Israel and Palestine: Navigating the Geopolitical Risks

Akshat Sharma is an undergraduate Indian writer studying Political Science at the University of Delhi. He is also the managing editor at the independent online news and media startup ‘The Brief Bulletin’. His interests include geopolitics, international affairs and peace/conflict analysis.

The Israeli-Palestinian struggle simply refuses to end. Whether it may be the Oslo Accords of 1993 or the Camp David Summit of the 2000s, concessions promised by peace agreements have seen no noticeable progress. The complexity of the Arab-Zionist clashes involves multiple stakeholders who have promised to seek peace and yet consistently renege on commitments – and hopes of a proper peace process are currently bleaker than ever.  The recent Abraham Accords and other processes that normalized and bolstered diplomatic ties between Israel and its numerous Arab neighbours have all but confirmed a decisive shift in the nature of regional conflict from an Arab-Zionist nationalist struggle to a narrower Israel-Palestine confrontation. To put it more crudely, major Arab powers have dramatically de-emphasized, and one might say, abandoned the Palestinian struggle. It is within this context that clashes between Israel and leading Palestinian actors in May 2021 reflect a continued interest in perpetuating the conflict on the part of local actors involved amidst a lack of will (or ability) on the part of outside actors to truly bring forth sustainable peace.

Trigger Points of Recent clashes

At the start of the holy month of Ramadan, the Israeli jurisdiction declared restrictions of entry for individuals into the Al Aqsa Mosque. They capped entry at 10,000 individuals contingent on verifying vaccination documents due to ‘high morbidity rates’ in the pandemic. Whatever the intentions behind the Israeli move, its sensitivity could not have been lost on anyone given the sacredness of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the context of Ramadan. As this drew emotive criticism from Palestinian authorities, more intense protests were witnessed due to the Supreme Court’s hearing on the forceful eviction of 14 Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, notwithstanding Israel’s broader drive for settlement expansion which often comes at the expense of Palestinian livelihoods. A long series of protests in solidarity ultimately went out of control when Israel violently dispersed demonstrators during the holy month of Ramadan. The police raids and violent clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque among other places brought tensions to a boiling point. Following this, Hamas jumped in from the Gaza Strip with an ultimatum to Israel that went unanswered for obvious reasons and capitalized on growing clashes to actively initiate a full-blown conflict with its signature rocket barrages. 

Israel’s role in the ongoing Israel-Palestine Conflict

Geopolitical Issues

By the second half of 2020, more than 430,000 Israeli Jews were living in 132 settlements in the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, under any present or future conditions, it is almost guaranteed that Israel will not withdraw from the settlements because doing so will constitute a symbolic admission of misconduct on its part. For this reason, the settlement of large numbers of Israeli Jews in Palestinian territories will remain a long-term fixture of the conflict. Neither are there any signs that Israel’s heavy and controversial security presence in the West Bank, which reflects a broader hardline approach, will subside anytime soon.

On the other side, Hamas has acquired extensive support with Iran attempting to fill out the void of support left by neighbouring Arab nations. After the Gaza blockade, Iran has come out as a source of sustaining Hamas rule in Gaza. Iranian assistance is not insignificant – Iran funnels resources to Hamas for it to build rockets, advanced drones and provides intelligence support. It is likely that the confrontations between Hamas and Israel will increasingly be conditioned by the broader shadow war that has already been taking place between Iran and Israel.

Lastly, Israel has already been improving its relations with its Arab neighbours, with the recent Abraham Accords a testament to their progress. A steady improvement of Israel’s regional relations is largely due to the imperatives of geopolitical competition in the Middle Eastern shatterbelt. Convergences of interest between Israel and neighbouring Sunni Arab countries with regard to the threat of Iran have effectively turned the Palestinian issue into at best an inconvenient sideshow. For all intents and purposes, Iran poses a far more potent threat from the perspective of Israeli and most Arab governments.

This consequently deprioritizes the Palestinian agenda, and in fact heavily serves Israeli interests by demonstrating that no major regional Arab power has any real interest in resolving the Palestinian issue.

Israel’s Domestic Issues

Domestically, the political situation has been volatile, with 4 inconclusive parliamentary elections in 2 years and the ousting of Netanyahu by a motley coalition currently helmed by Naftali Bennett on a rotational basis with Yair Lapid, who is scheduled to take over from Bennett in two years’ time. The new coalition involves 8 parties across the political spectrum with a narrow majority and entails diverse views and opinions about the Palestinian issue. While Bennett has persistently objected to any notion of a sovereign Palestinian state, his counterpart in the coalition, Yair Lapid, is more amenable to a two-state solution, though with the condition that sovereignty over Jerusalem cannot be shared with the Palestinians. The addition of the United Arab List (Ra’am) Party to the coalition has been particularly eye-catching since it is the first time Arab Israelis have been formally represented in political office after decades of governmental practices and policies seen to be discriminatory against Israel’s Arab population.   Mansour Abbas’ party has to now balance the trade-off of sustaining this legitimacy by cooperating within the coalition and also represent the Arab minority’s interests. This ultimately injects greater diversity of perspectives into Israel’s policy-making circles, heralding a major change from the Netanyahu era.    

That said, whether this new composition of Israel’s government will actually bring about meaningful change remains doubtful. The former Opposition unified in a diverse coalition to oust Netanyahu out their common dissatisfaction towards political stagnation brought by Netanyahu’s string of scandals and controversies – but whether there will be meaningful change and forward progress remains to be seen, especially given the significant divergence in political outlooks present within the new coalition and the fact that Netanyahu is still influential as the leader of the opposition. It is fair to say that the new coalition’s unity stems from a common enemy (Netanyahu) rather than have a substantial alignment on their own perspectives on governance. Little change (if any) should be expected for the moment in Israeli policy with respect to Palestine as all this is still far from any significant consensus on what peace entails, or if it is even desirable in the first place.  

Future Prospects

The discourse on structural long term solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute revolves around the two-state solution. It is widely seen as the only rational outcome which actively forecasts both communities but it remains far from realisation. While serious disagreements both between and within the warring parties have always been present, new developments like the Abraham Accords may marginalise the Palestinian issue even further. One should not expect changes overall in the broad reality for the Palestinian populations and their political representatives, due to the involvement of current stakeholders (e.g. Iran, Israeli right, Hamas, Fatah) with no intention of actually resolving conflict. While international concern and the urge to make peace might trail the conflict at times, hopes of a better tomorrow seem worryingly bleak.

Risk-o-Meter for Israel- Palestine Conflict

  • What is the probability the risk will materialise? 3/3

Constant hostilities between Israel and Palestine have been going on for decades, with the most critical issues still fundamentally unresolved.

  • What is the predicted size of the impact? 3/3

The scale and never-ending nature of confrontations indicate perpetual ostracization of the Palestinian Arabs that is perceived to place their community and their livelihood in grave danger.

  • What is the predicted speed of onset? 3/3

Israel’s continued expansion of its settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority’s need to maintain a hardline stance as it battles other competing groups for control over the Palestinian agenda should ensure that latent conflict will remain an intractable feature in the region. Tensions can escalate extremely rapidly in such an environment, as was demonstrated with the latest flare-up.

  • Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 2/3

Hamas has still proven to be an active regional actor. Furthermore, Iran will no doubt double down on efforts to supply Hamas with advanced weaponry.

  • What is the probability of spill over? 1/3

While it is highly unlikely that the Israeli-Palestine conflict will lead to a cross-border spillover, it will not be unrealistic for there the conflict to be linked to developments in Syria and Lebanon where hostilities with Israel are also ongoing.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 12/15 (Elevated Risk)

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