The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The vicious cycle gets worse for the Israelis and Palestinians

The trail of a rocket fired by the Israeli “Iron Dome” anti-rocket defense system is seen in the air as it intercepts rockets fired from Gaza Strip, near the city of Sderot, Israel, on Thursday.
The trail of a rocket fired by the Israeli “Iron Dome” anti-rocket defense system is seen in the air as it intercepts rockets fired from Gaza Strip, near the city of Sderot, Israel, on Thursday. (Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

As the volleys of rockets and bombs shattered Israel and the Palestinians once more this week, I found myself turning to books on my shelf in which combatants described their yearning for peace, decade after decade, even as the death spiral continued.

One book framed the dreadful feeling of “no exit” that Israelis and Palestinians both must feel now as they are swept up yet again by the cycle of violence. It’s a 1988 memoir by Israeli novelist David Grossman called “The Yellow Wind,” in which he describes what he learned after spending three months with West Bank Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Permanent war had degraded both sides.

“I have a bad feeling,” Grossman wrote. “I am afraid that the current situation will continue exactly as it is for another ten or twenty years. There is one excellent guarantee of that — human idiocy and the desire not to see the approaching danger.” It is now 30 years later, and Grossman is still right.

What feels different this time is the fragility of Israeli and Palestinian politics. The Israeli military is as powerful as ever, as Thursday’s news of an Israeli military assult on Gaza made clear.

But the country’s political fabric has frayed during recent years of electoral impasse and interim government. The Palestinian political mess is even worse: The Palestinian Authority is corrupt and feeble; power flows ever more to Hamas militants whose military strategy is to terrorize Israeli civilians.

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Without political leadership, Israelis and Palestinians take desperate steps. Arabs living in Israel have attacked their neighbors this week — and faced similar vigilante reprisals. Tzipi Livni, a former cabinet minister who struggled for peace as hard as any Israeli I know, captured the despair in a comment to the New York Times: “I don’t want to use the words ‘civil war.’ But this is something new, this is unbearable, this is horrific, and I’m very worried.”

Once upon a time, Americans would have urged a recommitment to the perennial U.S.-led “peace process.” But that diplomatic pressure valve doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a casualty not just of the Trump administration’s disdain for a “two-state solution,” but of the lack of commitment from the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Creation of a Palestinian state that would resolve this conflict seems like a vestige of another era.

The Trump administration tested two alternatives to the traditional haggling over a two-state approach. One was pushing Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, in the hope this would undercut the veto power of Palestinian militants. A second alternative was to emphasize Palestinian economic and social development as an alternative to the political rights of statehood.

The Abraham Accords were good for the Middle East. But as a solution to the Palestinian problem, they failed utterly. The Palestinians might have lost disastrously at the bargaining table, often through their own mistakes, but they weren’t going to ratify defeat and give up their sole remaining asset, which was their defiant sense of dignity.

Current Israeli leaders don’t seem to want a deal any more than the Palestinians do. Diplomats tell me the Trump administration was ready to bless Israeli annexation of the West Bank if Israel granted political and legal rights to their Palestinian neighbors. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evidently wasn’t ready to pay that price. Nor was he willing to accept a deal created by the Obama administration in 2014 that included a comprehensive Israeli security plan developed by Gen. John Allen.

Netanyahu didn’t take either exit path. He wouldn’t make the agonizing political decisions that might have imploded his governing coalition. So the stalemate continued.

What does leadership look like in this diplomatic wasteland? Another of the books on my shelf is Itamar Rabinovich’s biography of Yitzhak Rabin, the soldier-politician who as prime minister dared to attempt a real peace deal with the Palestinians in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“In the current reality, there are only two options: either a serious effort will be made to make peace with security . . . or that we will forever live by the sword,” Rabin told the Knesset in 1992 when he became prime minister. A year later, Rabin warily shook PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s hand at the White House. And two years after that, he was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.

Watching the missiles and bombs fall in Israel and Gaza once more is heartbreaking, but outsiders can’t fix this problem. The only way out is Israeli and Palestinian leaders who, like Rabin, have the guts to try the seemingly impossible.

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