Foreign Policy Blogs

Palestine, Israel, Hope and Uncertainty


In just the past ten days, irate Palestinian negotiators briefly suspended peace talks after an Israeli army raid in the Qalandiya refugee camp ended with the deaths of three Palestinians, the pro-peace organization Minds of Peace held a public summit between regular Israelis and Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem and signed a “people’s peace plan,” Israeli soldiers on night patrol joined Palestinians dancing to “Gangnam Style” in Hebron (which was posted on YouTube for the world to see), and Palestinian negotiators began a charm offensive on the Israeli public by courting the Jewish state’s politicians for friendly discussions. Add to this the fact that just a couple months ago, Hamas saw its big brother in Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood – fall from power. And this does not even mention the military strikes the United  States is considering right next door in Syria as a response to the the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Some of these recent developments may call for very cautious optimism on Israel-Palestinian peace talks – yet they also speak to the tumultuous nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the instability of the broader region.

In the end, the suspended peace talks represented only a minor blip in the continuation – but not necessarily the progress – of negotiations. The interesting thing about the latest round of talks is that the United States (read: Kerry) pushed so hard for them to commence that neither side wants to let him down and be blamed for their failure. While prior Israeli-Palestinian talks have almost always been initiated and facilitated by a third party, the amount of time and effort Kerry personally put  into getting these talks to happen may overshadow just about any other single world diplomat’s attempt at getting the sides together. So, this time, it is personal; nobody wants to offend Kerry.

Yet the Israeli raid on the refugee camp to arrest a suspected terrorist also represents the continuation of the Israeli military occupation and the tension that surrounds the situation on the ground. Despite the recent relative calm, the Palestinian population is without a doubt restless under continued Israeli rule, and another raid ending with Palestinian deaths may prove to have far more severe repercussions on the renewed peace process. Kerry’s intense personal involvement in restarting the talks may have strengthened their durability, but only to a limited extent.

The video of armed Israeli soldiers in uniform happily dancing with plain-clothed Palestinians belies the fact that not all contact between the Israeli army and Palestinian civilians is characterized by violence. While occurrences like these probably rarely happen, the fact that this did – in Hebron, perhaps the city with the most tension between Israelis and Palestinians in the entire West Bank – demonstrates that there is some meaning to the ubiquitous cliches that “we are all humans” and that we must recognize each other’s common humanity. By the same token, both the open-air meeting in the streets of Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis, and the Palestinian Authority’s outreach to Israeli leaders also stand as a source of hope for a more peaceful future between the two populations.

The ousting of President Muhammad Morsi and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt represents just one element of how the broader region effects the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has dealt a significant blow to its Palestinian ally Hamas  (itself a Brotherhood spin-off) and other Brotherhood-inspired groups throughout the region. The victory of Morsi in Egypt’s presidential elections and the subsequent dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian government originally provided inspiration for like-minded groups throughout the Middle East. It led many Islamists to believe that political Islam – which has a history of emphatic rejection of Israel – enjoyed a popular mandate and could come to power throughout the Middle East by way of elections. Yet almost overnight, the Brotherhood-led and Hamas-allied Egyptian government was replaced with another one much more oriented toward the Palestinian Authority. This may be an important boost to the current peace talks. One thing is for sure: the images of tens of millions of Egyptians taking to the streets on June 30th to protest Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will be ingrained in the minds of Hamas for the foreseeable future as evidence of the limits of their prospective power.

And then there is Syria. Some have argued that if Assad falls, an al-Qaeda base will take root on his regime’s ruins, which would certainly destabilize the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Others have reminded us that Assad has been facilitating weapons transfers from Iran to Hezbollah for years and have opined that we cannot be sure what will happen in a post-Assad era. With an American strike on the Assad regime a distinct possibility, another element to this uncertainty may be added.

Recent days have brought some limited hope on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, yet they have also demonstrated their fragility. If history is any indication of what is yet to come, then this fragility will continue to be on full display.



Justin Scott Finkelstein
Justin Scott Finkelstein

Justin Finkelstein recently received a Master's degree from New York University in Near Eastern Studies. He has spent most of his academic career and thereafter studying the Arab-Israeli conflict. His Master's thesis explored and analyzed the competing histories of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem (1947-1949) and the potential for its solution.

He is currently a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. He has traveled to both Israel and Morocco and has attended the Middlebury Arabic School program.

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