By Rajan Philips –
Last Saturday, it was Hamas’s massive incursion from its Gaza habitat into Israeli border towns and villages. This Saturday it is Israel’s retaliation, more massive in scale and impacts – on the 40 km by 10 km land strip that is Gaza, accommodating two million people. The Hamas attack on October 7 was the biggest on Israel in fifty years, and on the day after the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It was also Hamas’s biggest operation in its 45 year history. The deaths and losses on both sides are too painful and those who are suffering do not need political argumentation by others. Yet reactions are inevitable, and they have been mixed worldwide. First came official condemnations from the world’s capitals of power. Now there are street protests by those who feel dispossessed.
A new development amidst the mayhem is the return of shuttle diplomacy. Though not as flashy as Henry Kissinger and his flights across Middle East after the 1973 war, the current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is furiously shuttling back and forth between Israel and Arab countries, literally to keep a lid on the region and prevent region-wide conflicts involving Iran, Lebanon and Syria. The last seven years have seen a different kind of diplomacy in the Middle East that privileged the so called Arab-Israeli normalization and excluded the Palestinian question. It began with the notorious collaboration between Donald Trump as US President and Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister. The two men, fusing tragedy and farce, produced the so called Abraham Accords, which became the new framework for Arab-Israeli normalization while excluding the Palestinians.
The new Biden Administration continued the initiative, but chose to jettison the title “Abraham Accords” and use “normalization agreements” instead. The State Department also made it clear that Arab-Israeli normalization is “not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace,” and expressed the hope that the new normalization agreements will “contribute to tangible progress towards the goal of advancing a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” Beyond expressing hope, the Biden Administration did little to bring back the Israeli-Palestinian question into America’s foreign policy focus.
The Palestinians disappeared from Washington’s radar as the Administration diverted its energies and resources to the war in Ukraine and towards containing China. Clinching a new Israeli-Saudi deal became virtually the sole objective for the Middle East file. The Hamas attack and its aftermaths have upended the short term foreign policy goals of US and its NATO allies, and have reset geopolitical priorities. Hamas has been taken to task for the brutality of its attack, and Israel has declared war on Hamas as punishment. At the same time, the Palestinian question is back on the front burner for big-power attention. Lurking, rather looming, in the background is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose long spells as Prime Minister of Israel have a lot to account for the events of last week. His continuing presence as Prime Minister is equally a destabilizing factor for the future – not only for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also for domestic Israeli politics.
Netanyahu and his Nemesis
Shlomo Ben-Ami is an Israeli academic, Oxford historian, and a former Foreign Minister of Israel (in Ehud Barak’s government). In an opinion piece, published in Canada’s Globe and Mail, and entitled, “The destructive hubris of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Dr. Ben-Ami writes that “Mr. Netanyahu’s hubris met its nemesis in the form of Hamas’s brutality.” One cannot separate Mr. Netanyahu’s self-serving intransigence towards the Palestinians throughout his time in office as Prime Minister, from Hamas’s October 7 attack. There are also continuities and similarities between the current situation and the aftermaths of the 1973 war.
John Rapley, Political Economist, Cambridge, has noted that while the 1973 war transformed the global economy by creating the petroleum crisis, the current war is unlikely to have similarly far reaching impacts. The world economy is now different, far more widespread and diverse, and far less dependent on oil. The west’s declining dependence on Middle Eastern oil may have been a factor in the Palestinian problem becoming a lesser concern in the foreign policy considerations of the west in general, and particularly in the US. But there have been other and more significant developments that have pushed the Palestinian question to the backburner.
The experience of the 1973 war led to Israel and Arab countries working towards bilateral rapprochements and the pursuit of a parallel peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The linkage between Palestinian liberation and Arab leadership was getting attenuated, even if not totally severed. The 1978/79 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, although controversial and divisive, significantly changed the course of Middle Eastern politics.
The Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 and 1995 between Israel and the Palestinians were another landmark achievement even though they were frustrated from reaching the elusive final settlement. Even the gains of the Peace Accords, the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and limited Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were frustrated from reaching their full potentials.
There was also opposition to the Oslo Accords among both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The redoubtable Ishrak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the Oslo Accords with PLO’s Yasser Arafat, paid with his life for pursuing peace, gunned down by a right-wing lunatic. From a Palestinian standpoint, the great Edward Said pungently described the Oslo Accords as “Palestinian Versailles.”
The disagreements over the Peace Accords gave the new Palestinian militants, especially Hamas, considerable advantage over the old Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which came to be identified as a corrupt and upstart establishment. On the Israeli side, the right-wing forces were on the ascent, and during Benjamin Netanyahu’s long spell as Prime Minister, even the paltry Oslo gains were not only stymied, but also reversed.
The unfolding tragedy was given a farcical fillip when Donald Trump became US President while Netanyahu was at the height of his powers as Israeli Prime Minister. And it was back to total tragedy when Netanyahu returned as Prime Minister in December 2022 (after being out of office from June 2021) and cobbled together the most rightwing and incompetent government in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu’s return to power has been possible only because of the concessions he made to rightwing fringe parties, and satisfying his new coalition partners has come at the heavy price of alienating the Palestinians and aggravating their conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza. In addition to allowing Jewish takeover of Palestinian lands and the spread of illegal Jewish settlements, the Netanyahu government also provoked the Palestinians by infringing scared Muslim areas within Jerusalem.
All the while, Mr. Netanyahu was trying to expand the Abraham Accords with far flung countries like Indonesia, Niger, Mauritania, and Somalia, in addition to finalizing the more prized normalization with Saudi Arabia next door. And he kept ignoring warnings from the Americans and Saudis, even when they came jointly from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farham. Both men have emphasized that the expansion of Arab Israeli normalizations will not be possible in a climate of rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Whether these warnings were not strong enough, or whether the Netanyahu government would not have heeded them anyway, no one foresaw that they would come true so quickly and with such ferocity.