Violence in Jerusalem and the Future of the Two-State Solution

In the wake of escalating violence in Jerusalem, the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy held a panel discussion examining the causes behind the troubling spate of violence, and exploring the future of the two-state solution. This discussion also considered ongoing settlement activity, particularly in and around Jerusalem, and the renewed Palestinian push for international recognition.

The event was moderated by Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and featured a conversation with Khaled Elgindy and Natan Sachs, both fellows at the Center for Middle East Policy.

The discussion began with an account of the attack on worshipers at a Jerusalem synagogue, an attack that occurred amid escalating tensions since the kidnappings and murders that occurred in early summer. Sachs and Elgindy explained the perceptions in the region of Israeli efforts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Sachs noted the irony in that the community targeted that morning is among those most vociferously opposed to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, yet such acts of violence are likely to galvanize and unite the public, further inflaming tensions. Elgindy described the context that has generated Palestinian anger in Jerusalem and concerns about the erosion of the status quo as being rooted in a history of discriminatory Israeli policies toward Palestinian Jerusalemites and the increasingly illiberal nature of Israeli political discourse.

Both Sachs and Elgindy touched on the current regional turmoil and its impact on efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Elgindy noted that the internal crises facing Arab states deny them the bandwidth to deal with another challenge, much less to engage in creative diplomacy, put forth a constructive plan and devote the requisite resources toward resolving this conflict.

Sachs argued that from the Israeli standpoint, regional chaos, particularly as it encroaches on Israel’s borders, plays directly into fears regarding the consequences of further territorial concessions. The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 continues to resonate among the Israeli public. Thus, Sachs predicted, for the foreseeable future, Israeli leaders will likely strive to minimize risk.

The conversation also explored a future American role in efforts to mediate and ultimately resolve this conflict. The collapse of the U.S.-brokered peace talks in April, calls on both sides for unilateralism, and the recent escalation in violence, prompted general agreement among the panelists that the framework for negotiations based on the “Oslo model” — bilateral negotiations mediated by the U.S. — has been exhausted.

Sachs noted that, in the current climate, some Israeli politicians see political gains in publicly criticizing the United States. Still, he said, the U.S.-Israel relationship remains a core pillar of Israel’s national security, and Israelis remain very keen on maintaining it. To the degree that there is still a “process,” Israel will continue to strongly prefer bilateral negotiations with U.S. backing.

Elgindy said that Palestinians increasingly express support for efforts to seek international recognition and engage international institutions, as a means of enhancing their leverage vis-à-vis Israel. However, the Palestinian leadership, despite past disappointments, remains wedded to a U.S.-led peace process.

Yet the speakers noted possibilities for developing new avenues of diplomacy. Wittes said that there was a moment of opportunity last summer, in the wake of the Gaza conflict, to use the alignment of interests between Israel and a number of Arab states as a platform for developing something similar to the Madrid peace talks — a regional framework that would support U.S.-led bilateral negotiations. Elgindy advocated for developing mechanisms that would instill accountability and prevent both sides from harming one another during any future negotiations. Sachs cautioned that blunt mechanisms designed solely to pressure Israel would likely backfire.

The panelists agreed that, for the foreseeable future, there is no substitute for the U.S. role as guarantor of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As Sachs noted, the potential for the parties to conclude an agreement remains, although perhaps only under different leaders.