern for future stability on that border; leaders of the organization pledged to respect existing commitments, but doubts and concern remained.  In any event Egyptian control of Sinai was weakened by preoccupation of the Egyptian army elsewhere, creating greater risk of border incidents.  Following several instances of disruption of the gas supply line between Egypt and Israel, it was announced in April that the contract to supply natural gas to Israel would be canceled.

Given the uncertainties created by the Arab Spring, some strategists in Israel argued that it was more important than ever to retain access to the West Bank for defense in depth and a security border on the Jordan River.  Even the civil conflict in Syria was not seen necessarily as good news, since there was concern that there as well the Islamists might emerge on top in the end, and that in the general chaos some of Syria’s non-conventional weapons might fall into the wrong hands.

Overshadowing all of this was the continuing concern over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which eclipsed the Palestinian issue at the top of the Israeli agenda.  The Israeli government was doing its best to keep the issue foremost on the international agenda, which meant in practice hinting at possible Israeli military action should international efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb be seen to fail.  At the same time international sanctions against Iran were gathering momentum, especially with a European Union embargo on purchase of Iranian oil due to kick in on July 1.  Among signs that Iran might be willing to agree to limit its enrichment activities to fuel-grade levels, under tighter controls, negotiations were scheduled to begin on May 23.