Israel is bracing for more Arab Spring showers this Sunday, as Palestinians plan to mark the June 5 anniversary of the 1967 war with a new round of protests. That war left Israel occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza (it also won control of Sinai, but returned that to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David agreement), which could be the focus of Sunday's actions. Just two weeks ago, on May 15, "Nakba Day' demonstrations saw Palestinian refugees trying to breach Israel's borders in protest against the confiscation of their families' homes in 1948 after the war that accompanied Israel's creation. As many as 16 Palestinians were killed in that day's protests, and the Israeli security forces hope to avoid a repeat, mindful of the political damage they suffer by firing on unarmed challengers.
The new wave of protests are a symptom of a post-peace process: Israelis and Palestinians both know that U.S.-led negotiations won't for the foreseeable future produce an agreement to end their conflict. Palestinians and much of the international community read Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent Washington speech as confirmation that Israel won't accept the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution, and they have abandoned hope that Washington will compensate for teh Palestinians' own surfeit of leverage at the negotiating table by pressuring Israel to concede.
As Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, two veterans of the Oslo process and among its most astute observers, wrote in January: "Almost two decades after the peace process was launched, little remains of the foundational principle that each side has something of value to which the other aspires and thus something it can offer in exchange for what it wants." While it continues to occupy Palestinian land and control Palestinian lives, there's little downside for the Israelis in a status quo that "although not as satisfactory as Israelis would like ... is not as unpleasant as their adversaries would wish".
While there's little impetus currently for a return to a strategy centered on violence in the Palestinian mainstream, President Mahmoud Abbas' mantra that "our choice is negotiation, negotiation and nothing but negotiation" has also exhausted its credibility in the eyes of his own people.
Thus the emerging motifs of a post-peace process Palestinian politics: a newfound independence from (and even defiance of) the restraints that Washington had imposed on Palestinian actions;
a search for new strategies of leverage and pressure that create a downside for the Israelis maintaining the status quo, while avoiding the trap of repeating the disastrous terror campaign of the Second Intifada that immeasurably strengthened Israel's political and diplomatic position; and
a generational and institutional shift, in line with the Arab democracy movement, that not only sees Abbas and his leadership circle gradually eased out, but also the eclipse of the Arafat model of national leadership that Abbas inherited.
The Fatah-Hamas rapprochement is a symptom of the first two elements, but it is unlikely to be the last word on the third actions such as the refugee protest and whatever transpires on Sunday are not reliant on the traditional central leadership of Fatah or Hamas; they are organized at grassroots level by new structures that sometimes involve local leaders of both movements, but also bring new actors into play.
The Palestinian leadership also demonstrated their independence from Washington by pressing ahead in February with a U.N. Security Council vote demanding a halt to Israeli settlements, which left the U.S. isolated when it vetoed a resolution deemed uncontroversial even by Washington's closest allies. And, of course, the U.N. may be the setting for a second major Palestinian act of diplomatic defiance of Washington's will, when the Palestinians seek recognition of their claim to statehood on the 1967 borders in September.
Washington has lost much of its ability to confine Palestinian actions to Israel's comfort zone, at the same time as its regional influence has plummeted most visibly in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the mainstay of Arab support for the U.S.-Israeli position. Cairo's role in brokering the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and its moves to ease the siege of Gaza portend a growing divergence in which an Egyptian government more responsive to its own citizenry than Mubarak ever was is more supportive of the Palestinians and independent of Washington.
It's not only on the Palestinian side of the equation that the foundation of the "peace process" as we've known it has crumbled. As former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy noted last week, Netanyahu who in the mid 1990s represented the right-wing opposition to the Oslo peace process has remained constant, but Israeli society has moved closer to his position rather than vice versa. "Israel's parliament, its politics, and its public discourse have all shifted to the right, in the direction of Netanyahu's Likud party," Levy wrote in Foreign Affairs. "The rump Zionist left-of-center in Israel's Knesset [the traditional 'peace camp'] has shriveled from 43 members in 1996 to just 11 today. The leaders of Israel's three largest political parties today Tzipi Livni of Kadima, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Netanyahu himself, the leader of Likud are all descendants of the revisionist or right-Zionist ideological tradition."
So, Netanyahu is on solid ground domestically in pushing back against the U.S. Levy also points out that the right-wing settlers who've always opposed a two-state solution are now a major force in Israel's government, and even more important, in its armed forces. The traditional assumption that the military could be relied on to evacuate settlements by force if necessary in the event of a peace treaty is questionable today. And just as the settlers have asserted their claims on the Israeli side, so have the refugees who still seek a return to lost homes and land inside Israel begun to press their own demands on the Palestinian leadership, making compromises on the refugee issue to which they had previously been amenable suddenly a far tougher sell.
We're into a new game, now, whose rules are undefined. The relative stability of the West Bank, for example, has been maintained by Palestinian security forces willing to suppress not only terrorism but also peaceful political protest dissent from challenging either Israel or the Palestinian Authority. But the U.S. officer in charge of standing up the Palestinian security forces, Gen. Keith Dayton, warned in 2009 that his men were willing to act against other Palestinians only because they understood themselves to be the security nucleus of a nascent Palestinian state. If no such state emerged within two years, he warned, their willingness to maintain security on Israel's behalf should not be assumed.
The failure of the peace process has pushed both sides into uncharted waters, carried by tides that are beyond their control. Sunday's demonstrations are not an isolated event, but part of an emerging trend in what promises to be a rough ride for the established leadership on both sides of the divide.