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Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a COVID mask, folds his arms and looks to the sky on Jerusalem Day, May 9 2021.
EPA-EFE/Amit Shabi/Pool

Israeli politics and the Palestine question: everything you need to know

As civilian causalities mount in Gaza, Israeli politicians of all hues must face the stark reality that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be managed but needs to be resolved. Relations between Palestinians and Israelis and between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens have reached a new dangerous moment. The pretence that the conflict was marginal to Israeli politics has been exposed by the violent intercommunal strife in Jerusalem, Haifa, Lod, Jaffa and other cities.

These events expose the bankruptcy of politicians who have fought four elections in two years as if the conflict was remote. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spent his years in office seeing the conflict as a purely administrative issue, keeping things quiet but never addressing the political aspirations of the Palestinians.

His extraordinary success lies in his ability to lure his political opponents – and parts of the Arab world – into the same dead end. Even the Israeli Islamist leader Mansour Abbas, now central to the formation of any Israeli government, ignored the conflict in his prime-time speech to the Israeli public after the last elections.

The trigger for the current crisis was events in occupied East Jerusalem. The attempt to remove Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah and provocative policing during Ramadan at the Damascus Gate and al-Aqsa mosque have had an impact on Palestinians on both sides of the “green line” – which divides Israel from the occupied territories and runs through Jerusalem.

The far right, emboldened by its success in winning six parliamentary seats in the Knesset in March, has inflamed the situation with marches through East Jerusalem with slogans such as “Death to Arabs!” As intercommunal conflict spread throughout Israel, Hamas launched its rocket campaign.

Read more: Jerusalem: the politics behind the latest explosion of violence in the Holy City

Against this background, the arcane post-election process of attempting to form a government continued. Netanyahu failed in that task and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin turned to Yesh Atid party leader, Yair Lapid, who set about trying to create a coalition with centre, left and right-wing parties – a group united only by its opposition to Netanyahu.

Key to this project was Naftali Bennett, the leader of the small right-wing Yaminia party, a long-time Netanyahu rival who has long seen himself as a future prime minister. Lapid offered Bennett a deal in which they would rotate as prime minister, first Bennett and then Lapid. Despite Bennett’s politics, the centrist Yesh Atid, and leftist Labor and Meretz parties seemed willing to support such an arrangement.

Arab Israeli men carry the body of a man wrapped in a Palestinian flag surrounded by crowds of people at a funeral.
Israeli Arabs carry the coffin of a 25-year-old Israeli-Arab man, who was shot and killed during riots in the ‘mixed city’ of Lod, May 11 2021. Oren Ziv/dpa/Alamy Live News

By May 9 negotiations were going well and there was speculation that a new government could be formed within a week. But the next day Hamas and Islamic Jihad began launching rocket attacks into Israel. Within days, Bennett announced that the new security situation meant the deal was off the table. Lapid’s deal is now almost certain to fail.

No appetite for peace

Lapid’s alternative government would most likely have continued Netanyahu’s managerial approach to the conflict. It has been policy of most Israeli governments for 25 years. Except for a brief break during the premiership of Kadima’s Ehud Olmert from 2006 to 2009, Israeli leaders have claimed there are no partners for peace on the Palestinian side and therefore there can be no negotiations.

Labor’s Ehud Barak claimed that he only went to the US-held Camp David talks in 2000 to expose Yasser Arafat as terrorist. Ariel Sharon, Barak’s successor, used the second intifada (the Palestinian uprising of 2000-2005) as proof that negotiations were impossible. He then unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005 but refused to negotiate an orderly handover to the Palestinian Authority. The result was a major boost for Hamas, which claimed the Israelis had left under (its) fire. That set the scene for the Hamas’s victory in the following year’s Palestinian legislative elections.

Olmert did hold intensive negotiations with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, but it seems as if the latter walked away. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has never had any intention of seriously moving on the issue. In his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he saw his task as undermining the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords by lowering Palestinian expectations that they would have an independent state.

Since 2009, there have been no negotiations but continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the occasional threat to annex parts of it. Peace, for Netanyahu, is just the absence of armed conflict and terrorism – not a resolution of the conflict, as the Oslo Accords envisaged.

Things fall apart

The price for this inaction on the Palestinian issue is now being seen as the fragile mosaic of Israeli society begins to unravel into warring ethnic groups. The conflict over the future of the occupied territories as the future of Israel itself is political and not strategic.

For Netanyahu this means maintaining military superiority and dealing with terrorist threats rather than than recognising the need for political accommodation between two national movements. Palestinians and Israelis share the same environment, are attached to the land and both want to exercise their right to self-determination.

While Netanyahu will negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas, he will not hold political talks with the Palestinians. Yet the policy of managing the conflict has merely deepened it. After every round of fighting there are more dead, more grieving families and more hate. The tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel will scar Israeli society for some time to come.

Over the past 25 years, few Israeli politicians have had the courage to address the roots of the conflict. When he signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, turned to Israelis and Palestinians and said: “Enough of blood and tears”. The people of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel must wonder when that time will come.

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