The first weekend of July has reminded many Israelis and Palestinians of the beginnings of the second intifada in 2000: Protests have erupted in Palestinian neighborhoods both inside Israel and in the occupied territories, Jews attacked Palestinians in restaurants and on buses, Palestinians threw stones at Jewish cars, and reports of police violence have fanned the flames. Furthermore, after 48 hours without aerial attacks, Israeli planes bombed multiple sites in the Gaza Strip on Saturday night and more on Sunday, killing at least nine Palestinians, and for the first time since November 2012 Palestinian rockets were fired at the southern city of Be’er Sheva. And just like 14 years ago, all this came right after the collapse of a U.S.-led diplomatic effort.
But even as anger mounts over the abductions and killings of three teenage Israeli settlers and of a 16-year-old Palestinian in East Jerusalem, there is one striking difference between the fateful days of October 2000 and today’s events: Casualties in the current escalation remain minimal compared with the heavy toll in early clashes of the second intifada. (Continued airstrikes in Gaza, of course, could quickly change that.)
Still, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security officials are hoping that the flames of fury will die down as angry Arab teens are summoned home to break the day’s Ramadan fast with their families and racist Israeli mobs are dispersed and distracted by the World Cup. They’re also expecting that Sunday’s reports that six Israeli youths were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder will further cool tempers.
Another key difference between now and 2000 is in the leadership on both sides of the divide: Unlike their predecessors Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, who failed to grasp the danger they were fomenting in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are both risk-averse leaders invested in the stability of the status quo.
Stability and calm
“Stability” and “calm” have been the watchwords of Netanyahu’s second spell as prime minister. The decade between the end of his first term in 1999 and the beginning of his second in 2009 included the second intifada, the Gaza disengagement, Hamas’ election victory and later its expulsion of Fatah from Gaza, the second Lebanon War and the 2008 blasting of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, which drew heavy international criticism. Five years of Netanyahu, by comparison, saw just one significant military operation — the eight-day Pillar of Cloud in Gaza late in 2012.
So notable was the security calm that prevailed under Netanyahu that many Israelis began to argue that the status quo is, in fact, sustainable as a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. As long as the occupied West Bank was neither annexed nor ceded to the Palestinians, centrist parties and radical settlers had no problem sitting together in Netanyahu’s Cabinet, providing him the sort of stable parliamentary support that had been a rarity in Israel’s often turbulent politics, as well as a measure of international cover.
The chaos unfolding in Syria and Iraq also helps Netanyahu persuade Israelis that withdrawing from the West Bank would bring radical extremism to Israel’s doorstep. In a keynote security speech last week he insisted that Israel’s eastern border should remain in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future — effectively ruling out the formation of an independent Palestinian state.
While Netanyahu likes to talk about the dangers posed by Iran and the breakup of Iraq, key figures in Israel’s security establishment such as former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and current Mossad head Tamir Pardo have said that failure to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians is the only real existential threat to Israel. But that’s a tough argument to sell to an electorate seduced by the apparent stability of the status quo. Several recent polls of the Jewish public found Israelis’ most favored option for the future is not two states or one but keeping things as they are for as long as possible. Netanayhu’s success has been, in many ways, a product of the national mood rather than the reason for it.
Even if the current surge of anger dies down, though, it may have shaken Israeli illusions of recent years. All it took were two gruesome attacks — quite possibly in both cases carried out by maverick elements on either side of the conflict — to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to edge of the cliff.
Breaching the facade
The events of last week not only breached the status quo’s facade of normality but also dealt a harsh blow to Netanyahu’s idea that simply promoting greater economic development in the West Bank will somehow substitute for a political solution while the Palestinians remain under occupation.
History shows that Israeli leaders can gain public support from military operations but that a sense of ongoing chaos can just as easily be their downfall. Netanyahu and his coalition partners were already bleeding support before last week: In the only public poll conducted after the kidnapping, if elections were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would be down three seats and his centrist finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid would be down six, with while the settlers and the left are on the rise. Reports on Monday that Avigdor Lieberman — the Israeli foreign minister and a powerful Likud partner from the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party — was ending his alliance with Netanyahu will only further complicate the tenuous sense of stability at the top.
There is no better metaphor for the fragility of the status quo than the fate of Jerusalem’s light rail, the city’s flagship project of the last decade. The train runs from the Israeli West part of the city, through Palestinian neighborhoods in the occupied east all the way to Pisgat Zeev — considered by international law a settlement and therefore illegal but currently home to more than 40,000 Jewish Israelis. So while the separation barrier cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, the train connected Israelis on both sides of the 1967 Green Line boundary. As more Jews began settling in Palestinian parts of the city in recent years — and more Palestinians have used the train to work and shop on the Israeli side — unification was hailed by Israeli officials as a fait accompli, and the light rail was its much celebrated symbol. (Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but that claim enjoys no international recognition.)
The train was heavily damaged in last week’s clashes, and repairs will take months and cost millions. Service now ends at Hamivtar Station, a few hundred yards from the old Green Line.