The year 2016 doesn’t bode well for the peace process, which has been stuck for a long time. The current situation ensures that the freeze will continue.
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This assessment is based on three premises. First, the Netanyahu government has no incentive – political, economic or ideological – to advance talks with the Palestinians.
Second, regional instability and Iran’s empowerment after the signing of the nuclear accord, as well as the challenges posed by radical Islamist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, ensure that overall security issues will take priority over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Finally, the U.S. election year guarantees that the permanent patron of peace talks will be looking inward, with Europe lacking the clout to bring the two sides to the table.
While 2016 seems a wasted year in terms of the peace process, 2017 may be the year things flare up. There are several reasons; the first is coincidental. June 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the occupation.
Countries and leaders enjoy marking round anniversaries to glorify the nation or themselves. Decision-makers on the right have been quick to realize the potential.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett has declared that the coming school year will be inspired by the unification of Jerusalem. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has announced that 2017 will be a festive year stressing the narrative of the whole Land of Israel, along with the line that there’s no occupation. To this list one might add the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, which favored a homeland for the Jewish people.
This linkage – 50 years of the occupation and 100 years after the Balfour Declaration – lends these events an almost cosmic significance.
On the other side of the political map, the 50-year anniversary is clearly a reason to mourn. The result of the 1967 war – the domination of another people – must be undone. This is a chance to mobilize all peace advocates in Israel and abroad, Jews and non-Jews, people who support a Jewish democratic state within the 1967 borders and see the occupation as a sure recipe for turning Israel into a binational, nondemocratic state.
This is the aim of the group Save Israel, Stop the Occupation, SISO, which has been established to organize events on the injustices of the occupation, culminating in 50th-anniversary events. A clash between the opposing worldviews that will find expression next year are bound to lead to a flare-up.
Another factor will be the new U.S. president. It’s not certain the winner will immediately launch a drive to revive the peace process. But history teaches that even a president with a limited understanding of the Middle East, like Jimmy Carter in 1977, achieved a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel within two years.
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, finalized the Oslo process and the treaty with Jordan during his first term. History also teaches that a president who really seeks a solution must start early, as proved by Clinton’s missed opportunities with Hafez Assad and Yasser Arafat at the end of his second term. The arrival of a new president on the 50th anniversary of the occupation could provide a spark.
The perception that a two-state solution is no longer applicable is increasingly taking hold. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claims that the two-state solution is dead and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be remembered as the father of the one-state solution.
But any deep look at the situation on the ground shows that the two-state ideal is still around and viable. It depends on leaders on both sides making it work.
A public campaign in Israel and overseas that will gather momentum toward June 2017 could jump-start diplomatic ideas already on the agenda. These include a new Security Council resolution to replace or be appended to Resolution 242, incorporating elements of the Arab peace initiative.
The resolution would call for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with agreed-on border adjustments and land swaps, without addressing tougher issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. Another idea is an international conference in June 2017 that would launch talks between Israel, the Palestinians and moderate Arab countries.
I fear that if these ideas aren’t realized, the despair, frustration and disappointment of the younger Palestinian generation – directed at the occupation and Palestinian leaders who can’t deliver the goods – will lead to an intifada. The reasons have long been there, but the spark hasn’t arrived.
And the fuse will be lying about in 2017. Let’s hope Israelis and their leaders will see 2016 as an opportunity for reconciliation, not escalation.
Elie Podeh, a professor at Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, is a member of Save Israel, Stop the Occupation.