Mostly negative events

A brief summation of the first decade of the millennium in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere generates a perplexing and mostly negative series of events–military, political, economic and regional.

Beginning with the military, Palestinians launched the second intifada in September 2000 and it lasted around four years. Israel fought two military campaigns: "Defensive Shield" in April 2002 against suicide bombing bases in the refugee camps of Jenin and Nablus and "Cast Lead" last January in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

Together, Israelis and Palestinians held two sets of final status negotiations: one that culminated at Camp David in July 2000 and ended in Taba the following January and one between the Olmert and Abbas governments throughout 2008. Israel actively invoked unilateral strategies: the security fence in and around the West Bank and the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. By mid-2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was also invoking a unilateral strategy. And the Fateh-Hamas schism posed the specter of a three-state solution.

The decade was characterized by parallel and related events involving Israel’s northern neighbors: unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, war in southern Lebanon in 2006, and brief and indirect peace negotiations with Syria in 2008.

The passing decade will also be remembered for the implementation of economic strategies: a positive one of investment in the West Bank and a negative strategy of denying goods to Gaza. Insofar as these economic strategies were backed and in part implemented by the international community, they reflect growing international involvement in an otherwise stalled and stagnant Israeli-Palestinian reality. The Goldstone report criticizing Israel’s war tactics in Gaza reflects another manifestation of a growing international role.

There were important leadership changes and internal political developments on both sides, too. Yasser Arafat departed the scene, removing a divisive and combative figure but also a leader capable of making hard decisions. Something similar happened on the Israeli side with the departure from active politics of Ariel Sharon. Further, in Israel, the toxic interaction between politics and the Palestinian issue continued to hasten the end of every single governing coalition. And the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel became increasingly radicalized, to the point where their leaders’ views regarding the future status of Israel have become more extreme than those expressed by the PLO. By decade’s end, West Bank settlements continued to spread despite a "freeze"; the Palestinian government in the West Bank was delivering on both development and security; and Gaza remained an insolvable and seemingly untouchable obstacle to progress anywhere.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, matters clearly deteriorated over the past ten years. The Sunni Arab core proved weak and ineffective. It was incapable of preventing militant Islamist terrorism, massive American military intervention, the growth of an Iranian-led Shi’ite threat to its monopoly of power in Arab countries, or an Iranian nuclear threat to its security. Fully six members of the Arab League deteriorated during the past decade to a state of near or complete anarchy and schism: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Bush era intervention and "democracy promotion" clearly made matters worse. The Obama administration has equally clearly not figured out how to fix things anywhere in the region.

This multiplicity of events, nearly all negative, in both the greater Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian sphere took its toll on Israeli public attitudes toward the conflict and its solution. Here, perhaps, lies the most significant consequence of this stormy decade for Israelis.

The Israeli public has seemingly internalized the need for a Palestinian state, but only because this appears to be the only way to ensure that Israel remains both a Jewish state and an accepted member of the international community, with allies in the fight against Iran and its proxies. Yet most Israelis don’t believe there is a viable Palestinian partner for a negotiated solution. Hence despite repeated failures, they continue to entertain notions of unilateralism. In parallel, they are increasingly inclined to welcome, however cautiously, the prospect of international involvement, including by neighboring Arab states like Egypt, in solving Israel’s problems with the Palestinians–everything from renewing and managing negotiations with the PLO to a prisoner exchange and ceasefire with Hamas. And they are content to ignore two key obstacles to any solution, negotiated or unilateral: the Israeli electoral and coalition system, and Hamas in Gaza.

So we muddle through. The year 2010 will probably witness renewed final status negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Binyamin Netanyahu may qualify as the new "odd couple". But in view of the experience of the past decade, don’t hold your breath waiting for a breakthrough.