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2017 Annual Assessment

President Trump once again stated his aspiration to achieve the “ultimate deal” and broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He called for Israel to restrain settlement construction and delayed his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem so as not to hobble chances to advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (June 1, 2017). Continued American leadership over the peace process grants Israel the opportunity of working with a sympathetic interlocutor, but American pressure to make painful concessions could eventually sour relations with the Trump administration, supportive as it may be.

Trumps steps, thus far, reflect a strategy to involve the Sunni moderates in a regional deal that includes the Palestinians. Arab League members stepped up to the president’s challenge, and reiterated, in the summary statement issued by the League summit in Jordan (March 30, 2017), their commitment to peace with Israel based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi king, during Trump’s visit, committed his country’s help in these efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (May 20, 2017).26 However, the Arab world is in no hurry to publically show signs of normalization with Israel, and demands real progress with the Palestinians as a precondition. The harsh anti-Israel responses of the Arab states after the Temple Mount incident (July 2017) illustrate the limits the Palestinian conflict places on advancing relations with Israel.

At this stage, the Trump administration has yet to formulate a path to success; all its predecessors failed. Formidable gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions show just how daunting the challenge really is. The passing time does not increase mutual trust, and both sides doubt the sincerity of the other’s intentions. Prime Minster Netanyahu has demanded that the PA prove its commitment to peace by stopping payments to the families of terrorists and security prisoners held by Israel.27 (Netanyahu’s stance could help push American legislation that would withhold a significant portion of aid to the PA.)

At the same time, the right-wing faction of the governing coalition is working to obstruct any final status negotiations. HaBayit HaYehudi’s proposed amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem passed a first ministerial vote (July 26, 2017). The bill stipulates that a minimum of 80 Knesset members (two-thirds) must vote affirmatively before any transfer of Jerusalem territories to a foreign entity. The Israeli political right is even pressing limitations on the prime minister’s power to enact “confidence building measures” with the Palestinians. The cabinet decision to freeze the September 2016 plan to build 6000 housing units for Palestinians near Qalqilya is an example of this. (A positive development in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians was the joint announcement (July 13, 2017) of an agreement that will allow the Palestinian Authority to purchase 32 million cubic meters of water at a discounted rate, as part of their participation in the pipeline project, transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.)

Continued settlement construction is the issue that draws the most international criticism and raises doubts about the sincerity of Israel’s intentions. The Israeli government is maneuvering between Trump’s demands to restrain settlement construction in Judea and Samaria and domestic political pressures to build. Thus, when the government authorized planning and construction of 2500 units in Judea and Samaria, and the prime minister announced, “We build – and will continue to build,”28 the White House released a statement saying that settlement expansion could interfere with the peace process. The EU responded to the construction and to The Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law (intended to retroactively legalize the status of settlements built on private Palestinian lands) by delaying a planned diplomatic summit with Israel.29 In protest of the Regulation Law, Chancellor Merkel cancelled a planned Israeli-German government summit.30 Pressure brought by President Trump forced the Israeli government to limit construction as much as is possible to within existing settlement blocs. As Netanyahu explained to his cabinet ministers: “This is a very friendly administration and we need to take the president’s requests into consideration.”31

At this stage, the sides are waiting until the Trump administration initiates a diplomatic plan. It is still unclear what the plan will look like, how it will involve the regional actors, and how insistent the White House will be in light of the considerable gaps between the two sides. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law and senior adviser, expressed doubt in a leaked conversation with White House interns (July 31, 2017): “We’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution…”32

If the U.S. demurs from advancing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and abandons its leadership of the peace process, Israel could be at risk as it would allow less sympathetic international actors to take control in America’s stead. On the Palestinian side, there are growing calls to drop demands for an independent state, insisting instead on full rights and equality in one state.

The lack of mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinians is not the only hurdle the American mediator will have to overcome. The Palestinians are split both geographically and organizationally, and a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is not on the horizon (although there may be some cosmetic unification steps taken, as in the past). The American side is debating a basic question about the viability of a “two-state solution” if Gaza functions as a separate state. In practice, the Palestinian centers of government, split between Ramallah and Gaza, function poorly (especially in Gaza). A regime change (Abu Mazen is 82 and seems to be nearing the end of his reign), could spark succession struggles and might harm security cooperation with Israel. The West Bank Palestinian public is disappointed in the Palestinian Authority’s performance and is doubtful that the current leadership can effectuate an end to the Israeli occupation.

The title of an essay by two Palestinian professors (August 6, 2017), Hussein Agha and Ahmad Khalidi, who were for many years involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, illustrates the level of frustration: “The End of this Road: The Decline of the Palestinian National Movement.”33 This atmosphere of frustration – especially among younger Palestinians – set the stage for the outbreak of the “Lone Wolf” intifada. The violence that erupted in Jerusalem in October 2015 and spread to the West Bank and then other parts of Israel has yet to fully subside. Israel must contend with spontaneous outbreaks of violence that occur without prior warning. The perpetrators are not connected to known terror organizations, and the organizational challenge of obtaining early intelligence is difficult. But diplomatic stagnation is not the only element behind this violence. Among younger Palestinians, there is deep frustration with their own shaky social reality, the high levels of corruption and general failure of the Palestinian leadership and its governance.

