Results: TSI Public Opinion Survey
An exclusive analysis written for the Two-State Index
by Neri Zilber

Journalist, Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute,
and Policy Advisor at Israel Policy Forum
Across the world, with the pandemic still very much with us, the heated debate at the turn of the new year was whether the past year (2021) was better or worse than the annus horribilis that preceded it (2020).

In terms of the prospects for a viable political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the answer should be clear.

2020 saw the near annihilation of a realistic two-state framework at the hands of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu – via the combined “Deal of the Century” and West Bank annexation bid – along with the severing of ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Fast forward just over twelve months, and the political backdrop to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed dramatically, and for the better. This is not to say that a two-state solution is near. But the changes that have occurred were necessary to – at minimum – keep the window open for a negotiated agreement in future.

The first and most obvious positive shift in 2021 was the Biden administration taking office and beginning to mend some of the damage wrought by its predecessor. US policy has reverted back to its traditional lines in favor of a (genuine) two-state solution and against West Bank settlement construction, which is again viewed as playing a detrimental role. U.S. vigilance, up to the highest levels of the administration, helped to stymie several mooted Israeli settlement plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

American and Palestinian officials are once more talking and meeting, and the U.S. has restored much of the financial assistance to the Palestinians cut in the Trump years. Unlike the Trump administration, which heavily favored Israeli claims, the Biden team is calling for “equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity” for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

It may not be the heavy and near-daily U.S. involvement of the past – i.e. a Peace Process – but it’s a policy more attuned to current political realities in both Israel and Palestine, to say nothing of present-day Washington. 
President Abbas meets with US National Security Adviser Sullivan in Ramallah, December 22, 2021. (Photo credit: Wafa)
The second positive shift of the past year took place inside Israel. Netanyahu’s long reign came to an end in June as he was replaced by a heterogeneous coalition spanning the ideological gamut. Former settler leader Naftali Bennett – an avowed opponent of a Palestinian state – became prime minister, but the largest party in the government is the one headed by the alternate prime minister (and foreign minister) Yair Lapid, a centrist supporter of a two-state solution.

Leftwing parties Labor and Meretz were also returned to power after years in the political wilderness, while for the first time in history an independent Arab-Israeli party – the Islamist Ra’am faction – officially joined a governing coalition.

The impact of this latter move cannot be overstated: the taboo against Arab-Israeli parties supporting a government was finally broken, and with that the structural advantage in the Knesset held by the Israeli Right in its two-decade long alliance with the ultra-Orthodox factions. At least in theory, the Israeli Center and Left – in partnership with Arab-Israeli parties – could in future attain a parliamentary majority on their own (with all that would entail for diplomacy with the Palestinians).

In terms of policy, this new Israeli coalition was clearly not going to engage in renewed peace talks nor start dismantling settlements. But nor was it going to determinedly expand Israel’s West Bank footprint given internal left-wing opposition and external U.S. pressure. Instead, a stated policy of “shrinking the conflict” was undertaken vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.

Spearheaded by centrist Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the steps taken so far have been modest: nearly 20,000 more work permits for Palestinians inside Israel, the granting of legal status for thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, tentative Palestinian construction allowances in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank, and hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to shore up the PA’s finances.

More clearly needs to be done if Israel is sincere in lowering friction in the West Bank, especially as it relates to spiking settler violence, continued home demolitions, and often deadly Israeli military actions in Palestinian areas. Yet the wider strategic change in Israel’s approach to the Palestinians does seem genuine.

If under Netanyahu the moderates in Ramallah were shunted aside and taken for granted, the new Israeli government views bolstering the PA as, in Gantz’s words, “a value of the highest importance.” Gantz has met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas twice, including hosting him at his home in central Israel – the Palestinian leader’s first official meeting inside Israel in over a decade. Other Israeli ministers have also met with senior Palestinian officials, and the overall relationship between the two sides is now more rational and hopeful than at any point in years.

Thirty-sixth government of Israel (Photo credit: Haim Tzach/GPO)
The third development over the past year, and the least positive, is the continued stasis with regard to internal Palestinian politics. The octogenarian Abbas still rules in the West Bank, with no signs of relinquishing power nor preparing a cogent succession plan. Elections that he called early last year were abruptly canceled on the eve of the vote in May, scuttling both much-needed democratic reform and potentially a mending of the schism with Hamas in Gaza.

The eleven-day conflict between Israel and Hamas that broke out weeks later only heightened Hamas’ popularity amongst Palestinians at the expense of Abbas and his Fatah party. The militant Islamist group was viewed as the true “defenders of Jerusalem,” with sporadic protests supporting Hamas breaking out in Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound and on the streets of West Bank cities.

The best that can be said is that despite all these political setbacks and growing public disenchantment, Abbas and Fatah seem to have weathered the (multiple) storms, staying in power and upholding security coordination with Israel. Widespread anger at both the PA and the ongoing Israeli occupation have not led (yet) to total breakdown and a full-scale uprising. The worst that can be said is that this is an extremely low bar for progress, let alone stability.

Taken as a whole, the above developments won’t satisfy anyone who wants an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as first steps towards restoring some hope in a two-state solution they were essential.

The coming year could prove to be crucial as Abbas nears the inevitable end of his rule, with questions remaining about both the identity and future policy of his successors. Will the next Palestinian leader remain similarly committed to diplomacy, non-violence, and the two-state framework? Much will depend on the progress that is made between now and then.

Israel’s own internal politics will also play a critical role, with questions abounding about the staying power of the current Bennett-Lapid coalition – especially if Netanyahu ultimately retires from political life. Will a right-wing government again take power, or will Lapid rotate into the premiership next year as planned?

The positive trends of the past year were a reprieve and a moment of damage mending. Hopefully moderates in both Israel and Palestine build on them to improve conditions on-the-ground, as well as bolster their own domestic positions in 2022 and beyond. Any future diplomatic process towards a genuine two-state solution requires it.
Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a policy advisor at Israel Policy Forum. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. You can follow him on Twitter here: @NeriZilber
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of H.L. Education for Peace-GI or the Palestinian Peace Coalition-GI.
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The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.

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