When President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet Tuesday, the two leaders will focus on a Middle East that is transformed from 20 years ago when many believed Israelis and Palestinians were on the verge of a solution that would bring lasting peace to the region.
The assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, as he worked tirelessly toward a two-state solution, changed everything. The policies of Netanyahu — sworn in for the first time in the wake of Rabin’s death — differed greatly from his predecessor. Now, even the White House admits it has given up on a breakthrough that would end tensions between Israelis and Palestinians while Obama is in office.
In recent years, threats from radical Islam and Iran have changed the landscape even more, to the point that today, Israel’s Arab neighbors no longer rank the plight of Palestinians as the region’s greatest issue. As a result, those threats will take up much of the discussion time between Obama and Netanyahu, who arrives in Washington on Monday.
Even as tensions surge between Palestinians and Israelis, “the Palestinian issue is eclipsed on the Arab political agenda,” said Hussein Ibish, an analyst at the Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Since mid-September, 11 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings, while 72 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 45 people who Israel said were involved in attacks or attempted attacks, according to the Associated Press. The other 27 Palestinians were killed in clashes between stone-throwers and security forces.
The sense that nothing will change soon has contributed to ongoing attacks — that some warn could be a third Intifada, or uprising — by Palestinians against Israelis in Jerusalem and other cities in the past two months, Ibish said.
As talks with Israel faded, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas — who leads the West Bank — has sought to isolate Israel on the international stage by seeking war crime charges against Israel and Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court, calling for U.N. recognition of Palestinian “statehood” and promoting a campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel. And the Islamist militant group Hamas that runs the Gaza Strip has launched a series of wars with Israel, most recently last year, resulting in destruction and blame on both sides.
Twenty years ago, while he was in power, Rabin rejected a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and argued that in order to preserve the state of Israel as Jewish and democratic, a separate state for Palestinians needed to be created, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator who is now vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Rabin believed Israel should solve its inner problems first, to be in a better position to deal with the serious, but then geographically distant, threats of radical Islam and Iran, Miller said. “Rabin made heroic and historic decisions in a Middle East that looked completely different. Never has (Israel’s) fate been so inextricably linked to a region in chaos,” he said.
When Netanyahu took office, he insisted peace could come only with security. He refused to engage in the peace process while Palestinian attacks on Israelis persisted, and he expanded settlement construction, angering Palestinians who sought those lands for a future state.
In the years that followed, progress stalled. Even after Netanyahu froze construction in the West Bank, negotiations failed and bouts of fighting erupted between Israelis and Palestinians. Other threats to the region soon became far more pressing.
Like Israel, Arab states worried Iran would develop a nuclear weapon. The Arab Spring threatened to replace dictators who maintained authoritarian stability with unpredictable Islamist leaders who distanced themselves from the United States and fueled a hatred of Israel.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates gained a foothold in more countries. Iran sent military advisers and thousands of Shiite militiamen to Syria to prop up the government in that country’s civil war on Israel’s northern border. And the Islamic State seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria and started operating in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, on Israel’s southern border.
Now investigators are trying to determine what caused the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian airliner shortly after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt’s Sinai. British and U.S. officials have said they believe it may have been the result of a bomb. If the crash is proven to be a terror attack, it would be the most significant downing of an aircraft by Middle East terrorists since 9/11, Miller said.
“Arab states know this and their priority is not the Palestinians,” he said. “They’ve put the Palestinian issue on the back burner. They view Iran and jihadism as more of a threat than what they consider a shepherd’s war between Israel and the Palestinians.”
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