Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 4, 2015.
Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to drop a bombshell in his speech this Wednesday at the UN General Assembly, Palestinians and Israelis shrugged. No one believed that the man who had spent the last four decades urging the Palestinian national movement to accept Israel, renounce violence, and seek a peaceful accommodation was about to reverse course. The only credible threat he could make was to resign, leaving Israel with a less accommodating successor. Indeed, that is the one threat he consistently wields—and to great effect, eliciting worried inquiries from Israeli, European, and U.S. officials. The leader of the Palestinian national movement has thus found himself in the curious position of having his supposed enemies more concerned about his welfare than are his own people, two-thirds of whom just told a leading pollster that they wanted him to resign.

The disaffection with Abbas is not personal. It is a rejection not of the man but of his failed political program of cooperating with Israel to reach a negotiated two-state settlement. It stems from a belief that Abbas is politically naive, having followed a strategy of giving Israel what it most desires—full Palestinian security collaboration—not in exchange for an end to the occupation but as a prologue to it. The program stays fixed, even when the epilogue never comes. Through the stubborn pursuit of this strategy, the leader of an ostensible liberation movement has come to be seen as such an asset by his occupier that Israel considers his resignation a national security threat.

Palestinian boys carry a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement in Ramallah, January 1, 2015.
Palestinian boys carry a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement in Ramallah, January 1, 2015.
Mohamad Torokman
Although the 80-year-old leader’s threats to resign may have lost credibility a long time ago, biology will surely fulfill the promises that an appetite for power cannot. When Abbas does depart, Israelis and especially Palestinians will have an opportunity to set a new course. In anticipation of that eventuality, leading Israeli and Palestinian politicians have proposed several alternatives to Abbas’ strategy. Few of them are remotely plausible at present, and most are less promising even than the strategy now widely recognized as a failure.

NO PEACE

Among Israelis, the alternatives include enfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem (but not in Gaza) in a single state that would retain its Jewish character; small, Oslo-like interim steps that could be sufficient to occupy the diplomatic community, distract Palestinian elites from their long-term objectives, and halt pressure on Israel to take more meaningful steps to end the occupation; and annexation of Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, leaving the remainder of the territory under Palestinian or Jordanian control. Among Palestinians, the alternatives include a single state with equal rights for all citizens; a long-term truce between Israel and a future Palestinian state; and unilateral steps designed to increase Palestinian leverage and induce greater Israeli concessions or further Israeli territorial withdrawals.

For all the talk of the end of the two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians have not abandoned the well-trodden path charted out at the Madrid peace conference in 1991.
None of these alternatives yet threatens to supplant the negotiated two-state paradigm, although some could become supplements to it. The three principal parties to the conflict—Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans—are not actually re-evaluating their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as U.S. President Barack Obama promised to do following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 campaign vow not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead, they are seeking face-saving ways to set the stage for yet another round of final-status negotiations.

European and American diplomats still cling to the possibility of a breakthrough in bilateral talks, even as they have become pessimistic about the prospects of achieving one under the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. The default Israeli position, embraced by figures as disparate as Netanyahu, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, de jure opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, and de facto opposition leader Yair Lapid, is to seek Arab partners, who, Israeli leaders hope, could be included in future talks. Such partners would bring Israel a degree of added normalization in its relations with Arab states while potentially adding Arab pressure on Palestinians to adopt more conciliatory positions. A preliminary step in this direction was taken when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan were invited to attend a meeting this week of the Quartet on the Middle East (the United States, the EU, the UN, and the Russian Federation) that is tasked with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The default position of Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, has been to take small, halting steps to increase pressure on Israel, while quietly seeking a resumption of negotiations on terms that would not open them to intolerable levels of domestic criticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem August 16, 2015. REUTERS//Pool
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015.
Abir Sultan / Reuters
For all the talk of the end of the two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians have not abandoned the well-trodden path charted out at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Nor has either leadership faced significant public pressure to do so. Majorities in both societies continue to express support for a two-state solution, albeit on terms that are mutually exclusive. Many Israelis still believe that they can make a peace agreement without establishing a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, many Palestinians are still convinced that they can achieve peace without putting severe restrictions on refugee compensation and return. Both sides imagine that the other might come to accept their moral claims, recognize the validity of parts of their narrative, and relinquish demands for sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

The alternative proposal that has gained by far the most media attention—coexistence in a single state—has not for a moment been acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians in positions of real power. Such a solution would not resolve some of the most fundamental disputes between the parties: Israel’s refusal to permit significant numbers of refugees to return; Palestinian demands for Israeli acknowledgment of responsibility for the refugee problem; a dearth of resources to compensate Palestinian and Jewish refugees; Palestinian desire for equal rights, including in the Law of Return, which grants the right of citizenship to any Jew; Israel’s demand that it be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people; and dueling Palestinian and Israeli claims on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Even the one issue that it is claimed that a one-state alternative would resolve—territory—would remain in dispute so long as significant numbers of Israeli one-state advocates sought to exclude Gaza.

