A mural on the Israeli West Bank barrier
Over the past four weeks, Muslim anxieties about Israeli plans to restrict access to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque have galvanized some Palestinians to commit a spate of knife attacks on Israeli citizens and soldiers. The escalating violence has killed 51 Palestinians and 8 Israelis, prompting U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon to travel to Israel and plead for both sides to find peace. The atmosphere in Palestinian universities feels like it did in the previous intifada, with students “encouraging each other to protest” — a sentiment shared by both Ismail Haniyah, the Gaza-based leader of the military group and political party Hamas, and Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader in the Israeli Knesset. However, unlike previous intifadas, this recent surge in violence is unorganized and decentralized; no Palestinian leader seems to be coordinating the attacks. The surging conflict in Israel may not yet be a Third Intifada, but a year from now these stabbings may be considered its origin.
What explains this potential intifada, and why is it occurring now as opposed to any other time in the past ten years? The answer to the first question lies with Palestinian Authority President and leader of Fatah Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whose policies have fostered the structural causes of the recent violence. Abbas’ corrupt government and sponsorship of intra-Palestinian conflict doomed the chance to create a stable Palestinian State, while Netanyahu’s aggressive West Bank settlement policy conveyed to Palestinians that Israel would never accommodate such a state. Thus, for both Abbas and Netanyahu, whose policies have harmed the long-term prospects of the two-state solution, the chickens have come home to roost.
Why did it take ten years? The answer lies in the current Israeli political climate and its effects on the Temple Mount dispute. Thanks to the most recent elections in March, the far-right now carries more power in the Knesset and Netanyahu’s administration than it ever had in the past decade. These hardliners propose ending the ban on prayer and constructing a Third Temple on the Temple Mount site, which includes al-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, where non-Muslims are currently not allowed to pray. These statements usually do not incite conflict, but the new-found power of the Jewish far-right in Israel is causing Palestinians to take these statements more seriously. As a result, Palestinians’ ever-present fears about exclusion from their holy site are becoming much more real.
A Dream Deferred – Corruption in the Palestinian Authority
Mahmoud Abbas’ poor leadership has helped doom the prospects of a two-state solution. Like the presidency of Yassir Arafat, the founder of Fatah and the first President of the Palestinian Authority, which saw hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from public coffers, Abbas is engaging in rampant corruption, most notably by using money from his international backers to fund his sons’ business ventures. Corruption also extends beyond the Abbas family circle, with Fatah leadership siphoning off public money and handing out jobs and contracts based on a system of patronage. Such corruption has made it difficult for Palestinians to see Abbas as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian Authority. This disillusionment is so high that 51 percent of Palestinians no longer believe a two-state solution can work, the highest percentage ever recorded.
Furthermore, Abbas has done more to stoke intra-Palestinian conflict than engage in political cooperation with Hamas. After losing the 2006 elections to Hamas, Abbas has acted more like a sore loser than a practical statesman. He never respected the Hamas-led government, and he even cooperated with Israel to bar Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh from entering the Gaza Strip with much-needed cash to pay off public debts. This border crossing incident sparked armed conflict between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza from 2006-2007, leading to the deaths of over 600 Palestinians and the split governance of Gaza by Hamas and the West Bank by Fatah. Even when Abbas is not fighting Hamas, he refuses to work with them on a joint peace deal with Israel. In fact, just before the recent spike in attacks, Abbas met with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog out of fear that Israel would make a peace deal with only Hamas, leaving Fatah in a state of irrelevancy. Even then, Abbas was reluctant to join with Hamas in order to strike a more comprehensive deal with Israel.
More disturbingly, Abbas has been slow to pursue any diplomatic agenda with Israel. Abbas is 80 years old, tired, and ready to retire. He no longer has the ability or the strong moral vision to lead the Palestinian people. Lacking strong leadership and a plan for peace, Abbas pursued policies that were ultimately inimical to a compromise with Israel that could have attenuated conflict, such as failing to create a unified Palestinian Authority. Why would Israel agree to a two-state solution when the other side has trouble functioning like a state?
The Hawks Take Over – Netanyahu’s Settlements and the Rise of the Far-Right
The recent surge in violence can also be seen as the fruit of Netanyahu’s settlement expansion policy and the far-right’s growing strength in Israeli politics. Under Netanyahu, the population of Israelis living in West Bank settlements has risen to 380,000; if you include East Jerusalem, the number is well over 500,000. In fact, of any prime minister in the last 20 years, Netanyahu has overseen the largest growth in Israeli settlements.
More worryingly, Netanyahu said in a March 16 press conference that he would not countenance the creation of a Palestinian state while he was prime minister. Although he retracted this statement following the election, the fact that he felt compelled to say it in order to win a close election shows the dominance of far-right nationalist thinking in Israeli politics. Couple that influence with a politician who is willing to do anything to stay in power, and you have a poisonous mixture inimical to making the tough choices necessary to build trust among long-term political actors.
Even if the direct disavowal of the two-state solution was a mere election ploy, the expansion of West Bank settlements exacerbates the feeling among Palestinians that their land is being conquered and colonized. Edward Said, an influential professor in literary theory and Palestinian studies, argued that, from the Palestinian perspective, Zionism is a force of displacement and disenfranchisement. The deep resentment this engenders constitutes an important structural cause behind today’s violence.
But why is this violence occurring now, as opposed to at any other time in the past ten years, when the Palestinian Authority government was equally ineffective and Netanyahu supported settlement expansion? The rise of the far-right in Israeli politics has made Palestinian anxieties over Jewish domination of the West Bank and the Temple Mount much more urgent. The recently elected government of Israel is led by Likud, and it includes Shas, United Torah Judaism, Jewish Home, and Kulanu. All of these parties support the settlement expansion status quo, and more importantly, their control of government means that “the restraining element” is gone from Israeli politics — and a provocative settler agenda has taken its place.
Indeed, the number of Jews ascending the Temple Mount is increasing, as well as the number of organizations calling to end the ban on non-Muslim prayer at the site. In the past, Palestinians could count on Netanyahu to keep order and uphold the status quo surrounding the Temple Mount, but now they see Bibi “being dragged by the settlers’ leadership” in the new government. There were tensions over access to the Temple Mount last year, but unlike last year, Palestinians have lost faith in the government’s willingness to uphold the Temple Mount status quo. This fatalism among Palestinians caused by the recent Israeli elections is one of the main reasons why such a high level of violence has occurred over the past four weeks rather than at other times in last few years.
None of these developments bode well for peace. Fatah and Hamas need to cooperate in order to better govern the Palestinian State. This would require both groups to reinvent and recommit themselves to overseeing the Palestinian territories, which is highly unlikely in the short term. Israel would need to make concessions on West Bank settlements and rebuild trust among Palestinians that they will uphold the Temple Mount status quo. These developments are unlikely to take shape, which is a shame because it means compromise is jeopardized at precisely the point where it can work best — before violence hardens attitudes and generates a self-perpetuating spiral of conflict. There is still hope, however, as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders want to avoid yet another round of violence. The famous Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt said that there would never be peace in the Jewish homeland unless Arabs and Jews cooperated with one another. It would be wise to heed that advice before the past four weeks turn into the next four years.
Tyler Bowen is a first-year Ph.D. student at Yale University, concentrating on International Security.