How to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Two people watching a street below.
Mafalda Rakos / Anzenberger / Redu​x

The Middle East is changing in front of our eyes. The process that began with an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August is gaining momentum and changing the political map of the region. Israel has now built ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains intractable and unsolved, standing as an obstacle to further peace deals.

There is, however, more room than is commonly understood for progress on this front—and it is found in the fascinating disconnect between the political identity most Israelis embrace and the policies they support. In polls, most Israelis today identify as politically right-wing. But when asked what they think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Israelis do not offer right-wing positions. Instead, they articulate much more complicated moderate or centrist views. If politics is about choosing an identity, then Israel is a right-wing country. But if politics is about solving problems, then most Israelis are somewhere in the center.

For years, right-wing politicians have been pushing for the country to maintain the status quo, a paradigm known as “managing the conflict.” On the left, meanwhile, politicians insist that the country must reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians as quickly as possible, a paradigm known as “solving the conflict.” Most Israelis understand that the status quo cannot be maintained, but they are simultaneously convinced that the conflict cannot be fully resolved at this time. Both possibilities are impossibilities. But contrary to what most people think, these are not the only two options. A policy that dramatically enhances Palestinian autonomy, without requiring a conclusive diplomatic resolution of the conflict, would break this dichotomy. This third way is known in Israel’s intellectual, political, and military circles as “shrinking the conflict.” By taking this third path, Israel can deliver a better future—not just for itself, but for the Palestinians and for its other neighbors.

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Most Israelis agree with the following: If Israel remains in the territories, it will endanger its future; if Israel leaves the territories, it will endanger its future. Thus, Israel has experienced the emergence of a surprising political consensus in recent years. The majority of the Israeli public wants neither to rule the Palestinians nor to be ruled by fear of the Palestinians. This twofold wish is an invisible and practically unspoken consensus in Israeli society.

How might this wish be realized? Through a proactive initiative to dramatically shrink Israel’s control over the Palestinians without increasing the security concerns and threat levels faced by Israelis. In this new reality, 2.5 million Palestinians would live in an independent polity, separate from Israel; responsibility for security in the entire territory would remain in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces.

Such an arrangement would dismantle the status quo in the territories. The Palestinian Authority is currently fragmented into more than 160 noncontiguous zones, autonomous islands with no sovereign territorial connections among them. Moreover, the Palestinians have no way to expand their towns and villages, nor can they independently import or export goods. In the present situation, the scope of Palestinian self-government is small, limited, and often entirely hamstrung.

An initiative to upgrade Palestinian autonomy would include three core elements. First, paving a network of roads to connect the Palestinian autonomous zones and turn the fragmented and divided Palestinian Authority into a single, contiguous territorial unit. A Palestinian could drive from Hebron to Jenin without encountering a single Israeli soldier, because the whole journey would be on sovereign Palestinian roads. Second, granting the Palestinians the freedom to plan, build, and expand their towns and villages to meet their needs and desires. And third, fostering full Palestinian economic independence and supporting infrastructural and bureaucratic upgrades, including an independent imports-and-exports policy connecting the Palestinian economy to the rest of the world.

These three policies have already been drafted, and their implementation would eliminate many of the sources of friction between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli army. Contiguous sovereign transport routes, a construction boom, and the lifting of economic restrictions would deliver to the Palestinians what they currently lack: a critical mass of governing powers. This expansion of Palestinian sovereignty would pose little security risk to Israel. Consequently, it could satisfy the seemingly contradictory wishes held by a majority of Israelis.

The Palestinians are currently caught in a bind. On the one hand, they want an independent state; on the other, few are willing to give up on the national dream of a return of Palestinian refugees. Much of Palestinian society is unwilling to recognize non-Muslim sovereignty over the Holy Land. Recognizing Israel would be a religious concession, and abandoning the “right of return” would be a national concession. For many Palestinians, these commitments are an organic part of their identity, and thus conceding either is unthinkable.

Peace plans have long expected the Palestinians to give up on both priorities, but many are committed to preserving these elements of their identity, and to achieving an independent state of their own.

The plan to shrink the conflict is different from past, failed initiatives to end it, because it aims to boost Palestinian sovereignty outside the context of a final status agreement. Shrinking the conflict does not require the Palestinians to sign a peace treaty or agree to terminate all claims. Instead, it promises to boost Palestinian autonomy, granting greater independence without forcing them to give up on their demand for the return of refugees, and without forcing them to recognize Israel.

In short, the plan to shrink the conflict would serve the deepest interests of both sides. The Israelis would dramatically scale back their control over the Palestinians without forgoing their security; and the Palestinians would dramatically scale up their sovereignty without forgoing their aspirations. Both sides would minimize what really pains them without giving up on what really matters to them.

Four wins

But this scheme faces a major obstacle. Many Palestinians fear that agreeing to policies that improve the situation in the territories would only serve to legitimize that situation. Many of them would prefer to continue suffering under the yoke of Israeli military rule—without freedom of movement, economic freedoms, or the freedom to build—rather than surrender their claim to full sovereignty.

To succeed, this plan must create a situation in which the Palestinians feel comfortable embracing an enhancement of their autonomy that offers only partial sovereignty. They will accept these changes if they believe that doing so will not offer their implicit blessing to the fact that they lack their own state. Indeed, this offers the most promising twist to the story: The solution to this challenge is in Saudi Arabia’s hands.

The apex of today’s historic changes would be a diplomatic accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, however, have made it abundantly clear that they will not join the peace train without progress on the Palestinian front. While they want relations with Israel, they won’t pursue them at the cost of abandoning the Palestinian cause. This leaves the Saudis in a bind, because if they wait for a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, they might end up waiting forever.

The plan to dramatically boost Palestinian self-governance gives the Saudis a way out of this bind: If Israel significantly shrinks its control over the Palestinians as part of an accord with the Saudis, then Saudi Arabia could significantly improve its relations with Israel. This would also help the Palestinians: The boost in their autonomy would be a gift from the Saudis, not a diktat from the Israelis.

All three sides would be rescued from their respective traps: Israel could scale up its separation from the Palestinians without incurring security risks; the Saudis could forge an alliance with Israel without neglecting the Palestinians; and the Palestinians could enhance their sovereignty without surrendering their rights. It is a win-win-win.

There would also be a fourth winner: the incoming U.S. administration.

The principle that guided the Trump administration’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be summarized in three words: Ignore the Palestinians. This policy is over. The Biden administration is expected to try to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the stasis that it has been stuck in for so long.

But if the incoming administration is eager to break with the Trump record, it is also in no rush to embrace the Middle East policy of President Barack Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry. In 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration made meaningful diplomatic efforts to revitalize negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, hoping to lead both sides to a comprehensive peace treaty that would end the conflict once and for all. Those efforts collapsed, wasting a lot of American political capital.

The plan to shrink the conflict could replace Trump’s policy of neglect without repeating the failures of the Obama administration. No less important, putting this plan into action would harness the new diplomatic momentum in the Middle East between Israel and the Gulf states, and radically alter its direction. Instead of letting the diplomatic breakthroughs reduce Palestinian leverage, it could use them to directly address the Palestinians’ needs and dramatically enhance their independence.