Religious-Nationalist Obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian Political Talks

By Jeremy Pressman

Disclaimer: These opinion pieces represent the authors’ personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Norwich University or PAWC.

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While there has been much focus on what comes after the current Israeli-Palestinian war, I find it hard to imagine how to circumvent the major domestic political obstacle in each society. The religious-nationalist camp in both Israeli and Palestinian society are opposed to negotiations and mutual concessions.

If Israel’s Netanyahu government, or a successor with similar views, stays in power, you can’t settle the Israel-Palestine problem; instead, you get endless fighting. Israel is the more powerful actor, and it controls the territory, the law, and Palestinian society. To reach a two-state solution, the government of Israel would have to make territorial concessions; to reach a one-state solution, it would have to make political and rights-based concessions. More generally, it would have to accept that the Palestinian people are a national people deserving of the right to national self-determination or full political equality.

But that is not going to happen. The current Israeli government views pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank (what it calls Judea & Samaria), and, for some members, the Gaza Strip, all as part of the Jewish State. In 2018, a previous Netanyahu government passed the Nation State Law, proclaiming that “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.” The law’s wording further rejected the idea that the Palestinian people have any legitimate national-territorial claim: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” When the current government was formed in December of last year, its basic principles were even more explicit: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” The word exclusive, too, rules out any meaningful Palestinian future.

If Hamas stays in power, the possibility of settling the Israel-Palestine problem is unlikely. Even with their modifications of the Hamas charter in 2017, they noted that “Palestine is the land of the Arab Palestinian people” but that it “was seized by a racist, anti-human and colonial Zionist.” Their goal is “to liberate Palestine.”

But unlike the government of Israel, Hamas currently does not control the territory, the law, and Palestinian society. Moreover, since Hamas is one of several Palestinian actors, not a national government, circumvention might be possible. By that, I mean that a willing third-party mediator, working with an Israeli government that supported negotiations and concessions, could seek to bypass Hamas and work with a different Palestinian actor like the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, or the Palestine Liberation Organization. If such talks witnessed early success, especially in the West Bank, and a genuine political horizon appeared, Hamas might lose further Palestinian support.

In some sense, this would be a direct reversal of Netanyahu’s policies, through which he worked with Hamas in order to keep Palestinians divided and to block any more toward negotiations and mutual concessions, especially in a two-state guise. As Netanyahu told his Likud party’s Knesset members in March 2019: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas… This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

Why would exclusionary Israeli governments that rejected Palestinian peoplehood face endless fighting, as I wrote above? Because the history of nationalism suggests that the one who denies a nationalist claim, especially the claim of a nationalist movement whose statehood has been recognized by over 130 countries, faces a violent backlash. To maintain its superior position, Israel would continue to suppress Palestinians and their political organizations. The suppression itself would likely lead more Palestinians to violent pushback.

For the past decade plus, the Israeli government has 1) aggressively expanded settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, 2) used force to keep down Palestinians, including aerial bombing of Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, 2021, and 3) rejected the idea of Palestinian national rights. In previous years, Israel used systems like Iron Dome to blunt Hamas rocket attacks. But in 2023, this three-part Israeli approach culminated in a calamity, a Hamas attack with 1,200 Israelis and others dead, many wounded, sexual assaults, and approximately 240 hostages. Many Israeli Jews equated the attack with the worst tragedy in Jewish history, the Holocaust.

So if the future Israeli government policy is 1) aggressively expand in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, 2) use force to keep down Palestinians, and 3) reject the idea of Palestinian national rights, we should expect similar violent outcomes. But given the downward spiral, especially represented by Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2021 and 2023, each subsequent battle might be even worse, with higher casualties and even more suffering. Imagine, for example, if Israel starts to push for the permanent displacement of large segments of the Palestinian population in Gaza. Imagine a Hamas-like attack but in the West Bank’s intermingled Israeli settlements and Palestinians towns and cities.

In sum, as Etgar Keret, the Israeli novelist, noted: “And we get this very, very simple lesson: If you occupy people, if you put them in a cage, in the end, they’re going to break that cage and go for your throat. If you let them live in a dignified way, at least there is a chance.”

Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right have hoped that Palestinians would permanently accept subordinate status, but that is not a viable solution. The Likud Party has long sought to grant the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza local autonomy, but not territorial sovereignty or national rights. The Camp David Accords (1978) even offered a pathway to Palestinian autonomy. And for just as long, the Palestinians have rejected such secondary status. The PLO’s acceptance of the Oslo process in 1993 indicates Palestinian interlocutors might accept limits, but those limits are far afield from the core constraints Likud imagines for Palestinians. For example, Palestinian leaders in 2000 would not accept a compromise proposal for Jerusalem where they had no sovereignty in inner East Jerusalem. Why would they accept a Likud approach where they had no sovereignty anywhere, period?

Israelis could oust Netanyahu for pursuing polices that contributed to the greatest security debacle and fear-inducing event in Israel’s history. It happened on his watch, in part as a result of his policies. But will they also shift toward rejecting the Likud’s 15-year political and security approach? I am skeptical, but it remains to be seen how such a traumatic and nationalist period will play out inside the Israeli body politic. Grassroots groups are trying to reach across the divide, but the divide seems as wide as it has ever been.

Jeremy Pressman is a professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium and a fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. His books include /The Sword is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force/ (2020).