May 2021 was a consequential month in the more than a century-long contest between Jews and Arabs over how — or whether — to share the Holy Land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
The self-absorption of Israel’s politics, sharpened by four inconclusive elections in two years, has been blown apart — less by the 11-day armed conflict with Hamas in Gaza than by Palestinians, including those with Israeli citizenship, uniting in revolt across the entire area under Israel’s control.
These events have resurrected the political fortunes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s five-term premier, literally hours before it looked as though he would be dethroned.
Longer term, a rightwing-dominated Israeli political elite that assumed it had domesticated Palestinians by colonising their land is confronted with an uprising across Greater Israel, with Arab Israelis making common cause with their brethren under occupation. Having rejected a two-state solution — an independent Palestine alongside Israel — Israel’s politicians face having to manage a de facto single state. This has roughly equal Arab and Jewish populations, but with such disparity of rights it is described by critics as an apartheid state.
The idea that the occupation was somehow a settled issue that Palestinians had been forced to accept is over. Israel has never been held accountable for settling the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem after it conquered them in the 1967 six-day war. This month’s rebellion may change that.
Israel is now fighting a Palestinian revolt on three fronts: against Hamas, which controls Gaza and fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities and towns during the recent conflict; against Palestinians with Israeli nationality, now in vicious communal strife with their Jewish neighbours; and against Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu profits for now from the Gaza clash, the fourth war with Hamas since 2009. Yet he has discarded his diplomatic tools and, with the most powerful military in the region, looks unable to stop a rag-tag army firing outsized pipe bombs from a blockaded enclave.
A new generation of Palestinian activists is emerging within Israel as well as the occupied territories, independent of Fatah, the traditional nationalists, and Islamist Hamas. It has struck a chord internationally. As its leadership emerges, it will demand real elections, which have not been held in the occupied territories since 2006. These would bury a Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas, the discredited Palestinian leader who has limited powers and has just postponed polls again.
Jerusalem remains the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that no one can ignore. Former US president Donald Trump sought to do so by recognising it as Israel’s capital. Provocations in the city and its holy sites by Netanyahu’s extremist allies sparked the latest eruption.
It was always hubristic for Netanyahu and Trump to rip off the figleaf of a moribund peace process, under which the incremental dispossession of the Palestinians seemed to advance towards their capitulation. But creeping annexation has not translated into quiescence. The Palestinians have now coalesced on three fronts, as well as in the diaspora. The May 18 general strike of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem and, to a degree, in a Gaza devastated by Israeli bombardment, was a significant moment. Some observers say nothing like it has been seen since before the birth of Israel and the 1936 Arab Revolt.
The conversation on Israel-Palestine is changing. In the US, Jewish and Arab voices are saying enough is enough. Trump thought the conflict was about real estate. Netanyahu thought he had changed the region by rallying Arabs against Iran. Both are wrong.
The US under Joe Biden is edging close to retrieving the 2015 nuclear restraint deal Trump tore up. Among Netanyahu’s putative Arab allies, Saudi Arabia is seriously engaging with Iran on a modus vivendi, while the pragmatic United Arab Emirates is pulling back from conflicts in the region from Yemen to Libya. Egypt, nominally at peace with Israel since 1979 and heavily dependent on the Gulf since the military coup of 2013, is trying to retrieve its diplomatic lustre by brokering the Gaza ceasefire.
Across the Middle East ostensibly familiar furniture is moving amid the usual focus on tactics rather than long-term strategy. It is astonishing that a diverse Palestinian people has emerged resiliently in the vanguard of this shift. The region’s leaders are struggling to keep up, but change may at last be afoot.
Letter in response to this column:
Pakistan’s Sikh holy place has lessons for Jerusalem / From Randhir Singh Bains, Gants Hill, Essex, UK