Israel’s war on Gaza has shifted US policy on a Palestinian state

There is now a marked willingness from both the US and UK to acknowledge a Palestinian state, regardless of Israel’s position.

Biden and Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.
Biden and Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

Israel’s war on Gaza has shifted US policy on a Palestinian state

There has been a significant and unexpected shift in the West’s perception of the crisis between Israel and Palestinians, and it is focused on one of the most promising and crucial potential policy areas: the two-state solution.

Setting up a Palestinian state has long been seen as the key to long-term peace. But efforts to do so have been beset by what amounts to an Israeli veto over moves in that direction.

Now, the major humanitarian crisis caused by Israel's war on Gaza has reshaped the parameters of the debate over the wider, decades-long and seemingly intractable conflict.

There is now a marked willingness from both the United States and Britain to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Palestinian state, regardless of Israel’s position.

Previous backing for a two-state solution has been designed so that both the Palestinians and Israelis have to agree to every step. This bilateral clearance for legal, political, and geographic terms, as well as security matters, meant progress could be halted at a whim by Israel.

Now, key Western powers are in favour of a unilateral approach, opening the way for what could be faster progress.

Bilateral approach

The bilateral approach — now out of favour in Washington and London — goes back to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

It developed further through both sets of the Oslo Accords, as signed in Washington in 1993 in Taba, Egypt and in 1995. These agreements all outlined mutual commitments between Israelis and Palestinians.

US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) on September 13, 1993, after signing the Oslo Accords.

These deals created a dual-track diplomatic framework, which essentially granted Israel a privileged position, supported by significant backing from the US, which, in effect, meant Israel needed to approve the details over any creation of a Palestinian state.

Read more: Extremist Jewish militias and their links to the Israeli state

This left any deal exposed to opposition within Israel, notably from the country’s right-wing religious factions. It also made it easier for hardline Palestinian groups to oppose the peace process, pointing to the extent of Israel’s influence over moves to a two-state solution.

Over the years, without tangible progress, hardline groups on both sides that are opposed to a two-state solution have risen in prominence. Their resistance to it comes from a range of complex and often conflicting reasons and has contributed to the decline in diplomatic moves toward it before the war.

The weakening of the Palestinian Authority – established under the Oslo Accords as Israel's partner in peace negotiations – allowed Hamas to emerge as a significant alternative force.

Read more: Hamas and Islamic Jihad: Origins and future

Without tangible progress toward peace, hardline groups on both sides have gained popularity over the years.

This, in turn, sparked further Israeli right-wing extremism and contributed to the stalling of the peace process. These changes show how intricate the political dynamics at play in the pursuit of peace are in the region.

The dual-track approach was already eroding, but it was the war on Gaza that led to its disappearance, at least in two of the most diplomatically significant Western capitals.

For some time, the West's involvement in peace movements had become more passive. There was a belief that it would emerge naturally once the right conditions developed, and political leaders favouring the process would arise with popular backing.

Faltering support

But as the wait for that to happen went on – and the 1990s optimism over a two-state solution faded, along with the vigorous backing for it – there also developed a sense of wider fatigue in the West over making history.

It was especially apparent in the US and the European Union and intensified as various attempts to resolve the complex issues in the Middle East could not produce any more meaningful progress toward lasting peace.

In the first decade of the 2000s, progress stalled even further.

The collapse of progress showed the strategy of waiting for an opportune moment for peace, rather than actively fostering the conditions needed, was as dangerous as it was ineffective and led to the war in Gaza that is now rippling through the entire region.

This picture taken from a position along the border in northern Israel on December 26, 2023 shows smoke billowing in the southern Lebanese village of Marwahin following Israeli bombardment amid ongoing cross-border tensions.

Passive diplomacy also overlooked a crucial factor: the significant differences in the experiences of Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians live in challenging conditions, facing economic and security difficulties exacerbated by Israeli policies that encourage settlement expansion in their territories.

These policies not only undermine the Palestinians' dignity and aspirations for statehood. They also show the priority given to Israel's day-to-day security concerns over any tangible progress.

This preference matches the desire of the country's right wing and its politics, which are often racially motivated and religiously orientated. This worldview pushes the prospects of peace further back.

