As much of the world enters what may well prove a prolonged period of grave uncertainty in international relations—fundamentally triggered by the election of a US president with no clearly defined foreign policy and no foreign policy experience—Israel and the Palestinians alike confront especially fraught uncertainty. For those committed to a two-state solution, the only means by which both parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can accommodate their national ambitions, matters are if anything still more serious.
Given that speculation about an unreadable near-term US foreign policy future is likely to accomplish nothing, one might wish that those on the ground in Palestine could settle for now for modest steps with the potential to improve living conditions and reduce mistrust. Unfortunately, the trial balloons being launched by president elect Trump’s advisors and the opportunistic pronouncements by members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government are instead further destabilizing the situation. On the one hand we have Trump surrogates suggesting new US tolerance for illegal settlements; on the other hand we have Naftali Bennett announcing that the two-state solution is dead.
In fact, as Deferred Dreams: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel demonstrates, the underlying and long-established structural conditions that must shape any resolution of the conflict remain unchanged. And the solutions most likely to accommodate both parties are if anything more clear and more fully worked out than they were even a few years ago. All of that is detailed and made readily accessible in the book.
One long-standing principle guiding negotiations has been the expectation that Jerusalem would be divided between West and East to become a capital city for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The US has long owned a plot of land in the Western part of the city destined to be the site of a new US embassy, with legislation already authorizing the embassy’s move from Tel Aviv approved years earlier. But a series of US presidents have exercised a delaying exception built into the law. It is too soon to know whether the incoming Trump administration will follow the delaying pattern or act on its campaign promise to trigger the move. Absent a peace agreement or a clear and binding administration commitment to a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighborhoods, such a move could well produce violent demonstrations both in the city itself and in the West Bank. Arab countries that have had their attention focused elsewhere would likely join in the unrest.
But Israel as well could act decisively to trigger protests on yet another front. A bill that would legalize previously illegal settlements and outposts is under consideration in the Knesset as of late 2016. While much radical legislation in Israel dies without advancing to final passage, the governing conservative coalition may be emboldened to act by the results of the US election and the remarks of Trump surrogates. Though the Obama administration has been unable to get serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians under way, it has largely constrained the Israeli right from formally annexing additional territory or changing the status of illegal settlements.
While it may be difficult for most Americans to realize it, many in the Israeli government are further to the right than the Prime Minister. They are obviously already pressuring Netanyahu to embrace settlement expansion more broadly, and, with Trump soon to take office, Netanyahu can no longer invoke the risk of angering an anti-settlement US administration as a way to constrain his coalition partners. Netanyahu himself seems mainly devoted to maintaining the status quo, despite its unjust treatment of Palestinians and its corrupting influence on Israel proper. As we look toward 2017, however, it appears the status quo may be difficult to sustain.
Meanwhile, conditions are already sufficient to make the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement more determined to promote real and symbolic actions against the Jewish state. Trump’s election alone is sufficient to motivate some on the American left to join with BDS and support divestment resolutions on campus or in Protestant religious denominations. The pressure to “do something” in the face of political disenfranchisement and impotence will increase. Further developments along the lines described above would build support for a boycott of Israeli universities in the US and Europe.
There is also already a struggle under way among a wide range of nongovernmental political groups, including those focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to capture prime positions within the vanguard of the post-election anti-Trump insurgency. Both those supporting a two-state solution, and, oddly enough, those opposed to one have a route through fund raising and activism. Support for a one-state solution of course comes from extremes of both the right and the left, with the former drawn to a Greater Israel model and the latter calling for a Palestinian majority state, “free” from the river to the sea. With Trump’s initial appointments telegraphing his alt-right sympathies, pro-Palestinian one-staters may have the edge in promoting themselves as protest agents, though Greater Israel proponents will see a potential opportunity to capitalize on incoming administration policies. As is so often the case, the left will fragment, not coalesce, especially with such fundamental and irreconcilable differences at stake.
But 2017 adds yet another high risk element to the political mix, this time courtesy of the calendar. It is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war and thus the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. With no movement toward the end of the occupation in sight, it represents a bleak commemoration for Palestinians, and it only increases tensions for them to see Israelis celebrating it as the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. 2017 is also the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that first gave Jews real hope of establishing a fully realized state in their ancient homeland. The BDS movement is certain to use these commemorations as bitter lessons and organizing opportunities. Dreams Deferred for the first time breaks the BDS movement down into its several semi-independent components, which should be helpful in planning for 2017. There is no “one strategy fits all” in addressing BDS inroads into academia, the financial services industry, and Protestant churches.
While there are real uncertainties at issue in all these developments and little is guaranteed, the potential for a perfect storm in Palestine, at the point of their convergence, cannot be ignored. Our current responsibilities include both political organizing and education. Dreams Deferred is designed to make a contribution to the education agenda and that in turn informs organizing. Intensified struggles over issues ranging from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to the anti-normalization campaign will benefit from the separate essays in the book addressing these and other topics.
Cary Nelson is the author of Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel. He is a Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author or editor of 30 books. His op-eds have appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.