For those who have been paying attention, things in Israel and Gaza have begun to spiral out of control. I expect that sooner rather than later the Palestinians in the West Bank will also be drawn in. While we could, and I suppose someone somewhere will, recount all of the misdeeds on both sides going back decades that has led us to this moment, the real proximate cause of the current conflict occurred several weeks ago:
⬇️ This is what started it all https://t.co/ezNyy88X9O
— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) May 11, 2021
I wrote about the events that took place up to and around that enclosure on 22 April. The Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is that for several weeks, the newly empowered Israeli Jewish neo-fascist Kahanists of LeHava, now represented in Knesset by the Jewish Power Party, began a series of violent attacks in Jerusalem against anyone they think is Arab or Palestinian or is Israeli or Jewish, but not right wing. You can thank Bibi for this. He normalized them in his quest to remain prime minister, in power, and out of prison.
All of this is wrapped around an attempt by Israel to evict Israeli Arab/Palestinian residents from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Hayes Brown, in an excellent column for MSNBC laid out the basic asymmetry of the problem (emphasis mine):
As we’re watching what might well turn into a third intifada play out in Jerusalem, images of fires burning among the trees outside the Al-Aqsa mosque and reports of children being injured in a new volley of airstrikes in Gaza, I can’t get a line from the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry out of my head.
“Regrettably, the PA” — the Palestinian Authority — “and Palestinian terror groups are presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem,” the ministry said in a statement Saturday, two days after anger in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem began to boil over.
Calling the catalyst of all this a “real estate dispute” is a particularly noxious way to diminish what’s actually occurring: Nahalat Shimon, a U.S.-based settler organization, is trying to have Palestinians who have lived in the neighborhood since 1956 evicted. Once they are evicted, the property — occupied by Israel along with the rest of east Jerusalem since 1967 — would then be turned over to Jewish settlers under Israeli law. The six families who have been fighting to keep their homes since 1982 would get nothing to ease their displacement.
Because this is about more than just six families. It’s about whether Palestinians will be allowed to live in east Jerusalem at all. The New York Times laid out the imbalance clearly: “In East Jerusalem, Jews are allowed to reclaim property that was under Jewish ownership before 1948. But Palestinian families have no legal mechanism to reclaim land they owned in West Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel.“
I want to take a moment and reinforce something that Brown wrote, specifically that the organization trying to force the evictions in court is a US based organization that promotes Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The US is definitely part of the problem here and Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute wrote an excellent column for Foreign Policy on the US’s complicity in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Washington’s response to the violence was notably muted. As Jewish Israeli extremists attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem, the U.S. State Department issued a generic statement that smacked of both sides-ism, rejecting the “rhetoric of extremist protestors chanting hateful and violent slogans” and calling for calm—but failing to identify the extremists or their targets. It was equally striking that hardly a single member of Congress could muster even a generic condemnation of violence perpetrated by Jewish Israeli extremists, particularly given how traditionally vocal they are whenever violence emanates from Palestinians. But none of it was surprising. Indeed, Washington remains firmly in denial about the growing trend of extremism in Israeli politics and society—a reality that has both enabled and fueled it.
Such actions might have triggered at least a mild rebuke by U.S. officials in the pre-Trump past, but the White House is effectively giving the evictions a green light by staying on the sidelines. Indeed, the United States has long been central to the growth of Israel’s pro-settlement and anti-Palestinian right.
Both Kahane and the movement he spawned were born and bred in the United States as was Kahane’s most notorious disciple, Baruch Goldstein—the Brooklyn-born physician who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, Palestine, and whose photo is prominently displayed in Ben-Gvir’s home. Today, Lehava—whose funding remains shrouded in mystery—is similarly connected to support networks in the United States. Yet despite the strong personal, institutional, and financial links between Otzma Yehudit and Lehava and the Kahanist movement, both groups have thus far evaded any serious scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement.
