Since March, more than 19 Israelis have been killed and more than 50 wounded in armed attacks by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. The wave of violence is unlike anything seen in years, but it was all too predictable, as political paralysis afflicting both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and a hands-off attitude in Washington have diminished prospects for a long-sought diplomatic solution.
In response to the attacks, the Israeli army has been conducting almost daily incursions into Palestinian hot spots in the West Bank. Upward of 80 Palestinians have been killed in the resulting firefights.
The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, conceded that some of them have been innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. The new wave of militants, inspired largely by Palestinian social media, are too young to recall the bitter fruits of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in the early 2000s. Bar calls them “a generation of sheep without shepherds.”
This is not a bad description of the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority. On Nov. 1, a bitterly divided Israel is to vote for the fifth time in three-and-a-half years. The latest polling information shows that this election, like the previous ones, would end in a tie and the creation of a weak coalition, unable to do more than muddle through and kick the West Bank can down the road.
Meanwhile, 87-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was elected to what was supposed to be a four-year term in 2005 and is still in the job. On his watch, Palestinians have split into rival factions in Gaza and West Bank. Abbas’ eventual departure will almost certainly precipitate a bloody succession battle. Some Israeli experts believe that the Palestinian Authority would not survive such a struggle.
The situation in the West Bank has not reached intifada-like proportions, but it could.
“It is important for us not to lose sight of what could happen if the Palestinian situation gets worse, especially in the West Bank,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said last week. “I fundamentally believe that to keep Israel a democratic state, we need a two-state solution. I want to change the situation on the ground to make that possible, to keep that vision alive.”
The two-state solution is less a vision than a mantra. After more than 40 years, it is a perennially unfulfilled New Year’s resolution. The Arab world has lost patience with the ideal of a Palestinian state. Europe is too caught up in its own existential problems to offer more than an occasional two-state sound bite. The US, the only country with real clout out in the region, has so far stayed at arm’s length.
It is hard to blame US President Joe Biden for his caution. He watched as the administration of former US president Donald Trump wasted four years of diplomacy trying to strike a West Bank deal. That offer included 70 percent of the West Bank for a disarmed Palestinian mini-state and massive foreign investment. Abbas turned it down flat. Biden cannot offer more.
Israel — no matter what weak government is in office — would almost certainly refuse to go along. Yet, the US needs to get involved. A retooled version of the Trump plan, under a different name, could at least get people talking again. An infusion of US aid might assuage Palestinians and buck up the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to keep order in the West Bank. That, in turn, could relieve Israel of the need for aggressive military operations.
These are palliative measures, to be sure, but they are better than the alternative. Left to their own devices, the feckless political leaders of Israel, the headstrong president of the Palestinian Authority and the young warriors of the West Bank could drift, sheep-like, into a conflict that might light up the Middle East. For better or worse, the US is the only shepherd available.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author. He was a senior aide to former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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