The strategy of waiting for an opportune moment for peace, rather than actively fostering the necessary conditions for it, is a dangerous one.

Throughout – and in contrast with the people of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – Israelis live in relative stability and prosperity, largely insulated from the day-to-day struggles faced by Palestinians. Only occasional armed action from Hamas interrupts this sense of normality.

The stark difference in lived experience – and in the power balance – between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been put on stark display to the world by the war and its origins in Hamas's 7 October attacks.

Shifting Western stance

Initially, the West regarded Hamas's attack in simple terms. It saw it purely as a terrorist act committed by an organisation it classifies as a terrorist group. 

The attack bore similarities to those experienced by Westerners, including the US, France, Britain, and Spain, at the hands of terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

This created swift solidarity with Israel, to the point of near-full alignment with it. Many countries spoke up for Israel's right to self-defence and offered political cover and even military support for it.

However, as the scale of Israel's campaign against Gaza intensified, this unequivocal support has waned.

People walk on Al-Oyoun Street amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during Israeli bombardment on Gaza City on February 3, 2024.

The tone of the international reaction has also changed to show a significant and unprecedented level of sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza. The shift came not in defence of Hamas but after seeing the extent of the destruction inflicted by Israel.

It changed how the world saw the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, and calls grew louder for a deeper understanding — one that considers the ongoing Israeli occupation, settlement expansion in Palestinian territories, and the suppression of Palestinian political and economic development as roadblocks to peace.

This led to what appears to be a change of heart in the West and a move toward the development of a Palestinian state — free from Israeli obstruction of its creation.

Delayed realisation

There is an element within this change in perspective that may yet prove to be even more significant: the West's realisation that the far-right Israeli government is a direct threat to the prospects for long-term peace.

The US continues to extend strong military and political support to its ally, Israel.

But the mounting discontent with Tel Aviv in Washington is clear: Biden is losing patience with Israel — especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US president on Thursday called Israel's military response in Gaza "over the top" and said he continues to work "tirelessly" to press Israel and Hamas to agree on an extended pause in fighting.

The mounting discontent with Tel Aviv in Washington is clear: Biden is losing patience with Israel — especially with Netanyahu.

Biden also reportedly ended a phone call with Netanyahu in frustration over Israel's hardline positions. And the stubbornness in Tel Aviv over talks for a political path to a two-state solution after the war's end has been a problem for the White House, as indicated by senior officials.

Netanyahu reluctantly consented to such discussions under considerable pressure from the US, only to insist on almost impossible conditions over any such moves.

In effect, he was trying to hold on to Israel's veto privilege, that mechanism introduced in the Madrid talks decades ago under very different political conditions with a very different approach to peace among Israeli leaders.

The current government in Tel Aviv is the most right-wing in the country's history, and its provocative rhetoric toward the Palestinians — to the point of racism — has infuriated Washington.

As has its refusal to listen to US appeals for curbs on the encroachment of right-wing Israeli settlers on Palestinian territories in the West Bank, which have been become increasingly violent.

Jewish settler attacks in the Occupied West Bank have been on the rise since 7 October, 2023.

Washington's anger has been made clear by unilateral action taken against some extremist Israeli leaders. Their assets have been frozen, and bans on travel to the US have been imposed.

The international frustration has meant the Biden administration has signalled its willingness to acknowledge a disarmed independent Palestinian state without requiring Israel's approval for it. So has Britain.

US election factor

There are also domestic considerations at work in the US in the presidential election year. Palestinian rights amount to a growing and important issue for young members of the Democratic Party, especially on its left, where support for Biden is thinner.

Meanwhile, the Muslim constituency is more of a consideration in US politics, particularly in key states like Michigan in the north, which are anticipated to play pivotal roles in the upcoming November vote.

The arrival of any Palestinian state remains far off — even with the move toward unilateral support for it from the US and the West. Progress toward it is likely to depend on Biden winning the election, with his most likely Republican rival known for his staunch support of Israel: Donald Trump

A Trump return to the White House would mean a swift return to the bilateral approach to a Palestinian state, even after decades of waiting for progress produced a rise in extremism on both sides and a return to war and destruction.

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