In late November, Israeli president Isaac Herzog lit the first Hanukkah candle at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is also the Ibrahimi Mosque, in the West Bank city of Hebron. Hanukkah marks the rededication of the ancient Jewish temple through candle-lighting ceremonies over eight nights. When Herzog sang the Israeli anthem, religious meaning merged with political symbolism: Israel’s iron grip over Palestinians is as strong as ever.
Earlier in 2021, the country’s electorate voted for change. It took four indecisive election cycles, over two years, to finally dislodge Benjamin Netanyahu, whose most recent rule stretched twelve consecutive years. During the 2019–21 cycle of elections there was also a fresh war and unprecedented ethnic violence in Israeli streets. But in June, Israelis finally got a new government, a new prime minister, and a new president. By October, the government even passed the first budget since 2018.
But there is little indication of anything new for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For years, Netanyahu accelerated the long-term trends of inexorable settlement spread, deeper and more permanent occupation of the West Bank, and tight control over Gaza, while sidestepping international pressure. The new Israeli government has adopted softer language, but it is following the same direction.
In order to unseat Netanyahu, eight parties forged an unlikely alliance that they called a “change coalition,” and sought to convey a soothing spirit of cooperation. In addition to the budget, the government rolled out booster shots, efficiently managed the Delta wave of COVID-19, advanced laws designed to rein in future would-be autocrats, and vowed to address domestic crime, alongside other social issues.
Yet these parties’ industriousness is a painful reminder of what has not changed.
Hebron is one of the darkest corners of the occupation. The city is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and 800 to 1,000 Jews, depending on whether the data source is a left-wing nongovernmental organization (NGO) or a settler group. Israel’s Central Election Committee lists 309 eligible voters (the remainder comprises children and religious seminary students living there temporarily). For the sake of the settlers, 20 percent of the city is barricaded off by cage-like electronic turnstiles and directly controlled by an overwhelming army presence. Approximately 30,000 Palestinians live, some under heavy restrictions, in this barricaded section, called H2, which includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs–Ibrahimi Mosque. Israelis are free to visit the enclave, but Palestinians from the rest of divided Hebron are subject to heavy permit restrictions, and regular physical searches and surveillance if they wish to enter this part of their city. Since the time of the Second Intifada (2000 to approximately 2005), most Palestinian shops on the main market street have been shuttered, leaving the area eerily empty. Soldiers often go jogging while carrying automatic weapons. For years, Palestinians and Israelis were separated by police barriers on a central sidewalk; to this day, Palestinians are barred entirely from streets near the Jewish settlements within H2.
Some 20 percent of Hebron is barricade by cage-like electronic turnstiles, and soldiers often go jogging while carrying automatic weapons.
Israel’s president is mostly a ceremonial figure. But Herzog emerged from a lifetime in the Labor party, including a stint as party leader and candidate for prime minister. The continuity is notable: Israel’s Labor party led the country as it conquered the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, and for the next decade, Labor presided over the foundation of the settlement project. By 1977, when the party lost power, there were thirty-eight West Bank settlements alone, along with roads and infrastructure to support massive growth in the decades to come.
Herzog’s visit to Hebron was symbolic, but the new Israeli government is providing the substance to back it up. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hails from the hard-right nationalist Yemina party. He first ran for elections in 2013 on a platform that called for Israel to permanently annex parts of the West Bank.
So far, Bennett’s government has dug into the most enduring policies designed to expand settlements, perpetuate Israeli control, and dismantle the territorial basis for a future Palestinian state. To support these goals, Bennett has sought to head off international pressure, while downplaying or deflecting Israeli actions—tactics that have been honed over decades.
Following Netanyahu’s Playbook
After becoming prime minister in June, Bennett first sought to lower the volume on disagreements with the United States. He lulled Joe Biden—who may not have needed much convincing—into accepting the ongoing suspension of efforts to reach political resolution to the conflict. Instead, Bennett advocates economic improvement for Palestinians and reducing friction, while avoiding any specific vision for ending the conflict. The fashionable term for this strategy is “shrinking the conflict,” coined by Micah Goodman, a philosopher and the author of a short book on why the conflict cannot be resolved.
Substantively, “shrinking the conflict” is no different from Netanyahu’s approach of “managing the conflict.” Both maintain Israel’s superior political position and avoid progress toward a final status agreement, while limiting open war and keeping the conflict manageable—for Israelis. Under Netanyahu, the holding pattern allowed his governments to incentivize settlement growth and less visible forms of Israeli control, such as closed military zones and pressure on Palestinians to leave the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C (which makes up 60 percent of the territory), while treating the West Bank as integral to sovereign Israel. Between 2019 and 2020, Netanyahu also promoted de jure annexation, before backing down.
Bennett has said that there will be no annexation, but also no settlement freeze. He seems to think this position conveys balance by denying both right- and left-wing demands.
But “no settlement freeze” is just another way of saying “settlement expansion”—which is in fact exactly what Bennett has promised. Four months after taking office, Israel’s Civil Administration announced 3,000 new housing units in settlements, issued tenders for nearly half of them, and slated the construction for the most politically sensitive neighborhoods.
Bennett’s policy of “no settlement freeze” is just another way of saying “settlement expansion.”
One plan for a new settlement encountered an important limitation in late November, when U.S. pressure led Israel to freeze development in Atarot, a strategic spot in Jerusalem. Settlement construction in Atarot would block Palestinian access to Jerusalem from the West Bank and is considered lethal for a future two-state solution.
But absent any peace process, freezing Atarot’s development just means less international attention or pressure. In September, Bennett reiterated his longtime opposition to a Palestinian state and his unwillingness to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile an anonymous official close to Bennett promised that “there is no diplomatic process and neither will there be one.” In October, Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared six Palestinian human rights groups to be terrorist organizations, contributing to the destruction of Palestinian civil society and removing any doubt about who is really in control.
