In the course of the past two weeks, we have witnessed three key developments in Palestinian-Israeli relations.
One is, at least initially, an internal Palestinian and Arab issue: apparent progress in Egypt’s efforts to bring about Fateh-Hamas rapprochement, create some form of unity government and set a date for Palestinian elections. If this prolonged initiative finally reaches fruition in the days ahead, it could have far-reaching ramifications for efforts to launch a new peace process between Israelis and Palestinians and for Israeli-Palestinian relations in general. One way or another, this dynamic will have to be revisited in the weeks ahead.
The other two developments are of more immediate and intense interest. One is the rioting and disturbances on and around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and elsewhere in the Jerusalem area. The other is the internal Palestinian controversy over President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision–now reversed following heavy protests–to postpone Palestinian action in the United Nations over the Goldstone report. Taken together, both of these dynamics have weakened Abbas and harmed the momentum toward renewal of peace negotiations, to the delight of most of PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and possibly of Netanyahu himself.
Interestingly, the two dynamics are quite different in nature. The disturbances in Jerusalem have reflected mainly Palestinian and broader Arab anger over the creeping expansion of Jewish settlement and archaeological excavation in East Jerusalem. The Sukkot holiday, a time of traditional Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem, generated right-wing Jewish incitement regarding the Temple Mount. This triggered an exaggerated Palestinian reaction that reflected underlying mistrust in the capacity and intentions of the Israeli authorities to protect Muslim interests in the Holy City. Israel’s own militant Islamist movement, which has staked out a claim to protect Muslim interests in Jerusalem and whose campaign is intimately linked to internal Israeli Arab politics, happily jumped into the fray and fanned the flames.
There are many issues at play here. On the positive side, the Israel Police appear to have handled the disturbances skillfully and a long-predicted "third intifada" has not emerged. The Palestinian side clearly over-reacted. But the Palestinian Authority leadership was weakened.
What should concern us the most is the highly detrimental effect of Israel’s expansionist policies in East Jerusalem as it was reflected in these disturbances. While the problem did not begin with Netanyahu, his defiant insistence on not implementing any sort of construction freeze in East Jerusalem and his resolve not to offer territorial or political concessions there appear to many Palestinians to leave them little alternative but to demonstrate.
True, the disturbances played right into Netanyahu’s hands by seemingly "proving" that only Israel can maintain order in the city. Yet, the only people impressed by this logic are Netanyahu himself and his smug political allies.
Still another casualty of these events is Israeli-Jordanian relations. The Hashemite Kingdom, lest we forget, has specific responsibility for Jerusalem under the two countries’ peace treaty. Turning to the latest twist in the Goldstone controversy, the report itself is bad for negotiations. It is liable to constrain Israel’s capacity in future to combat attacks by militant Islamist Hamas. This can only strengthen Hamas and weaken Fateh/PLO, Israel’s negotiating partner. Israel may also be less flexible about territorial concessions in future negotiations if it fears it will not be able to respond freely to aggression.
Lest we forget, Fateh silently applauded Israel’s January offensive in Gaza and brutally repressed protests in the West Bank at the time. It’s not clear exactly what combination of Israeli incentives and admonitions led Abbas to decide to postpone action on the report. But he made a wise decision, and the ensuing Palestinian protest that caused him to back down is bad news. All in all, the task of US peace emissary George Mitchell became harder in recent weeks.