The question is no longer whether a third intifada could happen, but what can be done to avert it. In a recent poll, 61% of Palestinians and 65% of Israeli Jews believed it was on the horizon. As violence escalates, the crisis of domestic political leadership demonstrates why others must step up; but Antony Blinken has demonstrated that no one should expect the US to do so. The secretary of state flew to the Middle East this week for talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president and prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Shtayyeh, but vague calls for calm won’t end the crisis.
Some have argued that a third intifada is under way already. Last year was the bloodiest on record in Israel and the West Bank and Jerusalem since the second intifada ended in 2005, with about 150 Palestinians and 30 Israelis killed, and another 49 Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip in August. Then, last Thursday, the deadliest Israeli army raid in the West Bank in decades killed 10 Palestinians. A day later, a Palestinian gunman shot dead seven Israelis outside a synagogue – the worst such terrorist attack in years. Further copycat and retaliatory attacks have followed.
The underlying issue is the ever remoter prospect of a two-state solution, which the US supports in name but does nothing to advance. Support for a two-state solution has shrunk dramatically among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, falling to its lowest level since polling began about two decades ago. With no viable path to their own state, Palestinians see settlements consume ever more land and little prospect of change to conditions which Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a UN rapporteur – as well as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem – have described as a form of apartheid, though distinct from that seen in South Africa.
Two developments heighten the current danger. The first is that illicit firearms are circulating far more widely in the West Bank. The second is the state of politics. Israel has the most far-right and anti-Arab government in its history. Its national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was once convicted of inciting racism; don’t expect an arsonist to douse the flames. On Sunday, he pledged to make it easier for Israeli civilians to carry guns. The government has set its sights on the judiciary, which could put at risk limited legal constraints on settlement expansion and facilitate annexation, and is pursuing collective punishment – illegal under international law – even more enthusiastically than before. Meanwhile, the ailing, unpopular Palestinian Authority has not held elections for 16 years and is seen by many as essentially Israel’s security contractor. Newer militias float free of both Fatah and Hamas. The real risk comes if political rhetoric supercharges acts of violence.
Joe Biden has given unstinting support to Israel throughout his political career, and as vice-president he saw the Obama administration’s half-hearted attempt to re-engage with the issue go down in flames. Dealing with Iran and maintaining pressure on Moscow are bigger priorities. Far from trying to rein in the Israeli government, the US – along with the UK and others – denounces Palestinians for attempting to pursue accountability in legal forums. Undemocratic Arab states have moved steadily closer to Israel. Escalating violence is not inevitable. But every sign points in the wrong direction, without anyone willing to take real action to pull things back from the brink.