Although Israeli political trends have always been reflected in domestic U.S. politics, the growing synergy between the Israeli and U.S. hard right is especially strong. At no point was this more evident than during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which worked hard to do away with international norms and reinforce the permanency of both Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its settlements there.
Congress has also played a role in legitimizing extremist Israeli voices, both by failing to condemn or hold them to account—as they routinely do for Palestinians, for example—and by actively welcoming settler leaders to Capitol Hill. The fact that Kach-linked extremists take part in Israeli elections—and get elected to the Knesset—without eliciting a response from anyone on Capitol Hill directly legitimizes Israeli extremists and their views.
Even when they are not directly involved in policymaking, radical voices—whether in Israeli or U.S. politics—are still able to shape policy and policy discourse by shifting the political and diplomatic goal posts. Issues that were a matter of bipartisan consensus during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, for instance—like ending Israel’s occupation and affirming the centrality of the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations—are now seen by many as highly contentious or even beyond the pale.
These trends could explain Biden’s relative silence and reluctance to tackle the Israel-Palestine issue. There are now increased political costs associated with taking positions once deemed uncontroversial. Even the Biden administration’s recent decision to reinstate the United States’ fairly modest and heavily scrutinized aid package to Palestinians—a minuscule fraction of U.S. money earmarked for Israel—set off a firestorm of outrage and hyperbole from congressional Republicans.
I’ve written here numerous times over the past five or six years about how Bibi has actively gone out of his way to make Israel a partisan issue in the US. Specifically by moving support for Israel into a Republican and movement conservatism litmus test. This includes manipulating American evangelicals into ever more fanatical support for Israel by encouraging their eschatological millennialist prophecies about what has to happen in order for the second coming of Christ: all the Jews have to return to Israel so they can be killed in the war of Armageddon with the exception of a handful of good Jews who will convert to Christianity and be saved. Just as one example, one of my former research managers from my team in Iraq, a retired Special Forces First Sergeant, belongs to a church where they fast for Israel every Wednesday. Every time we talk he tells me this, which is part of his way of identifying with me across the divide of his Evangelical Christianity and my Judaism. Because of the bonds one forms with teammates he’s a close friend, he sincerely means well, but if I told this to an Israel they’d laugh at him and his church for doing this.
Bibi and his trusted agents, like former Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who is himself a US citizen in addition to the Israeli citizenship he was granted to become Bibi’s man in DC, is also former GOP political operative from south Florida, kicked this effort into turning Israel into a partisan issue into overdrive once Trump was elected president. Trump rewarded Bibi by closing the Consulate in Jerusalem, which was the oldest US diplomatic outpost and moving the US embassy there. He then appointed a fervent political and financial supporter of the settler movement as his ambassador to Israel, appointed another fervent political and financial supporter of the settler movement as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and then put his son in law, Jared, who is also a fervent political and financial supporter of the settler movement, in charge of what passed for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the Trump administration. What could possibly go wrong?
Where this leads us is that right now the Israelis and the Gazan Palestinians and the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship known as Israeli Arabs are engaging in ever more violent clashes and ever more risky behaviors. If cooler heads don’t prevail soon, things will escalate and, I expect, that the Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as the Jewish settlers there, will also wind up involved. What is now something akin to civil unrest and a border clash/irredentism, if not handled quickly and carefully, has the chance to spiral out of control and turn into an asymmetric war.
Unfortunately, as Ron Kampeas of The Jewish Telegraphic Agency tells us, no one seems to be leading, but everyone seems to be led by the events as they’re occurring. I want to highlight three important points that Kampeas makes about what is going on. One dealing with the Israelis, one the Palestinians, and one the US.
But exactly what Netanyahu says and does may not matter if other Israeli politicians, including some of his putative allies, behave differently — which they are.
Israel has seen politicians with little actual power spark conflict before. Back in 2000, Ariel Sharon was the leader of the parliamentary opposition when he strolled across the Temple Mount with an entourage, stoking tensions that would lead to the second intifada.
