The wars in Syria and Iraq and jihadist attacks in the West have obscured yet another Middle East threat: the possibility that slowly escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis will destroy one of the few remaining zones of relative tranquility between Morocco and Iran, along with one of the last secular and moderate Sunni governments.
Attacks on Israelis by Palestinians, which began in Jerusalem in September, have turned into a steady drumbeat. There were five in the first four days of last week alone; 13 Israelis were shot, stabbed or deliberately hit by cars, while three of their Palestinian attackers were shot and killed. The Israeli army reports 90 stabbings, 33 shootings and 15 car rammings between Sept. 13 and Dec. 9. The Associated Press says at least 19 Israelis and 112 Palestinians have been killed, including Arabs killed in clashes with security forces.
The modest scale of this bloodshed compared with that in Syria or even Egypt is magnified by the potentially outsize consequences. For senior U.S. officials, foremost among these is the potential collapse of the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and its U.S.-trained security forces, which have cooperated closely with Israel against jihadist groups in recent years. In the worst case, that could open the way for the Islamic State to move into the Palestinian territories and launch a direct assault against Israel — a nightmare scenario for Sunni states in the region as well as Israel itself.
If that sounds alarmist, it nevertheless seems to reflect the view of Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Dec. 5 delivered a stark warning of a possible Palestinian collapse. “There are valid questions as to how long the [Palestinian Authority] will survive if the current situation continues,” he told the Saban Forum, an annual Israeli-U.S. conference I attended. “Nobody can tell you what the alternative is in a world buzzing with Daesh [the Islamic State] and jihad and Hamas.”
Kerry has been an indefatigable optimist on the possibilities for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — so much so that critics including myself have called him delusional — so the new, somber tone was striking. From what I heard from senior U.S. and Israeli officials during the conference’s not-for-quotation sessions, it stemmed from Kerry’s little-noticed but profoundly discouraging visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in late November.
The purpose of the trip was not to broker Palestinian statehood; Kerry and President Obama have finally accepted that neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing or able to make such a deal. Instead, the administration has taken the more modest but realistic tack that Obama should have adopted years ago: pressing for practical improvements in the Palestinian economy and daily life that could reduce tensions while helping to lay the groundwork for an eventual state.
In theory, at least, it’s a program on which all sides can agree — and in a visit to Washington in November, Netanyahu suggested to Obama that Israel might make economic concessions to the Palestinians. Kerry’s aim was to follow up.
Netanyahu, however, offered nothing of significance in Jerusalem, at least in the view of the U.S. side. He may have been restrained by the hard-line members of his cabinet, or by the calculation that his government could not be seen to be offering concessions in response to Palestinian violence. In any case, U.S. officials were left with little to offer Abbas when Kerry went to visit him in Ramallah.
Abbas, for his part, gave the U.S. delegation the impression that he had written off diplomatic options entirely. For years he has threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and force Israel to resume direct government of the West Bank. This time the 80-year-old Palestinian president, who has remained in office years after the expiration of his term, seemed to persuade Kerry the prospect was real.
Kerry’s speech had the effect of exasperating senior Israeli officials, who believe that Abbas and his top aides, while professing to oppose the ongoing violence, have done their best to stoke it. On the same day that Kerry spoke at Washington’s Willard Hotel, Abbas’s chief diplomatic negotiator, Saeb Erekat, paid a condolence call on the family of a Palestinian Authority policeman who had shot two Israelis before being killed himself.
The Israelis believe, with reason, that Kerry and Obama are pressing the Netanyahu government for concessions while asking little from the Palestinians — even though almost all the violence has been initiated by Palestinian attackers. Still, not just this White House has been frustrated with Netanyahu’s refusal to act. Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s former national security adviser, also spoke out on the need for practical Israeli measures in the West Bank; when it was pointed out that Netanyahu had often promised such steps, his verdict was sharp.
“Didn’t do it,” said Hadley. “He simply never did it.”
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.