The Palestinian-Israeli conflict stands before an unprecedented crisis, and it would appear that Palestinians and Israelis, as well as other relevant parties to the conflict, are about to harvest the fruit of their past mishandling of the conflict.
The Palestinians are entering the new year, especially in Gaza, engaged in a kind of civil war whose start can probably be dated to the murder of the three children of a Fateh security official on December 11 in Gaza City. That incident raised the ongoing tensions between Fateh and Hamas to a new stage of direct, bloody and ominously continuing clashes. This is an inevitable outcome of a series of mistakes in the handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the internal situation by the main parties.
It’s not unusual to see a state collapsing in favor of non-state players, whether they are militias, tribes or warlords, at a time when the state is no longer able to fulfill its duties or function to even a minimum degree. And the "state" in Gaza has reached a point where it is able to deal neither with the growing economic difficulties, including the severe poverty and high unemployment, nor with the volatile security situation. That situation has arisen as a direct result of the growing Israeli pressure on all levels of Gazan life, whether socio-economic as a result of the closures on the Strip or direct, in terms of military operations, assassinations and incursions.
But prospects are not just gloomy in Gaza. The weakness of the leaders on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides significantly reduces the possibility of getting out of the political impasse. On the Israeli side, weak leadership has left the Israeli government hostage to the opposition. The most recent example was the poor Israeli showing at the first summit between President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December. The two sides were unable to talk politics and even the insignificant gestures that were agreed have not been carried out. On top of that, just a few days after that meeting, Israel officially approved the establishment of another illegal Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley.
That disastrous development ruined the slight hopes that some Palestinians and Israelis harbored after the summit. Some Israelis, but hopefully not a majority, appear happy about the developments on the Palestinian side. Indeed, Israel has contributed significantly to the shift in the balance of power against the Palestinian president and the remnants of the peace camp, a result of many shortsighted policies by an arrogant leadership.
The deterioration in Palestine/Israel is happening at a time of great turmoil in the Arab world. In recent history, Arab states have never been as inefficient and helpless as they are now. But even the US, the main superpower involved in the region, is facing a major crisis in its Middle East policy. This obtains not only in Iraq, but also in the apparent contradiction between its declared promotion of democratization and elections on the one hand, and its hostile attitude to the political Islamic movements that would seem to be the prime beneficiaries of such a process, on the other.
It is not difficult to see how international policy regarding Middle East political, economic and social issues has contributed significantly to the present crisis. For decades, the US and Europe encouraged "stability" at the expense of social and economic progress including democratization. This led to a combination of the failure of these "stable" regimes in achieving social and economic progress and an increase in the frustration and anger of their peoples, leading in turn to the empowerment of the Islamic opposition.
To compound matters, American and European efforts not to hold Israel responsible for its illegal occupation and consequent policies, in direct contravention of international law, has further alienated the Arab masses from the international community and encouraged their isolation and inwardness.
It will be a fatal mistake to try to treat this illness with policies that only reinforce the same problems. This year, a year that is set to be one of the worst ever for the conflict, the region and American Middle East policy, can also be an opportunity to reflect on what brought about this miserable situation. To rectify it, bold and courageous thinking is needed. But this cannot reasonably be expected from the same tired players. On the international level, other influential powers are invited to play a greater role.
Despite its track record, Europe would be the party with the biggest potential, not only because of its special relations with the Middle East, but also because of its relevant influence on the US. Other countries, including China, Japan and Russia can also be useful. The same should be expected from the local players. New initiatives are needed that don’t necessarily come from the Islamist opposition or the states that have lost so much credibility.
The three main characteristics of any efforts to reverse the current deterioration are: one, reintroducing the legal approach to deal with both regional conflicts and internal frictions, especially in the Palestinian-Israeli context; two, understanding the necessary linkages among the different regional conflicts; and, three, acknowledging the social and economic roots of radicalization.