Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
Rarely have the psychological gaps between Israelis and Palestinians been greater. The kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank traumatized Israeli society, which celebrates and cherishes its children. On the Palestinian side, the kidnapping was initially celebrated as a means to get prisoners released from Israeli jails; the fact that the kidnappers made no demands did not seem to register with the members of the Palestinian public who adopted a three-finger gesture, symbolizing the three Israeli teens, as a sign of potential victory. But there was no victory, only the killing of the teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, followed by the killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khieder, possibly in reprisal. These slayings will surely widen the gaps, with the Israeli public feeling deep anger and the Palestinians feeling they are again the victims of Israeli power. Moreover, with Hamas operatives believed responsible for the Israeli teenagers’ killings, there may also be serious escalation between Israel and Hamas, particularly in Gaza.
Peace-making in such an environment seems far-fetched, to say the least. Unfortunately, the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians have developed over a long period. For Israelis, the Palestinian rejection of far-reaching peace offers from Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton in 2000 was one thing; the fact that it was followed by the suicide bombings of the second intifada was quite another. Similarly, the reality that Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 were followed first by Hezbollah and Hamas dominance, and later by rockets, suggested that Israeli concessions produced not peace but violence.
For Palestinians, the Oslo process that began in 1993 failed to produce statehood but did yield an ever-larger Israeli settler presence. They saw security cooperation with the Israelis producing only limited autonomy. In their eyes, both negotiations and violence failed to produce independence and the fulfillment of Palestinian national aspirations.
As someone who has long sought to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I have worried as the signs of disbelief on each side have grown. Today, it seems that neither Israelis nor Palestinians believe the other is committed to a two-state outcome.
For most of the past decade, strong majorities on each side supported a two-state solution, but this support is eroding. On the Palestinian side, disbelief became evident in polls, with those favoring two states declining from close to 80 percent at the high point of the Oslo process to a narrow majority last year. Now, in a new poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a majority of Palestinians favor a one-state outcome. In this poll, only about a third of Palestinians supported two states as a means to produce peace.
In other words, Palestinians appear either to reject or to have given up on two states. Is this because the continuing disbelief has finally taken its toll? Maybe — after all, the same poll shows little support for violence and even a readiness for Palestinians to work in Israel for higher pay.
The Israel Democracy Institute peace index shows that a majority of Israelis still favor two states, but they remain convinced it will never happen. Ironically, the one thing Israelis and Palestinians share is their doubts about the possibility of achieving two states.
There is one other irony: Today in the Middle East no one seems to care about Israeli-Palestinian peace. With the horrific conflict in Syria, the threat of ISIS in Iraq, the existential struggle between President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and the Islamists in Egypt, and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s concerns lie elsewhere.
In light of the regional realities, many commentators have argued that Secretary of State John Kerry should not have focused such time and attention on the peace process. I was not one of them. While I understood that Israeli-Palestinian peace would not be a game-changer in the region, I also saw that neglecting this issue would deepen the disbelief and make an eventual agreement harder to achieve — and we surely didn’t need instability between Israelis and Palestinians to add to the upheaval in the Middle East.
However, now our diplomacy must take account of the two different worlds that Israelis and Palestinians see. It must also incorporate the lessons from Kerry’s good-faith effort to overcome the gaps on the core issues of the conflict. He made progress, but the landscape has changed. Good statecraft requires marrying objectives and means — and the prospect today of achieving a formal peace agreement that resolves the questions of borders, security, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem is nil.
But that cannot be an argument for walking away from diplomatic efforts. Much like in dealing with the rest of the challenges in the region, our choices cannot be limited to solving the problem or doing nothing. In the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, our first objective should be to prevent a further deterioration — and the cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces on the kidnapping could be something to build on. Our next objective should be to broker parallel steps that would not require formal agreements but could improve the situation. Israelis could start by opening Area C — 60 percent of the West Bank — to Palestinian industrial projects and housing construction, something that meets an acute Palestinian need and would resonate. Palestinians could forgo further steps to join international organizations or to try to prosecute Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court, actions the Israelis see as part of an effort to delegitimize Israel.
The results may not be heroic, but they will reflect the essence of smart statecraft: Change the circumstances so that what you cannot achieve today you can achieve tomorrow or in time.
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