What Would a Lasting Peace Between Israel and Palestine Really Look Like?

Hamas’s attack on Israel, and the ensuing Israeli response, has brought new energy to discussions of restarting a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, which has been dormant for years. To understand how such a process might develop, I spoke with Nathan Thrall, the former director of the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli project, and an expert on the conflict, who lives in Jerusalem. He is also the author of the recent book “A Day In The Life Of Abed Salama,” which tells the story of the occupation through a Palestinian man’s search for his son after a fatal bus accident. (I first spoke to Thrall in the immediate aftermath of the October 7th attack. Since then, a number of Thrall’s book events have been cancelled.) During our conversation, the transcript of which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Hamas’s incursion may have changed Israeli politics, whether debates about a one-state solution versus a two-state solution are helpful, and America’s role in the conflict.

How are you thinking about a possible resolution to this conflict differently from how you did before October 7th?

I had a book come out on October 3rd, and the question of what I saw as a viable political solution to the conflict was one that came up in every talk. I always gave the same answer, which is one I’ve been giving for years now, which is that all of the talk of solutions is a distraction. A one-state solution isn’t on the horizon. A two-state solution isn’t on the horizon. A confederation isn’t on the horizon. All of this talk of which of these possible utopias one prefers serves to distract us from the everyday reality of violent oppression. But now I think that the war has forced me to think about what is actually realistic, because every crisis is also an opportunity, and the war has made things possible that were not possible before.

What are those things?

So, one of the main things that it has done is that it has convinced the vast majority of Israelis that the model in place prior to October 7th is not working. The price of October 7th is far too high for Israel to pay if that is what it means to manage the conflict.

When you say “manage the conflict,” I assume you mean the Israelis letting it fester without any long-term resolution.

Yeah, I mean precisely that phrase. “Managing the conflict” is one phrase that is used by Israeli officials to describe what their policy has been for the past decade. That means a system in which Israel is the sole sovereign between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are seven million Israeli Jews and seven million Palestinians living under Israeli rule. The vast majority of those Palestinians don’t have basic civil rights, and Israel has no intention of resolving that fundamental issue, and instead seeks to make minor adjustments to its system of control in order to make the burden of that occupation and oppression lighter. “Managing the conflict” has meant both those minor adjustments and these periodic bouts of great violence in Gaza. So the onus now is on the Israeli government to provide the public with an answer to how October 7th won’t happen again. There is no plausible answer that they can give that doesn’t include actually resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

But just because there is not a plausible answer to you or me, doesn’t mean there won’t be a plausible answer to the Israeli public. The answer could be to keep Palestinians in a state of further oppression to prevent them from committing terrorist attacks.

What I would argue is that there are no answers that Israel can give that are actually credible to the Israeli public. There are theoretical possibilities, such as putting an Arab or international force in place after Israel has “eradicated Hamas,” putting the Palestinian Authority in place in Gaza and periodically invading Gaza, as Israel does in the West Bank. But none of those things are credible answers, or they’re simply not possible to do. I don’t think that the Israeli government has the ability to present the Israeli public with an answer that is both realistic and convincing.

You said that you thought talking about long-term solutions was a distraction before because the Israeli public and the Israeli government did not want a solution, essentially? They didn’t want a one-state solution, they didn’t want a two-state solution. But now your sense is that they may have changed their minds, so it’s plausible to talk of longer-term solutions?

Broadly speaking, yes. If you look at the situation on the ground, it was one of increasing land confiscation, increasing Israeli control, increasing settler violence, a continued blockade of Gaza. None of those things were going away, and they were only getting worse. Everybody was saying, “Look away from the arrest of adolescents from their parents’ homes in the middle of the night every night in the West Bank. Let’s talk about what we prefer in terms of confederation or two states or one state.” None of those things were remotely in the cards. It was a totally fantastical conversation that served, in fact, to further the opposite of any kind of just resolution of the conflict. It served to further land confiscation and increasing Israeli absorption of the West Bank.

It wasn’t that if you polled Israelis, huge numbers would tell you that they were in favor of absorbing the West Bank into Israel and settlement expansion and the like. It was simply that they were living comfortably and they didn’t have to think about it. There were, of course, Israelis who were in favor of it. Prior to October 7th, you had this massive movement against the government and its proposed judicial reform that described itself as a pro-democracy movement. The situation of Israelis was so comfortable that they could speak without blushing about Israeli democracy, while half of the people under Israel’s control were Palestinians, and most of those Palestinians didn’t have basic civil rights.

Now the Palestinian issue is at the forefront of Israeli politics, and it is at the forefront of every Israeli’s mind, with them thinking, Do I have a future here for my children and grandchildren? There is a real motive for Israelis to find something better.

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