Last week's announcement about the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE appears to have put annexation plans on ice. But the debate was revealing. The hand-wringing in America about annexation struck a stark contrast to Israelis and Palestinians, who have been more concerned about the second wave of COVID-19. When they do discuss the conflict, few if any believe renewed negotiations right now would bear fruit. The two sides are simply too far apart.
Most Israelis, including the prime minister, seek a negotiated end to the conflict, with an end to all claims. This is the outcome to which both sides committed in the Oslo Accords.
Yet, nearly 27 years after the iconic handshake on the White House lawn, many Palestinian leaders still dream of Israel's demise. Official clergy, Palestinian Authority media, government-issued textbooks, and diplomats all speak of Israel's destruction. The Palestinian Authority's strategy over the last decade has been to try imposing a solution on Israel without negotiating, compromising, or ending historic claims, which extend beyond the vaunted 1967 lines. Even the Palestinians' repeated calls for international conferences and the establishment of a state through UN resolutions are intended to perpetuate the conflict, not end it.
Of course, it would be poor form to adopt such a belligerent position explicitly. In English (and French), the Palestinians' spokespeople speak primarily and passionately of ending Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank. Sympathetic Western audiences have earnestly adopted and parroted this message to the point that it now holds little meaning.
According to this orthodoxy, regardless of its origins in a defensive war and irrespective of Palestinian intransigence, Israel's occupation lies at the heart of the conflict. An extension of this argument is that Israel's military strength makes it uniquely able to take risks for peace, but the fact that it doesn't makes it responsible not just for the conflict, but for its continuation. This logic feeds an even more dangerous assertion that the disparity in power between the sides is itself an obstacle to peace and should be addressed through a mix of pressure on Israel and positive gestures to "boost" the Palestinians.
The problem with this view is that the conflict burned for decades before there was a single Israeli soldier in the West Bank or a single settlement beyond the Green Line. Narrowly focusing on the occupation is like a doctor treating one symptom while ignoring the underlying disease.
The result is a dynamic where the Palestinian leadership plays for time. Rejecting efforts to resolve the conflict ensures that the status quo of Israel's military (and civilian) presence in the West Bank will continue, while international pressure to end that presence and to impose a solution grows. In short, the Palestinians have no incentive to negotiate.
A 2016 diplomatic initiative is illustrative. The French foreign minister announced that if efforts to reach a deal through an international conference failed, France would recognize a Palestinian state. This doomed the effort before it started. Why would the Palestinians make a deal if they could achieve their goals without one?
Strange as it sounds, the Palestinians hold real power. Israel cannot unilaterally declare the conflict over, but the Palestinians can. They, along with the Arab League, declared war in the first place, with the explicit goal of destroying Israel. Ignoring this has led to a "Bizarro-World" dynamic. Israel repeatedly has extended its hand and offered to create a Palestinian state, but it always comes under immense international pressure to offer more. The Palestinians reject every overture for peace, but are the darlings of the international system. The insanity continues.
These days, it is trendy to blame Donald Trump's plan for the Palestinians' refusal to talk peace. They are understandably mad: the plan (flawed as it may be) deprives the Palestinians of their peace veto.
But Trump is hardly alone in stoking Palestinian intransigence. Barack Obama was arguably the most sympathetic president to Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinians spurned his efforts, too. But rather than punish them for walking away, his administration helped engineer a UN resolution designed to skew future negotiations in the Palestinians' favor. For the Palestinians, rejectionism pays.
For professional peace processors and prognosticators, the January release of the Trump plan, the subsequent debate about possible unilateral Israeli steps, and the prospect of a new president next year have provided an opportunity to re-package their tired and timeworn orthodoxy to counter a polarizing president. Task forces and working groups are forming now (often without a whiff of political diversity), conveying an urgency shared by virtually no one living in the Middle East.
Countless Zoom calls will undoubtedly focus on ways to pressure Israel, even with annexation tabled. It's a safe bet that few, if any, will propose putting pressure where it belongs, on the side that began the conflict and that can end it.
Jonathan Schachter, a nonresident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, was the foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.