Things between Israelis and Palestinians have not been going well lately.
The summer started with the kidnapping of three Israeli Yeshiva students, 16 year-olds Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach from a crossroad near the major West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion. In the ensuing search effort, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) deployed thousands of troops to scour the area around Hebron. Hundreds were arrested and a number were killed, including teenagers Muhammad Dudin (age 15), Nadim Nuwara (16) and Muhammad Abu-Thahr (17). However, despite the best efforts and combined resources of the IDF, Shin Bet and other Israeli security agencies, the boys were not saved, instead being found dead in an open field.
Operation Brother’s Keeper, as the search was called, succeeded only in arousing anger from Palestinians, to the point that it looked like major riots were going to break out across the West Bank. The kidnapping and murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the beating of his cousin in Jerusalem only made things worse. It is likely that only the presence of Palestinian security forces standing between the IDF and locals kept tensions from boiling over.
Hamas was the focus of the operation from the beginning. Its members across the West Bank were rounded up and jailed, many of whom had only just been released under the exchange that freed Gilad Shalit. Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah had recently signed a reconciliation agreement, and Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to link it to the kidnappings despite the weak evidence that Hamas was involved.
With the decimation of its organization in the West Bank, Hamas started responding from its main base in Gaza. Rockets and mortars started flying, and Israel responded with air and artillery strikes in what turned into an almost two-month long war that killed over 2,100 Palestinians the vast majority being innocent civilians, and 71 Israelis. The level of destruction in Gaza was enormous.
In place of a real war, a war of words has developed, with this year’s United Nations General Assembly opening session being the battleground. As has become an informal tradition, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders used their time to trade barbs and plead for the world’s sympathy.
“[Israel], the occupying power,” said Abbas, “has chosen to defy the entire world by launching its war on Gaza, by which its jets and tanks brutally assassinated lives and devastated the homes, schools and dreams of thousands of Palestinian children, women and men and in reality destroying the remaining hopes for peace.”
Netanyahu countered by calling Abbas “a man who wrote a dissertation of lies about the Holocaust, and who insists on a Palestine free of Jews, Judenrein.”
John Kerry’s year-long effort at brokering some sort of peace deal, even a framework deal, withered and died months ago. Unilateral moves, whether it be the Palestinians applying for membership in international organizations or Israeli settlement expansion, not to mention the basic intransigence of the sides, doomed the chances of any and all progress.
The civil war in Syria, the cross-border crisis with ISIS, the collapse of any sort of governance in Libya, and the Houthi offensive in Yemen have come together to push the Israeli-Palestinian crisis far into the back pages of the news. Abbas and Netanyahu have taken advantage of this diversion of attention to settle domestic political issues. In Israel, Netanyahu has been locked in battle over the budget for 2015. Abbas has been trying to re-establish the authority of his government in Gaza in line with the agreement he signed with Hamas months back.
Neither has made any overtures to the other to kickstart peace talks, and the Obama administration hasn’t given them any incentive to do so.
Flanking Peace with the Palestinians
Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought to take advantage of the war against ISIS to build a new relationship with the Arab world. Israel has long sought to forge an alliance with the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, against Iran, and Netanyahu is using the ISIS issue to broaden his appeal. His enemies are their enemies; they’re all fighting together against Islamic extremism. “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree… Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas,” said Netanyahu, claiming that Hamas also seeks the downfall of the West and the establishment of a caliphate.
As usual, though, everything led right back to Iran. Again speaking mainly to the Arab states, he warned that “in the future, at a time of its choosing, Iran, the world’s most dangerous state in the world’s most dangerous region, would obtain the world’s most dangerous weapons.” The fight against militant Islam, to Netanyahu at least, is just as much against Iran as it is against ISIS.
Netanyahu wants his Arab alliance, and he wants it badly. An alliance would help Israel in its fight against Iran, first and foremost. It could also help bring peace with the Palestinians, but whether he meant to or not, Netanyahu made it clear that peace would be a bonus and not the main objective. Iran comes first, then peace with the Palestinians.
It won’t work, though. Israel has tried repeatedly to build relationships with the Arab states without first making peace with the Palestinians. Ehud Barak tried and failed to entice the Syrians (then still under Hafez al-Assad) into making peace early in his tenure as Prime Minister. He hoped that by withdrawing from Lebanon and making peace with Assad, he could finally secure Israel’s northern front. He failed, and part of Yasser Arafat’s tough negotiating stance centered on his being offended at Barak trying to do an end run around him to Assad.
The Saudis will not work openly with Israel until there is peace with the Palestinians. Nor will the Qataris or Emiratis or any other Arab state. They will not risk their own power or influence just to have an embassy in Tel Aviv and a direct line to the Prime Minister’s office. Trying to work with the Arab states before making peace with the Palestinians is just as sure to fail as the Palestinians going to the UN Security Council for statehood is.
Going Back to Madrid
What to do, then? It’s clear that nothing that has been tried recently is working. Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board?
That’s closer to the answer than one would think. The fortunes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians are at their lowest since before the Oslo Accords. There was something before Oslo, though, something that has a lot of similarities to the situation today: the Madrid Conference of 1991.
Part of the cost of Arab involvement in the fight against Saddam Hussein was that the U.S. had promised to renew its efforts for Middle East peace. It just so happened that the international coalition, and the rocketing prestige of the United States as the Cold War finally ended, gave President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker the perfect opportunity to take a firm stand on the issue of peace. Working jointly with the Soviet Union (more as a symbol of international unity than any recognition of remaining Soviet influence), Bush convened a conference of Arab states and Israel. A Palestinian delegation represented its own people for the first time, rather than being represented by Jordan.
There was a general conference to begin the extraordinary event, where each party was able to make an opening statement. While Syria’s representative and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir quickly started firing insults and accusations at one another, the meeting was generally positive. Afterwards, Israeli negotiators sat down for bilateral talks with Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese delegations.
Although the talks eventually failed and Shamir was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin in the next election, the conference had effectively laid the foundation for the Oslo Accords, the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and peace with Jordan. The importance of the Madrid Conference cannot be overstated.
An Israeli Prime Minister and American President who see each other as adversaries. An international coalition against an expansionist power in the Middle East. A period of intense violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Civil wars in the region. The circumstances leading up to the Madrid Conference in 1991 are not exactly like those in the region today, but the similarities are certainly there.
The formula that the United States and the international community have been using in regards to the Israelis and Palestinians just isn’t working.
Is a new Madrid process what is needed? Perhaps the real question is whether or not the world has anything to lose by trying it again. A new international conference, followed by bilateral talks between the parties with an emphasis on a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It couldn’t hurt, and the Spanish could probably even be talked into hosting it again.
Garrett Khoury, a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and an MA Candidate at Tel Aviv University, is the Director of Research and Content for The Eastern Project. Garrett has previously worked with The Israel Project in Jerusalem and The American Task Force on the Western Sahara in Washington, DC.
Title Photo: President George H.W. Bush address the Madrid Conference Credit: David Valdez