In the occupied Palestinian territories – especially East Jerusalem and the West Bank – 2023 is shaping up to be a volatile year. As a consequence, the normally sacrosanct US-Israeli relationship is headed into unusually choppy waters. The current flare-up of deadly violence will be hard to contain and the real question is, how bad will things get?
Last year was the most violent one in the West Bank since 2005, when the UN began keeping records of Palestinians killed there by Israeli occupation forces. Among the victims was the noted American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who had been infuriating Israeli authorities for decades with her coverage of the occupation.
Despite a simmering insurgency among largely unaffiliated armed Palestinian youth gangs such as the “Lion's Den”, which emerged in response to routine Israeli attacks, especially night raids into supposedly autonomous Palestinian towns, relations between the US and Israel remained largely unaffected. Both US President Joe Biden and the Israeli coalition government led by former prime minister Naftali Bennett had every interest in supporting each other by not making waves in the bilateral relationship.
Lurking in the background was the mutually feared and loathed right-wing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. In December, Mr Netanyahu pieced together the most extreme right-wing government in Israel's history, bringing to power religious and nationalist extremists who have heretofore been considered anathema even by the Israeli far right.
Some of these figures, such as the new minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, appeared delighted by the sudden opportunity to throw petrol on the smouldering embers. Within days of his appointment, he made an official visit to the highly volatile Haram Al Sharif compound, which seemed modelled on Ariel Sharon’s similar intrusion in 2000 that sparked the second intifada.
That came just a few weeks after the Oslo peace process hit a dead end at the ill-fated and ill-conceived Camp David summit in July 2000. And since the equally ill-advised and quixotic quest for a meaningful Israeli settlement freeze during Barack Obama's first term as US president, even the simulation of negotiations has been dropped.
Instead, for the past 23 years, the Israeli political scene has been moving relentlessly away from any pretence of a commitment to a two-state solution and instead towards annexation, possibly combined with some level of expulsion of Palestinians from parts of the West Bank to be officially merged with Israel.
Mr Netanyahu's new government says that it is preparing to transfer key governance powers in the occupied territories from the occupation Civil Administration to new ultra-right-wing Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich. The Israeli government's own senior legal advisers have warned that much of the rest of the world, including the International Court of Justice, would be likely to view such a step as de facto annexation – and rightly so.
While Israeli politics have been moving steadily towards annexation, Palestinian politics are just dead in the water. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Palestinian Authority gambled everything on negotiating a two-state solution with the Israelis, who have apparently lost any inclination to move in that direction. They have yet to identify an alternative. And Hamas, which rules Gaza, has no answer other than the catastrophic and corrupt extremist misrule on full and horrifying display in the Palestinian enclave.
Yet a new generation of Palestinians that lacks any memory of how damaging and self-defeating the second intifada was and has grown up without any framework of hope for citizenship – in whatever country – and basic human rights, let alone self-determination, finally appears to be taking the initiative. Believing they have nothing to lose and unmoored from attachment to established and discredited political movements, both secular and extremist from the PLO to Hamas and even Palestinian Islamic Jihad, these angry and desperate young men are playing their gruesome roles in a tragedy of grim inevitability.
Human beings, no matter their ethnicity, culture or religion, simply will not accept a long-term and open-ended future of total subordination to another people, especially in their own land and in relatively equal numbers. The violent relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is hard-wired and structural. A reversal of this essential relationship of dominance and subordination between the two identity groups would produce roughly the same behaviours on both sides.
The deepest tragedy is that the Israeli extreme right seems to be counting on Palestinian rage and desperation to provide them with the opportunity to go as far as they can in their twin goals of annexation and expulsion. Not only will Israel impose the usual collective punishments of home demolitions and mass lockdowns following the recent violent Palestinian attacks (though never in response to Jewish ones), but extremist cabinet ministers have also demanded official recognition for a set of unauthorised settlement outposts “in retaliation” for attacks against Israelis.
Never mind that there is no logical connection whatsoever between any rational response to violence and recognising wildcat settlements. It is just an excuse. Unfortunately, the enraged Palestinian youths involved are not likely to reflect on what else they could provide the rationalisation for as reciprocal violence intensifies.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who visited the region this week, knows that he and Mr Biden have little leverage over Mr Netanyahu, especially since they seem to be oddly disinclined to so much as fortnightly acknowledge that Palestinians are suffering under a military occupation. The Israeli Prime Minister, in turn, has little leverage over his more radical cabinet colleagues. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has, if anything, even less leverage over the youths driving the Palestinian side of the cycle of violence that Israeli extremists are counting on.
The US is right to show concern, but neither side is really listening. The past 10 years suggest that, as things stand, Israel can be slowed, but not deterred, from creeping steadily towards annexation, and always intensifying the status quo of systematic, formalised inequality between Jews and Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Many Jewish and other Americans, especially Democrats, are increasingly unable to support or ignore this reality, especially since it is coupled with efforts by fundamentalists in Israel to exclude many Jewish Americans from the Israeli or even Jewish fold on denominational or ancestral grounds.
Republicans, driven by apocalyptic evangelical Christians, may not care, but as long as the US has a Democratic administration and Israel has a fundamentalist, racist and annexationist government, the traditionally inviolable “special relationship” will be imperilled.
Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden and Mr Blinken will strive to paper over this growing schism, but it’s likely to grow considerably wider by the end of this dangerous year.