Absent massive and major action, the Israeli coalition will escalate its occupation and war crimes against the Palestinians. Such an intensified assault will see more Palestinian attacks on Israelis, including civilians. What has been witnessed in the past few weeks has every indication of just getting worse.
Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leaderships have the willingness or, in the case of the latter, the wherewithal to prevent this or even temper the worst aspects. The Israeli settler movement is on the warpath. It will demand results from an Israeli coalition it helped elect. Benjamin Netanyahu needs their votes and will not alienate them. Expect a raft of further settlement announcements. Itamar Ben-Gvir, not Netanyahu, controls the temperature in East Jerusalem. The national security minister is hell-bent on seeing the mercury rise, not least through an extraordinary surge in the number of demolitions of Palestinian homes.
The Palestinian Authority loses more and more control and influence every day. Young Palestinian men see no hope of viable negotiations or a path to redress through legal routes, which states like the US and the UK bar to them. Young, unemployed and with little to look forward to in the future, they are prepared to take up arms and attack their occupiers no matter how futile this might appear. Quite what this will achieve for the Palestinian cause is hugely debatable, but it will mean more bloodshed. Killing Israeli civilians will, as ever, only put the Palestinian quest for freedom in reverse. In theory, when a major international conflict becomes so intractable and so perilous, the international community should step in. It is vital as the consequences of escalation could ricochet across the region. This conflict, like Ukraine, involves issues of international law and responsibility for those who are on the UN Security Council and high contracting parties to the Geneva Convention. The relative silence is damning.
What are the options available? The lack of unity at the UNSC on nearly everything since the Ukraine crisis does not help. Yet, if the US and its European allies were prepared to hold Israel to account, the council should find the sort of consensus vital to doing just that. Much depends on the US. If the Biden administration is prepared to cast aside the US’ historic blanket diplomatic protection for Israeli crimes, many options are available. President Joe Biden is clearly unhappy with Netanyahu. He has refused, on camera, to invite him to the White House – an unprecedented rebuff. But a lot of this discord is as a result of Iran and internal Israeli domestic issues, not how Israel treats the Palestinians. That said, US officials are far from happy at the way in which Netanyahu has reneged on promises to pause settlement building, which he made at the Aqaba summit and at Sharm El-Sheikh.
The US has many tools at its disposal. Firstly, it could revoke its pledge to veto UNSC resolutions critical of Israel. No state should have such a get out of jail free card. Secondly, it could put jail on the table by supporting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over war crimes by all parties in Palestine. Thirdly, it could back the UN General Assembly’s referral to the International Court of Justice on the issue of the legality of Israel’s occupation. This would bring the US in line with some of its legal obligations. But it could do far more. Why should the US taxpayer keep funding billions of dollars in aid to Israel, a state which has a very successful and dynamic economy? This is not a developing nation languishing at the lowest levels of the global poverty rankings. Biden could cut those funds and deploy them more effectively elsewhere. He could attach greater conditionality to US military aid, including that it must not be used for the oppression of Palestinians.
Israeli leaders always count on the US to do nothing. It actually just augments American weakness, as its support is treated as a given. The few times that the US has taken Israel to task, Tel Aviv has shifted. When President George H.W. Bush withheld loan guarantees over settlements, it helped bring a reluctant Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid peace conference. Biden could adopt a tough love approach to all parties.
The European actors also have options, if perhaps not as potent. They could all support the international legal options with more vigor. The EU can also be firmer with Israel on the issue of international law. It can link future research cooperation, which Israel so values, to Israeli compliance. The EU association agreement has a human rights clause that should have been invoked long ago and certainly could be now. The UK could also join in. It has a free trade agreement with Israel in the pipeline and should insist on conditionality with that, including that the agreement does not cover occupied territory.
More constructively, the international community could and should internationalize this conflict once again. It is too serious to be allowed to be left to the warring parties to sort out and the asymmetry between Israel and the PA does not allow for constructive negotiations. It requires the major powers to clearly outline the future contours of a deal.
If their preferred option is a two-state solution, then this must be given teeth. Few have much confidence it is still achievable, but unless the international community concocts a new framework, this will have to be the way forward. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 must be the essential core basis of this. Israel must leave occupied territory for the sake of peace. Land swaps can be considered. Jerusalem should have a shared future for two states and two peoples. A solution for the Palestinian refugees must also be engaged. This Palestinian state has to be viable, independent, sovereign and contiguous.
The Palestinian side has signed up to this. For years, the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to two states. For sure, the Palestinian leaders have obligations to meet. The Palestinian political domain has to be reordered and a fresh, legitimate and single governing authority elected in a free and fair election. Not since the days of Ehud Olmert has an Israeli prime minister been even close to supporting this model. International leaders should call Israel out. Netanyahu, the Palestinian side agrees to two states, when will you?
If, as is likely, Netanyahu refuses, then this must lead to consequences. If Israel does not agree to a proper two-state solution, then will it agree to one single state with equal rights for all? The answer to that will also be no. The international response at this stage should be forthright. The only alternative to such solutions is the crime of apartheid. This should be called out and not allowed to continue without repercussions one day longer.