For the time being, then, neither two states nor one can bring to both peoples a lasting peace, let alone a sense of justice. What each society can strive for, in the interim, are improvements on an unjust and illiberal status quo.

ARMISTICE NOW

Since the end of World War II, peace settlements that have resolved the basic issues in dispute between combatants have been exceedingly rare. Yet for a quarter century, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have sought just that: a comprehensive solution, resolving not just the basic issues but all outstanding conflicts between the parties. In so doing, they have made the odds of peace that much slimmer. The intentions behind this approach may have been laudable, but, in practice, it has allowed Israel’s occupation to continue indefinitely, so long as a solution that resolved all competing claims was not found. In this way, a veto over Palestinian statehood was granted to any Israeli or Palestinian negotiator who could suggest a demand, no matter how unjustified, that the other side would not meet.

At present, most Israeli and Palestinian leaders prefer the status quo so long as its costs remain relatively low.
There has, however, been an alternative available to the parties all along: establishing a Palestinian state that would negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, much like the armistice agreements that Israel forged after the 1948 war. Nothing would preclude a long-term truce from serving as the basis of a future comprehensive peace agreement, just as armistice agreements with Egypt and Jordan did not prevent these two states from later reaching peace agreements with Israel. Any long-term pact could leave unresolved many of the competing demands of the two parties, especially the refugee issue and sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while granting each a significant reduction in conflict as well as an improvement of the arrangements put in place by the Oslo Accords.

At present, most Israeli and Palestinian leaders oppose this approach, preferring the status quo so long as its costs remain relatively low. Israeli leaders see little incentive to make large-scale territorial withdrawals without simultaneously achieving an end to the conflict; at present, the political costs of territorial withdrawal are much higher than those of maintaining the current scope of military occupation. The Palestine Liberation Organization, meanwhile, fears that by agreeing to a temporary solution it will, as with Oslo, sign on to a permanent one, which would erase much of its leverage and reduce pressure on Israel.

Demonstrators protest outside Downing Street in London, Britain September 9, 2015. Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators waved banners and scuffled during a protest ahead of a two-day visit to London by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.
Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators waved banners and scuffled ahead of a two-day visit to London by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, September 9, 2015.
Toby Melville / Reuters
Palestinians outside the PLO, by contrast, have not rejected the idea. Hamas has for many years called for a long-term truce between two states based on the pre-1967 borders. It did so out of a belief, shared by many on the Israeli right, that certain issues, and in particular the refugee problem, cannot be resolved right now. Hamas’ acceptance of an armistice could dramatically narrow the odds and scope of violent obstruction, which would undoubtedly be of much greater scale in the event of a comprehensive agreement. Instead of reaching a full peace agreement that violent parties in both societies would strongly oppose, Israelis and Palestinians would avert the most painful concessions and ensure more widespread acceptance of a long period of calm.

Unfortunately for both communities, a shift toward the sort of non-comprehensive cease-fire agreement that has ended most violent conflicts in recent decades is unlikely so long as the present system is not disrupted, whether through renewed violence, a collapse of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli reoccupation of West Bank city centers, the withdrawal of aid to the Palestinians, the establishment of a popular movement that would rival or supplant the PLO, or, in the future, sanctions against Israel.

For now, these possibilities seem distant or improbable, not least because of Israeli and Palestinian Authority cooperation to thwart them. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Palestinians who are making the greatest efforts to raise the costs of Israel’s occupation are those outside the Palestinian Authority’s control: protesting Jerusalemites, hunger-striking prisoners, militants in Gaza, demonstrators against settlements and the separation barrier in parts of the West Bank that are outside of Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which is driven largely by the Palestinian diaspora. The success of these groups raises the costs of the status quo not just for Israel but for a PLO that is increasingly dismissed as ineffectual, inactive, and irrelevant.

So far, the pace at which these costs have mounted is too slow to elicit a significant policy shift. But determined effort by Palestinians, Israelis, and their financial and diplomatic supporters may one day render the costs of occupation greater than those of territorial withdrawal. Israel might then view a Palestinian state as an escape from something worse. At that point, a long-term truce could offer benefits to both Israelis and Palestinians, without either party having to concede what it currently will not. Until then, Netanyahu can go on repeating his talking point that “no one makes peace with the weak.” And Abbas, at his own peril, can go on ignoring it.

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  • NATHAN THRALL is a Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group. Parts of this piece will appear in the forthcoming issue of Mediterranean Politics.
  • More By Nathan Thrall