Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has set off a firestorm in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Across the spectrum, states, terrorist organizations and U.S allies have repudiated the move as a threat to the peace process or a provocation. Protests have erupted in the West Bank and Gaza with some Palestinian factions calling the move a “declaration of war and Hamas calling for a third Intifada.” Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat went as far as to declare it the end of the decades long U.S brokered peace process and refused further negotiations until the decision is reversed. PA President Mahmoud Abbas made his own fiery speech denouncing the move and proclaiming Jerusalem to be the “Capital of Palestine” (fun fact. I got slightly nauseous typing that).
Most of the rhetoric has the appearance of bluster or outright fantasy given the Palestinian position. The Palestinians have very little leverage over Israel, which has military, economic and diplomatic advantages that exceed them by several orders of magnitude.
On the military side, Israel has shown the capability to suppress any violence in the West Bank or Gaza; Demonstrating time and time again that attempting to use violence will backfire horrendously. The 2014 war ,for example,showed just how much power the IDF could bring to bear in just six weeks and just how little Hamas could achieve. Fighting another war, a weakened Hamas would be at an even greater disadvantage. Not only would Israel be able to blast apart the Gaza strip, but fighting a war in the dead of winter would not be advisable given the tenuous state of Gaza’s infrastructure.
On the diplomatic front the Arab world is divided. Iran’s rise has fueled cooperation with Israel even in the absence of a formal peace. Many nations like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have a need for Israeli intelligence and security. Other countries like Turkey regularly trade with the Israelis and even buy weapons from them. Israel is in fact one of the world preeminent traders of arms with 6.5 billion dollars worth of exports in 2017 to everywhere from Turkey to Thailand.
In addition to the defense sector the Israeli economy is growing rapidly. Information and “High Tech” (as my Israeli economics professor called it) are fueling much this growth. Many people use Israeli technology in laptops and smartphones without realizing it. The processor in my laptop was designed with the help of Intel’s Haifa office and the Waze app is popular among many cab and Uber drivers.
With a nominal GDP around $320 billion dollars Israel is now the 33rd wealthiest nation on earth, despite having a population of only 8.5 million. Per Capita, Israel is now richer than France, Italy, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Japan and Israel’s former colonial overload Britain, are only slightly ahead.
Because of this rapid economic growth, Israel’s defense budget, which once consumed a whole third of the economy, now only accounts for 5.6 percent and has been dropping even as the IDF acquires more advanced capabilities and continues to battle militants on its borders.
What these facts suggest to me is that the current peace process is fundamentally flawed. One of the assumptions made for Israeli-Arab peace process was that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be mutually beneficial. Normalization with the Arab world would alleviate Israel’s security problems with its neighbors and lead to increased prosperity for both parties.
The problem is that even in the absence of a real peace process this has already happened. Israel is now a rich nation whose neighbors depend on it for security even if they won’t admit it openly. The Palestinian cause has become mostly a political talking point rather than a rallying cry for Arabs. For instance, the Saudi Kingdom’s response to Trump’s declaration focused much more on the peace process than Israeli control of Jerusalem. Some reports (add grain of salt here) even claim that they are still willing to cooperate with the Trump administrations peace plan.
Even the threat from Hamas is getting weaker. With the deployment of the Iron Dome the Qassam rocket is no longer as effective as it once was. The terror tunnels too are giving way to new border monitoring technology that has allowed Israel to systematically destroy tunnel networks and stop militant infiltration.
With this situation in mind, there really is no incentive for the Israelis to negotiate. Why would Israel give up territory for a peace that does nothing for them? Especially since their advantage is increasing as time goes on. As the dynamic sits now; the longer the conflict lasts the more leverage the Israel gains.
These gains have been piling up for many years and have now tipped the scales decisively in favor of Israel. The idea that the World can treat the Israelis and Palestinians as equals at the negotiating table is now obsolete. The Arab world is no longer willing to balance against what is now one of the richest and strongest nations in the Middle East.
The Palestinians don’t seem to realize this and, although clearly in no condition to make demands, they are now doing just that. This is either because they don’t realize just how bad their position is or because they are trying to save face. In any case, nothing they have threatened to do would actually benefit them. They need Israeli security and U.S money to keep them afloat. No one is going to save them.
The only way the conflict is going to be resolved is if the world accepts this reality. The Israelis are clearly the stronger party and trying to treat them and an isolated Palestinian proto-state as equals will not produce a result. The Israelis have no incentive to negotiate when the Palestinians cannot offer anything in return. Even the promise of a stable West Bank is not certain.
To this end I suggest that other Arab and Islamic nations stop lying to Palestinians about their prospects. No, Israel is not going to commit demographic suicide by allowing millions of Arabs into the pre-1948 borders. No, The Jews are not leaving Jerusalem or giving up access to the holy sites, and no, there is no one for one deal on land swaps.
What the Palestinians can get is a demilitarized state in the West Bank to call their own. A place that will be unoccupied and mostly sovereign. To do that they must first admit defeat and negotiate based on their actual position. The more time that passes the more powerful Israel is likely to become and the less willing they will be to accept an offer.
This process must be brokered by America. There is no other nation or group of nations with enough clout in the Middle East to bring the sides together. Yes, the process will favor Israel, but that is mostly a result of the situation in general favoring Israel. The goal will still be two-states for two peoples, but the pretense that these states are going to negoiate as equals on the basis of fifty year-old borders needs to be put to rest.