Questioning the Israeli-Palestinian Status Quo

By Harrison Stetler

Much to the chagrin of my more dogmatically pro-Palestinian friends, I get the lion’s share of my news on the Israel-Palestinian conflict from The New York Times. If one takes the Times at its word, then “all the news that’s fit to print” on the Israel-Palestine conflict can be summed up as follows: negotiations begin amid a flurry of high expectations with calls for a cease-fire and a cessation of settlement construction; talks falter as Israel refuses to halt settlement construction without a Palestinian disavowal of violence; both parties lower their expectations as the impasse deepens; soon after, fears mounts over the impending return to the status quo of air raids and missile launches; the situation descends into violence.

It is a cycle that has repeated itself for years in various permutations. But the recent failed negotiations pushed by Secretary Kerry are just the latest instance of disappointed expectations and crushing violence for those in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. This time, the primary catalyst for the breakdown in talks appears to have been the refusal by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the new coalition government in Palestine lead by Mahmoud Abbas, a government which includes Hamas.

The impasse between Israel and Palestine, though derivative of legitimate security concerns held by the Israeli government, can only be overcome by an Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian coalition government, which at last presents a common front that represents Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. 

Though The New York Times presents an encyclopedic wealth of information and reportage on the Israel-Palestine conflict, one is imbued with a misleading interpretation of what the status quo between Israel and Palestine is. Is the status quo simple periods of intermittent violence that are interrupted by hopeful negotiations which ultimately fail? Such is the impression that one is led to believe by taking the events in the Middle East at face value. But this only skims the surface.

Israel is a technologically advanced, economically stable state defended by a military second only to that of the United States. Israel has legitimate security concerns given, above all, the history of animosity between Israel and its Arab neighbors. However, these security concerns, which prevent any and all workable negotiations with Hamas, will perpetually condemn this conflict to an indefinite impasse.

For those in the Netanyahu cohort of Israeli politics, it appears that keeping the status quo works as a policy. The cyclical status quo deflects criticism and deeper understanding behind the impassable and naïve belief that the new Palestinian government is a nonnegotiable partner. By bringing this conflict to a standstill, the impasse ultimately serves particular Israeli interests—the settlements expand and Israel retains control over occupied territory as the situation appears ossified in this back and forth cycle of negotiations and conflict. 

For Palestinians, on the other hand, this self-sustaining status quo has served to and will continue to thwart legitimate claims to Palestinian independence and maintain the present regime of occupation and blockade.

Palestine has conceded to Israel—Abbas’ stance and the prevailing opinion among leading Palestinian circles in Ramallah is that Israel is a legitimate state. Rightly so. The belief that Israel is not legitimate is by now absurd and serves only to nourish the sentimentalist hopes for a Middle East free of Israel (not to mention the fact that it is an entirely impractical solution).

What was potentially unjust in 1948 is no pretext for denying the existence of an Israeli state today, in 2014. Further, Abbas does not deem Netanyahu’s government illegitimate, despite the fact that from the Palestinian perspective, the tactics used by Israeli security forces are as violent as those used by Hamas on innocent Israelis. Hamas’ denial of an Israeli state does rhetorically what the Israeli enforced status quo does in practice: deny the Palestinian state’s right to exist.

For us in the United States, it is essential to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict for what it truly is. The narrative of a violent back and forth interrupted by periods of negotiations that tragically fail behind politicking and incompatible interests does not do justice to the fact that the structure as a whole is inherently unequal.

A cyclical status quo will remain the norm so long as one partner stands to benefit from the very cycle. In fact, it could be said that Israelis and Palestinians both suffer at the expense of particular interests in Israeli society: those who seek to extend the present impasse so as to further settlement construction benefit, while Israelis and Palestinians alike must endure rocket launches and air-raids.

With this expanded understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States must use its diplomatic, economic, and political leverage to remove the major roadblock to a negotiable solution, Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate with the new coalition government in Palestine.

Years of negotiations have yielded a Palestine that accepts the legitimacy of an Israeli state. Now, the entire weight of American influence must be employed toward gaining from Israel a commitment to halt settlement constructions and to accept Abbas’ new coalition government as a legitimate negotiating partner.

Tragically, and at the expense of genuine American interests, particular groups in American domestic political life have accrued over the years the means for blocking this reorientation of American influence. Nevertheless, the cost of satiating these particular interests is the United States’ support of essentially a static non-solution: the deadlock enforced by Netanyahu’s government.

In a world void of the powerful interest groups that divert American power towards the service of private interests (a laughable prospect in a country whose political system appears more and more morally bankrupt by the day), what are the actual levers available to the United States to enforce change? The United States extends annually upwards of $3 billion of military aid to the Israeli government, a weighty negotiating chip.

Israel can afford to perpetuate the present status quo because of the gross security imbalance between Israel and the Gaza strip—death tolls among Israelis tend to number in the single digits, while deaths among Palestinians reach into the hundreds if not thousands. Simply demanding Israel to break from its present stance is paradoxical given the United States’ assistance, which enables Israel to materially survive that very status quo.

The United States stands at the apex of numerous multinational bodies, leaders and citizens from around the world listen eagerly to the politics emanating from the United States. President Obama and Secretary Kerry should follow the lead of France and the United Kingdom and demand an Israeli commitment to negotiate with the coalition government.

The United States must reach out to and amplify the voices of those in Israeli politics—the leaders of the opposition in the Knesset (Israel’s legislature)—who will accept a moratorium on settlement construction and the new Palestinian coalition government. The traditional path of negotiating through Netanyahu has time and time again yielded no results.  

With the recent ground invasion of the Gaza strip, Netanyahu shows the full extent of his recalcitrance towards negotiating with Hamas and any genuine Palestinian government that contains elements of the organization. The locus of the gridlock that masquerades as the tragic status quo has at last been uncovered. What remains to be seen is whether or not the United States and other nations possess the political will to remove that impasse.



Harrison Stetler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Imemc.org]

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