The Palestinian prisoner hunger strike, initiated on April 15, 2017 by senior Fatah member Marwan Barghouti, ended without sparking a new uprising, as many feared. This fear was renewed by the gunning down of two Israeli police officers in a Temple Mount terrorist attack (July 14, 2017). In response, Israel placed metal detectors at the site entrances. The Palestinians claimed the move was meant to entrench Israeli sovereignty over the holy site and responded with violent protests that led to the deaths of three Palestinians. Abu Mazen then announced that he was cutting ties with Israel (July 21, 2017). In accordance with the Palestinian Waqf’s demands, Israel relented and removed the metal detectors and security cameras (July 21, 2017) it had installed, allowing the Palestinians to celebrate what they viewed as a major victory over the Israeli government.

Hamas – Since the end of “Operation Protective Edge” (August 26, 2014), Hamas has worked to rebuild its capabilities, especially its rocket arsenal and the tunnels that lead into Israeli territory. Special forces that can infiltrate Israel have been trained, and the manufacture of arms locally – of rockets, mortars, and UAVs ­– has become more sophisticated.

Hamas’ ground forces commander Yahya Sinwar was elected to head the movement in Gaza in place of Ismail Haniyeh (February 13, 2017), an indication of the growing strength of the most militant line within the organization. Haniyeh himself was elected to replace Khaled Mashal as head of the Hamas Political Bureau (May 6, 2017). These developments illustrate the dominance of the “domestic” leadership in Hamas over its “foreign” leadership. Due to growing pressure from Egypt – and possibly to try to appease the US, Hamas even published a modification of its charter (May 1, 2017), according to which it will accept the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, but not recognize Israel. The document does not portend a change in Hamas policy anytime soon, and its charter still maintains the commitment to an armed struggle to free all of Palestine. President Trump was also not impressed by Hamas efforts to project moderation. In his speech in Saudi Arabia (May 21, 2017) he mentioned the group in the same breath as ISIS, AL-Qaeda, and Hezbollah.

Egypt sees Hamas as a branch of the hated Muslim Brotherhood and, although highly suspicious of it, is prepared to reach understandings with it. The Egyptians are taking advantage of Hamas’ weakness and its dependence on the Rafah Border Crossing as its only connection to the outside world. They deal harshly with it, demand it cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and extradite Sinai terrorists taking shelter in Gaza, and those suspected of abetting them. The Egyptians created a buffer zone on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border, flooded the smuggling tunnels with seawater, and succeeded in significantly diminishing arms smuggling into Gaza through Sinai. In order to appease the Egyptians, Hamas has also begun establishing a buffer zone on its side of the border in order to deny terrorists free passage and to prevent arms from flowing from Gaza into Sinai.

Hamas, which is under heavy external pressure (from Israel and Egypt), is also the object of domestic criticism and unrest over the ruins that remain from Protective Edge in 2014, the poverty and continued siege, the harsh economic conditions, and high unemployment (in the 20-24 age cohort, unemployment in Gaza stands at 67 percent while it is 30 percent in the West Bank). Gazans have access to electricity just a few hours each day, and the quality of their water is getting worse. At the same time, Hamas rewards its cronies with housing and jobs, and siphons off part of the international humanitarian aid coming into Gaza for its own uses. The situation is dire and leaves a fertile ground for the rise of more extremists Jihadist groups.

The difficult situation in Gaza has been exacerbated in the months since Abu Mazen decided to take advantage of Hamas’ strategic weakness and pressure it into accepting his terms for a reconciliation. He presented this to the Trump administration as evidence of his efforts in the war against Islamic terror.

Abu Mazen is fighting against Hamas with economic pressure on Gaza. He cut the salaries of PA employees in Gaza, stopped payments to Gaza’s health system, and aggravated the existing electricity crisis by withholding payments to Israel for the power it supplies to Gaza (30 percent of Gaza’s electricity comes from Israel).

Egypt and Muhammad Dahlan, Abu Mazen’s political nemesis, brokered a deal with Hamas, in which Egypt will help ease the electricity and medicine shortages and reconstruct the Rafah Crossing with an aim to reopen it. In exchange, Hamas agreed to establish a buffer zone on its border with Sinai (mostly to cut off ties between Gaza and ISIS in Sinai). To Abu Mazen’s dismay, this allowed Dahlan to deepen his involvement in Gaza’s affairs. Hamas’ readiness to accept this deal is also partly the result of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to isolate Qatar, which has the side effect of causing the Gaza Strip and Hamas harm through the drying up of an important funding source.

Hamas generally works to maintain quiet on its border with Israel, but at the same time encourages terrorist acts from the West Bank. Recent rocket fire from Gaza has usually been launched by rebel jihadi groups, but the danger of an escalation leading to a military conflict with Hamas hovers in the air. The IDF assesses that a military conflict is a possibility given the harsh economic situation in the Gaza and the comprehensive Israeli program to uncover and block terror tunnels into Israel, which deprives Hamas of a strategic asset.