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Unfreezing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is principally about geography and the anxieties it fuels. Any peace deal that does not address these concerns from the outset is doomed, as is any deal that sees support from Arab regimes as an adequate substitute for Palestinian buy-in. 

Jared Kushner, the chief architect of the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, was on CNN on Feb. 2 defending the administration against criticism that the 180-page proposal markedly favors Israel and will not lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. Kushner insisted that the Trump plan offers a basic framework to jumpstart a peace process that has been stalled for many years. Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top advisor, went on to say that if the Palestinians did not accept the plan as the basis for talks then Washington could not get the Israelis to compromise. He also criticized the Palestinian leadership for rejecting the plan but expressed hope that it would come to the negotiating table. 

It is significant that the peace deal’s architect and broker quickly found himself defending against accusations of partiality. Indeed, a core problem with the Trump plan is that it was conceived without taking the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) into confidence. The White House instead relied on its ties to friendly Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and others as a means of getting Palestinian buy-in. These regimes are trapped between the need to appease Washington and the need to maintain local legitimacy, and the proposal, which would leave Israel in military control over a disjointed Palestinian state, is deeply unpopular in the region. 

The difficulty of this balancing act explains the Arab League’s symbolic rejection of the plan, while individual states issued more subtle statements acknowledging the Trump administration’s proposal even though they did not support it outright. The White House was well aware that such a plan would be rejected. However, it moved ahead – possibly for domestic political reasons amid the president’s re-election bid, but also because the Arab states signaled that they would work with the administration despite their official rejection. 

Geographic Reality Check

There is a reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved in over 70 years despite efforts by multiple U.S. administrations that offered the Palestinians far better deals: geography. Since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, this area has been divided between the State of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, i.e., the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Geography shapes the two principal factors preventing the two sides from reaching a compromise.  

From the Palestinian point of view, the disconnected territories of Gaza and the West Bank do not make for an economically viable or truly sovereign state. While Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the continuing growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has further reduced the amount of land available for a future sovereign Palestine. This has led to disruptions in freedom of movement and contiguity, and it has increased economic dependence on and security deference to Israel. Internal Palestinian factionalization has made such a state even less viable. 

Since 2007, the two territories have been under the control of the main rival Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, creating two very different Palestinian proto-states. Israelis seeking a settlement cannot ignore this geopolitical reality (while “hawks” can use it to argue that negotiations are pointless). Regardless, without the prospect of meaningful statehood and with no option of full integration into the Israeli body politic, no Palestinian regime can survive a peace deal with Israel.

Conversely, from the Israeli perspective, the Jewish state lacks strategic depth. A Palestinian state in the West Bank can militarily threaten major Israeli population centers because of its proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israel has been able to manage the periodic rocket attacks from Gaza in large part because of the distance between the territory and Israel’s major urban centers and the relative ease of isolating it. Israeli hostilities with a Palestinian-controlled West Bank would be far more difficult to manage. The territory is larger, more geographically complex, adjacent to the Israeli heartland, and shares a long border with an Arab state, Jordan. 

Israeli strategic thinking is deeply conservative and would assume at least some degree of continuing hostilities with the Palestinians in the event of a peace deal. Thus, while ideology has been one driver of Jewish settlement of the West Bank, the strategic imperative has transcended specific Israeli administrations and political trends. It is the main reason Israel seeks to control the borders of a future Palestinian state and why it has tolerated or encouraged the growth of Jewish settlements.

The Way Out of the Logjam

Countless issues will have to be addressed to the satisfaction of both sides if and when we are to arrive at a solution to one of the most intractable conflicts of the nation-state era. However, the Palestinian need for a viable state and Israel’s security imperative are the two chief arrestors to a settlement. The Palestinians need a viable state with full sovereignty, and the Israelis cannot compromise on the physical security of their state. Despite appearances, this is not a zero-sum situation. 

Any mediation on the part of the United States must focus on this binary dynamic. Washington will need to establish credibility with the Palestinians, which will not be easy in light of the actions taken by the Trump administration. However, the risk of demanding that the Palestinian Authority accept the current peace plan under threat of boycott and isolation is that conditions in the West Bank could begin to resemble those in the Gaza Strip. The ruling Fatah party, which dominates the PNA, is already an incoherent entity with fragile legitimacy and could lose control of the West Bank in a post-Abbas era. 

Israel has no interest in the collapse of the PNA, as it would likely be replaced either by more hostile actors such as Hamas or by chaos, leaving Israel without a security counterpart in the Palestinian territories in an increasingly hostile regional strategic environment. Therefore, it is in the American as well as the Israeli interest to engage in a serious negotiating initiative with Palestinian authorities. Certainly, the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians and the Jordanians have a role to play. But their reaction to the Trump peace plan underscores their inability to compel the Palestinians to accept it. 

The Gulf Arab states remain stable, but Egypt and Jordan are of far greater strategic importance to a settlement (Egypt is the most populous Arab country, the majority of Jordanian citizens are Palestinian, and both countries are important security partners of Israel). Yet these two countries face serious political and economic pressures of their own, constraining their ability to influence others and take diplomatic risks. Support from Arab regimes that are either relatively uninvolved or deeply troubled cannot replace Palestinian buy-in. Sunni extremist and radical Shia actors in the region will continue to exploit the weakness of the Arab states and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to their benefit.

Of course, the United States cannot steer Israel toward any territorial compromises without satisfying the security concerns of the Jewish state. Washington will need to get the Palestinians to credibly commit to ensuring that a future Palestinian state in the West Bank does not became a springboard for non-state actors or even elements of a future Palestinian government to launch attacks on Israel. The United States will need to work hard with both sides to develop border security mechanisms, which could allow for Palestinian sovereignty and Israeli security. Put differently, the key to unfreezing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in its most insoluble aspects.

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Founding Director of Research & Analysis at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has also served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in 2019. Follow him at @KamranBokhari.

Faysal Itani is the deputy director of the Non-State Actors & Geopolitics program at the Center for Global Policy. Itani is also an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University (GWU). Follow him at @FaysalItani

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of CGP, FSI, the U.S. Department of State, GWU or the University of Ottawa.