That scenario is playing out again now: Itamar Ben-Gvir, a newly elected Knesset member from a far-right party, has no current role in shaping Israeli government policy. That will be all the more true if Yair Lapid, the centrist leader tasked with setting up a government, succeeds in ousting Netanyahu.
It doesn’t matter. Ben-Gvir still carries the imprimatur of an elected official. When he appears with far-right protesters in the contested eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, it conveys the impression to Palestinians that anti-Palestinian violence has government approval.
Also helping that impression is Aryeh King, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who was caught on video yelling at a Palestinian activist that he should be shot in the head.
The Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, launched in 1988 and 2000, stemmed in great part from frustrations with a Palestinian leadership that appeared adept at posturing but not at accomplishing anything. Following the years of marginalization by President Donald Trump, a pandemic-battered economy and a perception that the Arab world is eager for ties with Israel and couldn’t care less about the Palestinians, young Palestinians are taking things into their own hands.
“Young Palestinians are displaying a fearlessness that we haven’t seen” since the launch of the second intifada in 2000, said Daniel Seidemann, who runs Ir Amim, an organization that reports on how Jerusalem’s disparate communities coexist (or don’t). “I mean, they’re taking the police on face to face.”
The Palestinians in the street, he said, “can’t imagine a trajectory where their lives get better and they become free. They can’t imagine it.”
“All these [protests] are taking place outside of the repressive reach of the Palestinian Authority, which tells us something pretty important — that the leadership of the P.A., which is sitting in Ramallah, either does not want to capitalize on this momentum or is not capable of it because of the situation that they’re in,” said Munayyer, who is Palestinian.
The Biden administration, meantime, is preoccupied with rolling back a pandemic and reviving the economy crippled by the pandemic.
The capacities that would usually be in place to stem violence — consultations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments and the United States — have either disappeared or are diminished. Biden has yet to name an ambassador to Israel or reopen a dedicated consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, veteran U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller noted on Twitter.
“I realize the Administration has lowballed and deprioritized the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said. “But the lack of an Ambassador to Israel and a consul general in Jerusalem is a serious problem during a crisis.”
The Biden administration has shown little appetite for roiling domestic politics by pressuring Israel to halt far-right demonstrations or stop the potential eviction of Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem.
The Trump administration slashed diplomatic engagement with the Palestinians and ended aid. Biden wants to revive both, but it is early in his presidency, and U.S. diplomats in the region do not have the outreach to Palestinians they once did, nor the leverage to effect change even if they could get someone on the phone.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken steps to tamp down tensions. But Israeli officials have indicated that they do not want U.S. intervention. Meanwhile, American lawmakers have taken to social media to offer cautionary notes and takeaways that match their beliefs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, potentially attenuating any concerted response.
A number of moderate Democrats, including pro-Israel stalwarts like Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, have robustly criticized Israel with respect to the evictions while upholding its right to defend itself against rocket fire — a departure from pro-Israel orthodoxies unimaginable during the 2014 war.
What I really want to emphasize are three things from Kampeas’s reporting.
The first, and I think the most important, is that younger Palestinians have had enough. They’ve spent their whole lives watching promises be made and broken, they’ve watched how their parents, grandparents, and their friends have been treated, they’ve grown up learning the history of how their great and in some cases great great grandparents were treated. It doesn’t matter whether the history they’ve learned is any more or less slanted than what Israelis or Americans have learned about the conflict. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter for them who started the dispute and who is right and who is wrong. What matters is that they’ve had enough. They are tired of living under the conditions that they’ve inherited. Frankly, I’m amazed it took this long to happen. I’ve been predicting a third intifada or equivalent since I was working on this for the US Army and DOD in 2014. While everyone else, especially Americans, may have the leisure to sit around and argue the minutiae of every key point in the long, unfortunate, and tragic conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the reality for the Palestinians is that nothing ever gets better and often it gets worse. While no one can ignore the weight of history, when every day life is somewhere between less than optimal and terrible, eventually someone is going to rebel and revolt.
