Analysis |

Israel's New Government Hoped to Freeze the Palestinian Issue. Ben & Jerry's Had Other Plans

Whatever euphemisms the new Israeli government comes up with, such as ‘Narrowing the conflict,’ it will not be able to ignore the Palestinian issue – especially with the Palestinian Authority in such a weak state

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
Palestinian supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Palestinian supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did not sign the coalition agreements that established the new Israeli government last month. Nor did Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company. Yet Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a subsidiary of Unilever, may have upended the impractical idea the government toys with, that it will defer and not deal with contentious or controversial issues.

The basic rationale is not to disrupt the delicate harmony and sow discord in the fragile balance of a governing coalition composed of diametrically different parties. Ben & Jerry’s tends to disagree.

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The near-hysterical response in Israel to the company’s announcement to end sales of its products in West Bank settlements, whether morally and politically justified or a disproportionate knee-jerk tantrum, drew attention to the prime issue the government was hoping to refrain from engaging in: the Palestinians.

Monday’s news is by no means a major event or a turning point, and it’s highly unlikely it will trigger any developments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But it exposed a simple fact: The reality of the Israeli and Palestinians’ abnormal status quo is not bound by politically expedient coalition agreements, and there is a limit to how long you can pretend and deny the presence of the 800-pound gorilla called “the Palestinian issue.”

Ironically, it may be the decision by Ben & Jerry’s that ultimately proves to Israel that, as the cliché goes, “denial is not just a river in Egypt” and the Palestinian situation needs to be dealt with one way or another.

A Palestinian flag on the fence of an Israeli military prison near Ramallah.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

A week before the highly politicized decision by Ben & Jerry’s not to sell its ice cream in “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Israel received a gentle wake-up call from the United States. Hady Amr, the U.S.’ deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, concluded a regional visit by stating that the Palestinian Authority is in a bad situation, perhaps undergoing its worst crisis ever.

Whatever views the different components of the coalition hold on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, this is a very worrisome state of affairs – one that Israel is aware of, and deliberately contributed to.

Paradoxically, whether you think the “two-state” model is defunct and not viable, or whether you adhere to the model as the ultimate and preferred solution, Israel has a vested interest in a strong and robust Palestinian Authority. The anti-terror, anti-Hamas cooperation between Israel and the PA security apparatus is a valuable and indispensable component of Israeli security, irrespective of political solutions.

The PA is facing multidimensional crises. Economically, it is cash-strapped. The combination of the 18-month (and counting) coronavirus pandemic, Israel withholding tax revenues (estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of shekels), dwindling commercial relations with Jordan and reduced U.S. aid have exacted a high price.

Politically, the PA is weak and growing weaker. President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to postpone the Palestinian election – which would have been its first in 15 years – further eroded the authority’s legitimacy. It is constantly challenged by Hamas, which encroaches on that legitimacy, constantly looks for political clout in the West Bank, and proves time after time that it controls the Palestinian agenda.

Internationally, global fatigue, impatience and disillusionment led to indifference toward the Palestinian issue altogether. There has not been a “peace process” since 2008. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s major effort in 2014 yielded nothing, and as far as the Palestinians were concerned, rightly or wrongly, the Abraham Accords the Trump administration presented – those normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – were a nonstarter.

A worker at the Ben & Jerry's plant in Israel earlier today.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

On the other side, Israel has increasingly become comfortable and content with the status quo. In the absence of widespread terrorism, growing world disinterest and a deliberate policy by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weaken and undermine the PA, and by extension strengthen Hamas, in an effort to subvert any prospects of a political process, the status quo was enshrined.

Israelis conveniently turned their backs on the West Bank and concluded that it was a sustainable approach. Israel became resigned to a general attitude of “We tried every form of peace process, but there simply is no serious Palestinian partner on the other side.” The periodic flare-ups with Hamas in Gaza harden positions more than they generate reassessment.

The prevailing conventional wisdom in official Israel is that the “two states” model is no longer relevant. It is not viable or implementable under current circumstances. The left and center-left finds it hard to make the case for the model’s feasibility. On the right, it is widely regarded as totally undesirable and dangerous, and the center views it simply as politically intractable.

A few years ago, while searching for a new substitute policy – or a pretext for not having one – Israel developed a new concept: “Conflict management,” which is attainable, instead of “conflict resolution,” which is unrealistic.

As a short-term solution, Israel convinced itself that it worked. Now, the Bennett-Lapid government is examining a new euphemism in place of conflict management: “Narrowing the conflict.” The idea is to minimize friction and reduce the daily interfaces associated with “the occupation,” while strengthening the PA. This, of course, is relevant only to the West Bank, not Gaza.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr arriving in Tel Aviv during the latest Israeli-Hamas flare-up, in May.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

None of these intellectual exercises provide direction, clarity of goals or a coherent long-term policy. Which leaves us with the question of what real options are there, and what may transpire.

The PA is currently at the “wait and see” stage. But further domestic political vulnerabilities, the inevitable conclusion that the new Israeli government has no intention of engaging in a meaningful diplomatic process (as the Palestinians define it) and realizing that the United States will not get deeply involved in an arena it has already deprioritized, may facilitate one or a combination of these three scenarios:

First, the Palestinians may rekindle the “internationalization” of the conflict. Aided by Russia and China, and supported by the European Union, they could again try to win recognition in the United Nations, creating a wedge between Israel and the United States.

Second, further weakening of the PA may embolden Hamas, and another round of violence in Gaza may spill over into the West Bank.

Third, the doomsday scenario for Israel: the PA disbands voluntarily. Arguing that there is no diplomatic process and no future, and given their untenable abilities to govern the Palestinians, they may decide to turn the tables.

It seems far-fetched, but such a scenario exists and some in the Israel Defense Forces’ planning directorate are anxious about it. That would mean Israel returning to being a full “occupying force,” and would entail not only the practicalities of controlling 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, but would also dramatically complicate Israel’s position in the world.

Israel effectively has four options, all of which include a major boosting of the PA.

First, set and articulate a clear policy, regardless of coalition considerations. Even if that policy does not mention an eventual Palestinian state, it will have to include a silver lining that would make it palatable to the PA. “Narrowing the conflict” sounds great, but it is by definition a unilateral and short-term arrangement, even if it is necessary.

Second, engage the PA and devise a long-term set of intermediate agreements that begin with an ambitious, bottom-up economic buildup. In a world engulfed by the pandemic, this is very difficult to achieve.

Third, craft a comprehensive regional approach that includes the Palestinian issue. This is not a new idea and must invariably include a clear vision of the end result. There is no “regional peace” without a Palestinian component, and coalition considerations may prevail and preclude it.

Fourth, keep the status quo: Indulge the Palestinians and enter a lengthy and essentially futile process. That has been tried before, and failed.

None of these options has any value or benefits if the PA continues to decay.

As for the United States, this is where it gets tricky. Left to their own devices, Israel and the Palestinians most certainly cannot reach any durable agreement. Yet the Americans are fatigued and scarred from years of involvement, and will not repeat that course unless they are convinced Israel and the Palestinians are serious. So the U.S. limits itself to repeating outdated platitudes about freedom, prosperity, two independent states living peacefully side by side.

The United States can only help if both parties are seriously engaged and committed. But if Israel and the Palestinians show signs of willingness to explore new options, the U.S. can be there to help.

Anyway we look at it, and whatever the options are, the idea that the 800-pound gorilla is going away is dangerously misleading.

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