For all the pro-forma talk of a two-state solution among diplomats and politicians across the world, it is commonly believed that the Palestinian national cause has lost its impetus. Palestine lies in two divergent parts, separately ruled by parties which hate each other. Because no Palestinian state worth the name could spring quickly into existence, the diplomats and politicians believe, they need give it no heed save the platitudes.
But this month’s violence in Gaza and Israel may change that. It might arrest a trend which was largely to Israel’s benefit: that Israel is known to be so clearly stable and immovable, thus Arab states were increasingly ditching their decades of Palestinian advocacy and making peace with an Israeli-led status quo.
The four years of American policy before January helped to maintain and to burnish this image. Under former President Donald Trump, the administration pursued a ‘peace plan’ which largely left Palestine be. Trump officials hoped to capitalize on Israeli strength by having Israel sign bilateral agreements with the major Arab states, and to have the Arab countries effectively move towards a de facto recognition of Israel, a tacit one-state solution.
No one besides Trump and the Israeli right affirmed this direction of travel. But many of the Arab states did indeed begin to normalize their relations with Israel. They opened up air routes and signed diplomatic deals. Privately, the leaders of Arab states were reported to be frustrated with Palestinian intransigence. What Trump was offering was the only game in town. Best get with the program, or find yourself left behind.
A separate logic also held that, since the Arab Spring in 2011, the publics of Arab states had changed their minds and their interests. No longer was Palestine a livid wound that dictators could use to grandstand and demagogue. Their citizens wanted domestic reform and attentiveness from their leaders to internal affairs. No longer could the leaders of ossified state machines and sclerotic politics merely point to Palestine rather than deliver reform at home.
Those living in tyrannies would attend to protesting against their own governments rather than marching against Israel, this line of thinking held. And in the other states, there would be domestic discord to occupy minds rather than Palestinian suffering, allowing the leaders of each country to pursue normalization without suffering too great a political cost.
In any case, rulers could cultivate individual nationalism rather than pan-Arab feelings to buttress popular support.
But as Kareem Shaheen writes in Newlines, there were always limits to this apparent move toward a pragmatic attention paid to domestic affairs.
He notes that those who live in Arab countries show that they have not forgotten Palestine whenever violence flares in Gaza; but also that a focus on internal affairs does not mean an emotional abandonment of the ingrained cause of several generations. Arab publics demonstrate their desire for good government at home and an improvement in Palestinian fortunes at the same time.
Such a focus on the Palestinian cause can be maintained, even in the face of normalization, by a stream of perceived Israeli outrages – land seizures, settlements, the looming threat of annexation, and general friction between Palestinians and Israeli authority – which hardly went uncovered in the Arab world.
These actions seemed to come from the cockiness of an Israeli government aware it had America’s unqualified support – that there was no second state in the wings to be given equal weight. Israel welcomed America’s moving its embassy to Jerusalem. The prime minister enjoyed some of the gestures he could make following a Trump order to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be fairly accused of overplaying its hand.
When conflict between Hamas and Israel came this month, the immense reaction in Arab media – popular and state controlled – may have taken Israel a little by surprise. Israeli actions were criticized by officials and by state media, publicly and privately, with real energy and vehemence. They attacked the mismatch in weaponry between the sides. They named and profiled the Gazan dead. They saw imperial hubris in the bombing of buildings, including most notably the tower housing offices of the international press.
As the fighting passed a week, criticism deepened to an old, familiar extent. It was heartfelt, outraged and burning. While initial coverage had suggested that Israeli actions proved the ‘dilemma‘ posed by normalization, by the time a ceasefire was signed, hostility had grown. Arab rulers who had had previously dealt with Israel were said to have bet against their publics. On social media, of course, words were less guarded. Israeli forces were butchers and the Arab rulers who did not denounce them were aiding and abetting apartheid and massacre. State media debated which other Arab rulers most undermined the Palestinian cause by their relative stances.
Israel’s campaign against Hamas has once again stirred the Arab countries, and Turkey, to an outspoken opposition whose consequences are difficult to predict.
At the same time, Israel must contend with falling support in Western countries, and a skeptical new American president whose aides were suspicious of Israel and Netanyahu during the presidency of Barack Obama, and have had four years of an ostentatious Trump-Netanyahu friendship to stew.
The vitality of global pro-Palestinian activism has elicited surprised headlines worldwide. In America, it’s become somewhat fashionable, and among those who have aspirations to dominate the new administration, a shibboleth.
None of this means Israel is back to isolation and opposition. Media coverage is transitory, social media outrage doubly so.
But as calm is hesitantly restored, it is worth nothing that Netanyahu has possibly squandered a position of strength – changing a situation in which the Arab rulers had to reckon with Israel as an immovable object, increasingly unprofitable to hate, into a new one of public opposition and private annoyance.
This piece was originally published in Haaretz.