- Deep internal fracturing on both sides of the conflict and differing visions for its solution will undermine new efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table this year.
- Stronger U.S. support for Israel will drive efforts in the Palestinian Authority to accrue support from powerful countries in the region that back its cause, such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
- But these countries' regional economic interests, along with their stances toward Iran, will prevent a significant shift in their support for the Palestinian Authority.
The decadeslong conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has long commanded international attention and support for the opposing sides. Through the years, the dispute has galvanized the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa against the Israeli state. But over time, as tentative peace agreements have taken effect and unrest and instability have overwhelmed much of the Arab world, the conflict has slipped out of the regional and international spotlight. This waning attention, combined with the irreconcilable differences between the two sides of the conflict — and within them — will keep a resolution at bay in the coming year. At the same time, though fractious and unpredictable, the conflict is unlikely to expand. Instead, the new year will bring more of the same for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the perennial risk of another flare-up.
There is no clear resolution in sight when it comes to settling the long-standing territorial dispute. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition have taken a hard line against the Palestinian Authority, partially in response to the continued threat of terrorism but also to placate their constituents in the far right. On Jan. 5, for instance, Netanyahu urged clemency for an Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for the killing of a Palestinian man who had been gravely wounded after stabbing another Israeli soldier on patrol in the West Bank. Though Netanyahu's government does not have complete control over the Israeli settlements proliferating in the contested West Bank, it has no intention of amending its settlement policy. Occupying the territory between the borders established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and those drawn after 1967's Six-Day War is part of Israel's defensive strategy. Additionally, relinquishing territory would require Israel to uproot its settlements on the West Bank, along with their inhabitants and established businesses.
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, lacks a government coherent enough to agree on a solution to present to Israel. The two most prominent Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, envision entirely different outcomes for the enduring struggle. Fatah's two-state solution is far too conciliatory for Hamas, which espouses violent opposition to Israel. Since Hamas swept elections in 2006, deep divisions have all but hamstrung the Palestinian government. The discord between Hamas and Fatah grew to such an extent in 2016 — despite their attempted peace agreement — that it derailed scheduled elections. To further complicate matters, the Palestinian Authority is at loggerheads over a succession plan for aging (and often ailing) leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Another Attempt at Peace
Nevertheless, the international community will once again try to force the two parties to meet and hash out their differences in yet more negotiations this year, starting with the Jan. 15 Paris peace conference. Already, the conference has failed in its principal endeavor to coax the two sides of the conflict into the same room to discuss the situation. Prominent Israeli and Palestinian leaders have yet to confirm their attendance, and Israel has dismissed the conference as futile out of hand. Planning meetings for the Paris peace conference have so far focused on attainable goals, such as supporting civil society organizations and supplying monetary aid. But prospects are dim for progress on the conflict's main challenges.
Though Israel's borders and settlements have commanded international attention, they are internal issues that only the Israeli government has the power to address. U.N. Security Council resolutions, such as the controversial Dec. 23 measure that declared Israel's settlements in the West Bank illegitimate, will do little to curb Israel's settlement building in the West Bank. The country does not heed nonbinding U.N. resolutions. (Even so, the U.S. administration's refusal to veto the measure ruffled feathers in Israel.) Similarly, they will not prevent Palestinians from launching retaliatory attacks against the perceived Israeli occupation.
Solutions to the conflict's security and refugee crises will prove equally elusive. Palestinian terrorist attacks are still a pressing concern for Israel, but more and more, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are competing for the country's attention. And because Hezbollah currently wields more political and military power than Hamas does, Israel is devoting much of its offensive capabilities to countering that organization instead. As for the rights of generations of Palestinian refugees, a unifying cause for the Arab states since 1967, new refugee populations in the Middle East have pushed the issue to the backburner.
A Change in Policy
As the peace process continues to flounder, Donald Trump is preparing to assume the U.S. presidency. Trump and his pick for the new U.S. ambassador to Israel have criticized President Barack Obama's stance toward the country and pledged to increase their support for Israel and its activities in the West Bank. Although Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum have embraced the incoming administration, Trump's policies toward Israel will not have much effect on its conflict with the Palestinian Authority. If Trump follows through on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he risks provoking backlash from Middle Eastern countries that support the Palestinian Authority. But most of these states are reluctant to jeopardize their interests by confronting Israel or the United States.
The governments that offer the Palestinian Authority political and financial support, moreover, are loath to risk their relationship with Israel by advocating the creation of a Palestinian state. For countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Israel is a tacit ally in their efforts to counter Iran's influence in the region. (Turkey is also pursuing energy ties with Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.) Egypt, meanwhile, must work to preserve peace in the Palestinian Authority under its agreements with Israel or else risk losing vital economic and security assistance from the United States. Though Jordan has already spoken out against the proposed embassy relocation, its dependence on U.S. financial and military support will limit its criticism. Public outcry in these countries over Trump's policies toward Israel could prompt their leaders to take a tougher stance. Still, maintaining an alliance with Israel — either to keep Iran in check or, for Jordan and Egypt, to stave off instability at their borders — is more important for these governments than appeasing their public with a show of support for the Palestinian cause.
Over the past five decades, the international community has repeatedly tried to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together to find a mutually agreeable solution to their dispute — to no avail. The stark divides between and within the two sides will doom the upcoming Paris peace conference to be the latest failed attempt to negotiate an end to the persistent conflict.