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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: another flashpoint and no peace in sight

Date

Amin Saikal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no peace-deal joy to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no peace-deal joy to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

As Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories continues, so does the cycle of violence, revenge and bloodshed between the two sides. Along with this, the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions by many countries and organisations, including some of Israel’s traditional friends within the European Union, is gathering pace. Yet, there is no peace process to signal a resolution of the conflict in the foreseeable future. The peace negotiations, jump-started by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, have collapsed. Where to from here?

The kidnap and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, and the revenge ''burning alive'' of a Palestinian teenager in the last week, have brought the two sides to another flashpoint. Israel has accused the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, of killing the Israeli youngsters, although Hamas has emphatically denied any involvement. Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised severe payback, and Hamas has retorted that any Israeli action will ''break the doors of hell open''. Emotions are running very high on both sides.

These events come in the wake of the failure of a year-long effort by John Kerry to engage the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmoud Abbas, which is nominally in charge of the administration of the West Bank, to negotiate a final settlement. It also follows, finally, the formation of a Palestinian unity government between the PA and Hamas, which Israel has rejected, accusing the PA of partnering with a ''terrorist organisation''. The two parties in the conflict have remained as wide apart as ever.

Martin Indyk, who recently resigned from his position as US envoy, has blamed Netanyahu, Abbas and the lack of ''trust'' between them for the failure of the peace talks. However, the two sides cannot equally be held responsible. While Netanyahu acts from a position of occupier, with all the cards in his hands, Abbas has had little or no bargaining power.

The Israeli Prime Minister has vehemently opposed any settlement that could result in the creation of an independent sovereign Palestinian state comprised of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu played a determining role in dismantling the Oslo Peace Process, which was launched in 1993 by one of his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin, and the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Along with his equally right-wing colleague and predecessor, Ariel Sharon, he publicly rejected the Oslo deal and advocated peace with the Palestinians on the basis not of ''land for peace'', which formed the core of the Oslo process, but rather ''peace for peace''.

Since his return to the prime ministership in March 2009, he has exhibited no change in his position. If anything, he has pursued an even more hardline attitude and has single-handedly demolished prospects for an internationally backed two-state solution. He has done so by expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank within a policy of giving an inch but taking a mile and tightening control over the West Bank, maintaining the blockade of Gaza, which Israel ceded to the Palestinians in 2005 because the strip had become a squalid and huge burden on Israel, from the air, sea and land, and suppressing brutally any Palestinian act of resistance to occupation. Today, more than 10,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails, with hundreds of Palestinian children as young as 10 being subjected to middle-of-the-night interrogation and arrest. However, Netanyahu could not stop the UN General Assembly from elevating Palestine to non-member status in 2012, indicating widespread international support for the Palestinian cause.

At the instigation of the Obama administration, Netanyahu agreed to resume ''peace talks'' with the PA a year ago, but at no point has he retracted his hardline policies to give the talks a chance of success. Whenever President  Obama openly expressed exasperation with him, he rebuffed and embarrassed the President by going over his head to draw on the bi-partisan support that Israel enjoys in the US Congress.   

There are now only two options left. One is for John Kerry to take a peace plan of his own to the UN Security Council and obtain its backing for its implementation. Another is for the Palestinian Authority to push for UN recognition of Palestine as an independent state based on the 1967 borders, and for the international community to widen its regime of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), as it once successfully did against the apartheid government in South Africa.

Neither of these options is going to be easy. Israel can be expected to mobilise its supporters within the US Congress and pressure the Obama administration to prevent Kerry from going to the UN Security Council, and to stop the PA from seeking UN recognition for full statehood. However, this is a challenge that President Obama and the PA leaderships will have to overcome. This is also where BDS could prove to be very helpful in brining the much needed dividends..

Amin Saikal is professor of Political Science, director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia), and Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University, and author of Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (2014). 

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