The second is that the US is not in a position to lead on this right now. The Biden administration has rightly prioritized the COVID response, as well as related matters such as resolving economic issues that arose from or where exacerbated by the pandemic. But this choice has a cost. For every bit of reporting on some new Biden nomination or nominee getting a hearing or markup of a bill that the Biden administration is pushing, there are political appointments that are not being filled because they’re outside of the areas that have been chosen as urgent and needing immediate attention. While Aaron David Miller is correct that we do not have a US ambassador to Israel or a consul general in Jerusalem, who is the de facto ambassador to the Palestinian Authority (PA), we also do not have a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. I’m not even sure that a Special Advisor on this topic has been appointed for Secretary Austin as was done for the Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Right now the US’s focus is elsewhere because of what the Biden administration has prioritized and that is also contributing to what we’re seeing occur in Israel and Gaza right now. Given that the issue of Israel has been turned into a major partisan political issue within US domestic politics, that also crosses over into the realm of religion and politics, I am not surprised that the Biden administration is proceeding cautiously.
The third is the escalation has actually been beneficial for Bibi. Because of the escalating dispute, one of the Arab parties pulled out of talks to form a centrist, or what passes for centrist in Israel in 2021, unity coalition government yesterday. This makes it more likely, though not determinative, that Bibi will limp along for a couple more months as caretaker prime minister until another election is held. And if he can do that while successfully managing this conflict with Hamas or, even better, leading Israel to victory in a war with Hamas, that is all, unfortunately, likely to benefit him politically.
Other than expecting things to get worse pretty quickly, including the conflict spreading into the West Bank, I honestly do not know what is going to happen here. It may be that things get so bad that everyone blinks and space is created to resolve the conflict, but I doubt that. Ultimately, there is no military solution, short of violent ethnic cleansing or genocide by either party, to the Israel-Palestinian dispute. It has to be a negotiated settlement. And that means Civic Action and leadership. As Bernard Fall, one of my professional forebears, wrote about another asymmetric low intensity war:
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says “Land reform,” and the other side says “better culverts.” One side says “we’re going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says “Yes, but we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
It is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to injure and kill each other into submission. Much more possible for the Israelis, due to the power asymmetry between them and the Palestinians. And while that would be a solution to the dispute, it shouldn’t be one that any sane or responsible person strives for. The simple reality is that the Palestinians are calling for self determination, for the liberty to finally be allowed to order their lives themselves. The Israelis are calling for security and safety. The basic premise of every solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – trading land for peace or, at least, the absence of violence/cessation of hostilities – is itself asymmetric. Land can be measured. It is a tangible thing. Security and safety are intangible. But, as Fall wrote about the war in Vietnam, simple, but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
Full disclosure: From DEC 2013 through JUN 2014 I was assigned as the Cultural Advisor/Senior Civilian Advisor under temporary assigned control (TACON) to the Commanding General of US Army Europe to provide subject matter expert inputs on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the Commanding General and his staff working on the problem set for the Department of Defense as part of the 2014 US efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As part of that assignment I was the primary author of the historic introduction on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute for what would become the US Army Europe (US Army and DOD) report on the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. I also prepared an analytical primer for the Commanding General and his staff on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. From JUN 2014 through AUG 2014 I was assigned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue in the Middle East (OSD-SD) as the Cultural Advisor/Senior Civilian Advisor under operational control (OPCON) to the Commanding General of US Army Europe to provide subject matter expert inputs on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the Commanding General and his staff working on the problem set for the Department of Defense as part of the 2014 US efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As part of that assignment I served as the executive editor and quality assurance/quality control officer overseeing the completion of the US Army Europe report on the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. I also prepared a strategy and policy assessment for the Commanding General and the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace regarding the clear shift away from a two state solution by the members of Israel’s governing coalition and the implications of this shift for the US’s policy and strategy to facilitate resolution of the dispute.