Netanyahu and the Palestinians: Out of Sight Out of Mind

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is likely to have one thing on his mind when he arrives in Washington this week—Iran. Netanyahu will no doubt be urging President Barrack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take a tougher stance against Iran, including preserving the option of military action, in order to curtail its nuclear program. As talk of possible military action against Iran ramps up in both countries, discussions between Israeli and American leaders are also likely to turn to other matters threatening regional stability, particularly the bloody rebellion in neighboring Syria and the difficult transition in Egypt.

One issue that will probably not be foremost on Netanyahu’s mind however—or for that matter that of his American interlocutors—is how to resurrect Israel’s stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the threat of a nuclear Iran and the uncertainty surrounding the events of the Arab awakening all but preclude the possibility of pursuing a conflict-ending settlement with the Palestinian at this time. Although the Obama administration officially does not accept this view, U.S. officials have made it clear that they have neither the inclination nor the bandwidth to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in earnest—least of all in a presidential election year.

After three years trying and failing to re-launch negotiations, American officials have fallen back on the familiar refrain that the United States “cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” Instead of learning from past mistakes and adapting to new conditions, the Obama administration has resorted to half-hearted pleas for the parties return to a “peace process” characterized by two decades of failure and nearly universally regarded as having no prospect of succeeding. Meanwhile, the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank, once described by the U.S. as “corrosive” and threats to peace, today scarcely evince a response from the administration.

As if the death of the peace process and America’s apparent indifference to it were not enough, Netanyahu’s trip comes at a time of heightened tensions back home. Although protests against ongoing Israeli settlement expansion, home demolitions and land confiscations have become almost daily occurrences, recent clashes in Jerusalem, the epicenter of the conflict, underscore the volatility of the situation. Meanwhile, signs of Palestinian discontent and defiance are growing more frequent and more dramatic.

Take the case of Khader Adnan, for example, a 33 year-old Palestinian father of two who launched an unprecedented 66-day hunger-strike to protest his arrest and detention by the Israeli military under “administrative detention” before being released two weeks ago. Adnan’s dramatic (and non-violent) act of defiance made him an instant hero in the eyes of millions of Palestinians and drew international attention to a practice that allows Israel to hold some 300 Palestinians indefinitely—for months or even years—without charge or trial. It also inspired similar acts of defiance, like Hana Shalabi, a 30 year-old woman from Jenin who is now in day 16 of hunger strike to protest her administrative detention.

Although such actions do not yet amount to either a “Palestinian spring” or a “third intifada”, popular frustration with both Israel and their own leaders is rising among Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza. Recent Israeli actions like the arrest of activist-blogger Fadi Quran and the raids on Palestinian television networks will no doubt fuel comparisons with neighboring authoritarian regimes intent on quashing dissent. As in those countries, such actions are more likely to fuel popular anger than eliminate it.

Whether these latest stirrings will turn into more sustained action on a wider scale only time will tell. Having already launched two uprisings in as many decades (of both the violent and non-violent variety) however, the Palestinian scene is unlikely to remain quiet for long. While the U.S. administration and the current Israeli government may be inclined to put off the Palestinian question indefinitely, if history is any guide, they may be doing so at their own peril.