Israeli-Palestinian Violence is a Failure of Political Leadership on Both Sides

October 21, 2015

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets tomorrow with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later this week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah, aiming to find ways to tamp down the horrible wave of violence and terrorism that has erupted in Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and around Israel.

Tragically, many Israelis and Palestinians have lost faith that diplomacy can help the current situation. Never have the political leaders on all sides seemed more helpless and less relevant to what is happening on the ground. Kerry’s challenge is to prove them wrong.

The hopelessness and rage pervading both communities speaks for a terrible failure of political leadership from both sides. Netanyahu and Abbas both seem intent on telling their own people that they are the victim and the other side the aggressor. Both seem more anxious to apportion blame and boost their domestic standing than end the violence.

There is plenty of blame to go around and one can only sympathize with ordinary Israelis who feel profoundly shocked, scared and vulnerable after a series of murderous knife attacks on their streets. But responsible political leadership surely has to be about more than just blaming the other side.

Since Kerry’s peace initiative collapsed in April 2014, leaders from all sides have stepped back and allowed the situation to drift and fester. We witnessed an awful war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last summer, which was allowed to drag on for seven weeks – and since then virtually nothing.

Netanyahu won a tough election campaign in March during which he vowed that there would never be a Palestinian state while he was Israeli Prime Minister. Again this week, in a speech to the World Zionist Congress, Netanyahu declared that Abbas was no partner and that if Palestinians wanted a state at all, it was only as a staging post to eventually destroy Israel.

“They don’t want a state to end the conflict; because they want a state to continue the conflict and eradicate the Jewish state. This is what this conflict has always been about,” Netanyahu said. And the Holocaust rhetoric has been ramped up, too; in the same WZC speech, Netanyahu blamed the Mufti of Jerusalem for convincing Hitler to exterminate Jews.

Abbas meanwhile has praised Palestinian “martyrs” who attack Jews and has accused Israel of wanting to usurp Muslim claims to the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif. He referred to Jews desecrating the Al Aksa mosque with their “dirty feet.” He has also claimed that Israelis wrongfully killed Palestinian assailants, including a boy who turned out to be alive and cared for in an Israeli hospital.

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency poured flames on the fire, passing an irresponsible and one-sided resolution condemning the “aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967.” The resolution also recognized Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as Muslim sites without mentioning their deep significance for Jews.

Playing the blame game is the easy way out because it excuses the political leaders of both sides from actually doing anything. If one side is totally innocent and the other totally guilty, then why do anything to fix the situation?

This is wrong. There are things both sides can and should do. This is where Kerry can play a constructive role. He is trying to hammer out a formula that both sides would accept that would enshrine the status quo on the Temple Mount. That may help calm the situation in the short term.

For the longer term, he should also consider pressing Israel to take steps to address the appalling poverty and economic stagnation affecting the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. He should demand that Palestinian leaders clamp down on the appalling anti-Semitic depictions spread on their media. He should tell them to condemn and actively discourage their own young people from undertaking meaningless random acts of murder aimed at Israeli civilians.

Once again, the United States finds itself the indispensible actor. The two sides are drowning in mutual hatred. They need someone to throw them a lifeline. And they need leaders ready to grasp it.