2021-09-30 17:15:40 ‘Shrinking the Conflict’: What Does Israel’s New Mantra Really Mean?

‘Shrinking the Conflict’: What Does Israel’s New Mantra Really Mean?

JERUSALEM (JTA) — In Jerusalem, a new three-word concept is taking root in political and diplomatic discourse: shrinking the conflict.

The idea is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved anytime soon because the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are too divided to even restart peace talks, let alone reach a peace agreement. However, Israel can work to lessen the impact of the century-long conflict on Palestinians, increasing the likelihood of peace.

The argument goes that if the conflict cannot be resolved, it can at least be reduced.

Since Naftali Bennett took over as Israel’s prime minister in June, the idea has gained traction. In a speech to Parliament on the day he took office, he promised to contribute to “the reduction of friction and the shrinking of the conflict.”

In a meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken two weeks later, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid pledged to “minimize” the conflict.

The term is not used by the State Department, but its logic is channeled through its officials. They avoid calls for negotiations to resume, instead advocating for policies that ensure Palestinians and Israelis have “equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity,” as Mr. Blinken put it in May.

To its supporters, “shrinking the conflict” is a welcome paradigm shift after Mr. Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure brought the peace process to a halt. In 2014, negotiations to establish a Palestinian state stalled, and Mr. Netanyahu became more dismissive of Palestinian sovereignty. Mr. Bennett, too, opposes the idea of a Palestinian state, but his supporters argue that he is working to improve Palestinians’ lives.

According to its detractors, the new mantra is simply a repackaging of Israel’s decades-old approach to the Palestinians. They portray it as a clever public relations strategy that obscures a long-standing intention by successive Israeli leaders, including Mr. Bennett, to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, thereby entrenching Israel’s presence there and making it more difficult to end the 54-year occupation.

Micah Goodman, an Israeli philosopher and unofficial adviser to Mr. Bennett, coined the phrase.

“We were trapped in a false dichotomy for the past 12 years,” Mr. Goodman explained in a recent interview. “There were attempts to end the conflict, and when they failed, we chose not to intervene.”

He argued in articles for The Atlantic and The New York Times that there is another way. Even in the absence of a peace agreement and without withdrawing from the West Bank, the government could take concrete steps to promote “Palestinian economic independence and prosperity.”

Mr. Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “Shrinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not solve or end the conflict.” “It would contain it and lessen it. It would increase Palestinians’ freedom of movement, development, and prosperity.”

So far, the Bennett government’s efforts to improve the status quo have included promises to provide 4G mobile internet to Palestinians in the West Bank, to reduce the number of Israeli army raids in the nearly 40% of the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority, and to potentially build nearly 900 new Palestinian homes in Israeli-controlled areas.

The Bennett government has also loaned $156 million to the Palestinian government to help it survive a financial crisis, allowed an additional 15,000 Palestinians to work in Israel, and promised to regularize the status of thousands of West Bank Palestinians who lack proper documentation. After years of strained relations under Mr. Netanyahu, public contact between Israeli and Palestinian officials has increased since Mr. Bennett took office.

In an August interview with The Times, Mr. Bennett explained his strategy, saying, “They’re not going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere — we’re here together, stuck.” But what do we do now? Economies, Economies, Economies.”

He stated that “if people have a good future, a reasonable job, can provide for their family with dignity, and send their children to good schools,” this will be “way more important than dealing with the usual stuff that got us nowhere.”

These are welcome measures, according to Mr. Goodman, but they are not what he meant when he first wrote about “shrinking the conflict” in 2019.

Mr. Goodman’s vision was to expand Palestinian self-rule rather than simply improve the quality of Palestinian life. He proposed broadening the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction, allowing Palestinian officials to allocate more land for construction projects. In addition, he proposed establishing a network of Palestinian-patrolled highways in the West Bank to allow Palestinians to travel without spending hours at Israeli checkpoints.

All of this, according to Mr. Goodman, could be accomplished without returning to negotiations and without addressing more contentious issues such as the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

“Many journalists around the world believe that shrinking the conflict means making life easier and better for Palestinians,” he said. “I am completely in favor of that. That’s fantastic. But that is not at the heart of the shrinking-the-conflict paradigm shift. The goal of reducing the conflict is to increase Palestinian self-government. It is about expanding Palestinian freedom — freedom to build and freedom to move.”

Mr. Bennett’s detractors argue that he is more interested in ignoring the conflict than in shrinking it.

He made no mention of the Palestinians in his speech to the United Nations on Monday.

While some of his policies aim to reduce tensions in the West Bank, others continue practices that have exacerbated, rather than reduced, the conflict.

The government’s plan to construct nearly 900 new Palestinian homes was accompanied by an offer to construct nearly three times as many Israeli homes in the occupied territories. Critics claimed that the settlement expansion would make it much more difficult to establish a contiguous Palestinian state, making a peace agreement even less likely.

During protests, clashes, and confrontations, the military has continued to use live fire. According to United Nations data, 20 Palestinian civilians have been killed since Mr. Bennett took office, more than three times the number killed in the previous three years.

The Bennett administration has also allowed public Jewish prayer at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, a policy that began under Mr. Netanyahu in secret and threatens a delicate arrangement aimed at keeping the peace at one of the most contentious sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to a recent Palestinian poll, more than half of Palestinians are generally pleased with new policies aimed at making their lives easier, but a similar number also supports armed resistance against the occupation.

According to Mairav Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, Israel’s military presence in the West Bank makes it difficult to end the conflict.

“While Bennett’s policy of reducing the conflict with the Palestinians seeks to keep the West Bank quiet by alleviating some of the most egregious Israeli restrictions on Palestinian livelihood,” she said, “Israel’s permanent occupation of the West Bank remains an impediment to that goal.” “There can be no economic peace or stability while Israel is occupied, because occupation prioritizes Israeli interests, resources, and expansionism over everything else.”

Jonathan Shamir contributed to this report.

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‘Shrinking the Conflict’: What Does Israel’s New Mantra Really Mean?