The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long a stand-in for the challenges of the entire Middle East, has increasingly come to be viewed as a local problem. The brutal scenes along the Israel-Gaza border this past week were the culmination of six weeks of demonstrations leading up to the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, in which scores have been killed and thousands injured. They were also a deliberate reminder of an era when the fate of the Palestinians was seen as central to the region—a time when Palestinian suffering was among the first issues raised by officials from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt visiting Washington.
The strategic shifts over the past several years have marginalized the Palestinians. The Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 pushed into the open long-suppressed anti-authoritarian yearnings. Since President Donald Trump took office, concerns over the ambitions of Iran, a majority Shia Muslim nation, drew the Sunni Muslim kingdoms, headed by Saudi Arabia, into a de facto alliance with Israel and the Trump administration. And corrosive splits within the Palestinian national movement left its leadership in chaos just as Israeli commando raids, spying, and cooperation from Palestinian security forces combined to nip violent opposition in the bud. Israeli attacks against Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent weeks hint at the possibility of a much larger conflict to come, one that would overshadow the Palestinian problem.
The Palestinian people, especially in the battered Gaza Strip, are saying they won’t be ignored. So miserable have the conditions in Gaza become—sewage-filled drinking water, constant power blackouts, intense overcrowding, shuttered borders—that there are young people there who say they see little difference between life and death. As the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a show of support for Israeli sovereignty over the disputed city timed to the 70th anniversary, Palestinians rushed the border fence with Israel, vowing to “return” to the land of their grandparents.
While some have planted explosives, most of the demonstrators have been unarmed, if not entirely nonviolent. Israeli soldiers have been instructed to use live fire, a move widely criticized abroad, although defended by Washington. The protesters have been a mix of civilians and Hamas militants; Hamas acknowledged that 50 of 62 people killed in demonstrations on May 16 were its members.
“The Palestinians have been feeling alone and abandoned as many other dramatic issues have been attracting the world’s attention,” says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist at Birzeit University and former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority. “Right now this move toward unarmed resistance—a reflection of a sense of desperation—represents a big change.”
The embassy move was a gift from Trump to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and not the only one. On May 8 he pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and began the process of reimposing sanctions on Tehran, a move Israel has long sought. The Palestinian dispute has always been a minor irritation to Netanyahu compared with the existential challenge he sees from Iran.
Trump considers the Obama administration’s efforts to tame Iran through diplomacy and economic cooperation to be a naive failure. And yet the man who thinks of himself as a master dealmaker and a friend of the Jews also says he’s eager to broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. He put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of drafting a plan almost as soon as he entered the White House.
Middle East experts, including Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, say Kushner has been in touch in the course of designing his proposal and that he seems dead serious about presenting it in the coming months. “It’s apparently a 30-page plan, but I can’t tell if they understand the Palestinian side of the story,” Miller says. “It could be the sound of one hand clapping.” An official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, reached by phone while taking part in an anti-Israel street demonstration in Ramallah, says he and the leadership have no expectations from the Kushner plan and have all but written it off.
Trump’s recent moves may increase his ability to get Netanyahu to endorse a peace plan, according to Ross. “They have enormous leverage over Bibi now,” says Ross, calling Netanyahu by his widely used nickname. “It will be very hard for him to say no to any plan they present.”
At the same time, the Trump administration has made clear it wants the Saudis and other Arab states to play a significant role in any agreement. In particular, Ross says, the hope is that the Arab leaders will embrace what the Palestinians themselves find difficult to accept: perhaps reduced land swaps, no right of return for Palestinians to lands inside Israel, and far more limited sharing of Jerusalem. “If they’re sustained,” Ross says, referring to the violent confrontations, “it may make the issue more prominent but make the Arabs less willing to be outside the Palestinian consensus. The key is that when the Americans put the plan on the table, the Arab leaders must be able to say there are elements here that are credible, and the Palestinians have to step up.”
Recent events notwithstanding, Palestinians’ ability to attract the world’s attention may still be limited. Although there have been modest attempts to spread demonstrations to the West Bank, where the suffering is less severe, it’s not clear whether there’s enough organizational energy there for a movement to take hold. “Despite the deaths and the violence, I’m not sure how much anybody really cares,” says Miller of global attention. “You have ISIS and North Korea and Iran. We’re trapped between the facts that a two-state solution is too important not to pursue and too difficult to implement.”