Meanwhile, settlers continued their attempts to evict Palestinians from homes in other neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Israel continued to demolish Palestinian homes for technical reasons unrelated to security, in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, leaving hundreds of people homeless. The pace has accelerated: this year, thirty-three family homes were destroyed in Jerusalem through June, but eighty-three have been destroyed under the new government through November alone, according to a spokesperson from Ir Amim, an Israeli pro-peace NGO whose field workers track conflict-related developments in Jerusalem.
The government took less visible bureaucratic steps to speed up development of neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem to prevent Palestinian access, while severely neglecting development of Palestinian residential areas. Rather than reducing friction, these dynamics in Jerusalem are precisely the sparks that set off the violent escalation in May. Taken together, according to Ir Amim, settlement plans in Jerusalem under the new government “have rather advanced at full force, accelerating steps towards de-facto annexation of ‘Greater Jerusalem.’”
To decode Bennett’s equilibrium: “no annexation” simply means no formal declaration of annexation, which could spark a serious international backlash. Therefore, “no annexation” coupled with settlement expansion equals de facto annexation, not equilibrium. The result is identical to Netanyahu’s policies.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett is also learning the art of deflection. He conspicuously avoided any direct reference to the conflict in his debut at the UN General Assembly in September. Just as Netanyahu used to do, he spoke instead of Israel’s other achievements, and the threat from Iran.
December’s fresh multilateral talks in Vienna over renewing a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capability have abetted Bennett’s deflection. Israel’s security and political establishment now talks only about Iran, which takes pressure off the fractious coalition—since there is effectively no opposition on the issue of Iran within the coalition (or in Israel generally). Even left-wing parties Labor and Meretz know better than to sow dissent over Iran while straining to prove their governing credentials, after years out of office. Few politicians openly discuss the disastrous failure of Netanyahu himself. He spent years bitterly and obsessively opposing the 2015 Iran deal. But when Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, the deal’s collapse simply prompted Iran to move closer than ever to nuclear breakout. To her credit, Labor leader Merav Michaeli has raised some of these points cautiously—but in very limited contexts.
A Glimmer of Fool’s Gold?
Seeking to reduce tension and improve the Palestinian economy is not wrong, in itself. The urgency is clear: unemployment stands at a staggering 44.7 percent in Gaza, according to the Israeli NGO Gisha, and 17 percent in the West Bank. Few Palestinians would oppose the Israeli government’s decision to provide more work permits to Palestinians from both Gaza and the West Bank to work inside Israel.
The government is seeking another important improvement for those workers. Over the years, quota restrictions, controlled by Israeli employers, have spawned an industry of mostly Palestinian permit brokers charging exorbitant fees from laborers. The Israeli government is beginning to implement reforms to end the extortion, said Haggay Etkes, an economist and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. The reforms could help, but the new government should get little credit: the decision was passed in 2016 and implementation began in December 2020.
Moreover, the number of permits is minimal compared to the need. As of November, Israel has raised the total number of permits for Gazans from 7,000 to 10,000; but about 212,000 Gazans were unemployed in mid-2021, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Further, more than half a million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are “underutilized” in the labor market, while 146,000 have worked in Israel in 2021.
But the problem runs deeper. Most Palestinian laborers in Israel work in low-skilled, jobs, such as construction, traditional manufacturing, and agriculture. Dangling work permits at a population desperate for these jobs encourages and perpetuates a low-skilled economy instead of utilizing educated Palestinian workers. Etkes calls this a “Moshe Dayan economy” (after the Israeli defense minister during the 1967 war).
Dangling permits for low-skilled work at a population desperate for jobs entrenches Israeli economic superiority—a policy as old as the occupation.
Etkes believes there is another direction available, supporting a skilled, professional, middle class Palestinian economy: “We want good salaries, which will help people develop, live well, dream, and fulfill those dreams. At least that’s the kind of economy I want [for Palestinians]—but as a person, not necessarily as an economist,” he said.
But over the years, the results of the current focus on low-skilled work have become clear: the entrenchment of massive economic asymmetries and Israeli economic superiority in the long term—a policy as old as the occupation itself. If “shrinking the conflict” means dialing up or down regarding work permits, or reducing Palestinian unemployment, there’s little evidence the Israeli government is working to upgrade the Palestinian economy in the long term.
Therefore, one glimmer of hope is a pilot program allowing Israeli high-tech companies to employ a small number of skilled Palestinian workers—five hundred over three years. These workers could thereby gain experience needed to strengthen such industries at home. In recent years, some skilled Palestinians have already been employed by indirect, remote, and internship programs in Israeli high tech, and these programs have been considered highly successful. It’s not hard, and shouldn’t even be controversial, to support economic development strategically in ways that could make a real change.
Such glimmers have not yet reached Hebron. Settlers and supporters were triumphant at Herzog’s visit. A cluster of left-wing protesters was barred from the city by the Israel Defense Forces and left to demonstrate at the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. The marchers endured a few hours of ritualized shoving by soldiers and armed settlers, while the kids of Kiryat Arba jeered. What remained was the feeling of fighting a juggernaut—with little change in sight.
header photo: Members of the Israeli army gather for a briefing as they take control of the recently established outpost of Evyatar on July 2, 2021 near Jabal Subeih, West Bank. According to a regional council, residents of the illegal settlement agreed to vacate the site in a deal with the Israeli government that will prevent the razing of its structures. The council reported that the government will transform the site into a makeshift army base. Critics of the deal, including Arab Knesset members from the Joint List alliance, called the deal a crime that furthered theft of Palestinian lands. Source: Amir Levy/Getty Images