HOPES AND FEARS: Israel and Palestine in 2021

Kus Wije
18 min readJun 3, 2021


No specific foreign policy issue ignites the broad political left quite like the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. At the time of writing, the ceasefire officially holds, tentatively. Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu is on the brink as news trickles down of a new coalition between a Centrist Party and Yamina (right-wing coalition). The potential coalition will be led by former journalist, Yair Lapid and Netanyahu’s own (former) protégé, ex-Defense Minister Naftali Bennet. Negotiations are on-going, but Mr. Bennet seems the likeliest to become PM.

A regular in the media, Mr. Bennet is described in a recent BBC article as “blunt talking and combative… he once admonished an Israeli Arab member of parliament for saying Jews had no right to settle in the West Bank, telling him: “When you were still swinging from trees, we had a Jewish state here.” During an appearance on Al Jazeera, when pressed on Israeli settlements, he referred the journalist to the Bible.

On paper, the new Israeli coalition partners are strange bed-fellows; Centrists and ultranationalists. What this means for the conflict and the peace process remains to be seen. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is a political scientist and public intellectual with decades of activism as a member of the leftist radical intelligentsia. Well-versed in the intricacies of the conflict, he shares his thoughts on the history of the conflict, the context and potential consequences of the recent violence as well as Israeli elections.

On the face of it, the Israeli-Palestinian question is structurally intractable and irretrievably deadlocked. Note that I say ‘on the face of it’. As a formula the two-state solution is the best there is… builds on the logic of the original UN resolution of 1948, of two states, Israel and Palestine. It is the most reasonable solution. However, it was called into question from the beginning.”

“The Arab armies opened hostilities and the Israelis having beaten them soundly, did not stop at the borders traced by the UN resolution, which, with certain modifications due to strategic imperatives, would have been the most just and rational action. Instead, there was not only annexation but also eviction of Palestinian Arabs after the war had been won”.

“The Arabs erred by refusing to accept the UN resolution (which even Stalin’s Russia was an enthusiastic proponent of) and the legitimacy of the creation of the state of Israel — which was morally and historically irresistible after the Holocaust”.

The proposals of the UN partition plan (1947), UN Resolution 194 (1948) together with the 1974 Resolutions (two states, side by side, within secure borders) is widely supported and accepted. This includes the Arab League (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan); 22 countries in all. The EU, China and Russia support it, as does India.

The US has vetoed countless resolutions on the conflict; 53 since 1972 as per UN data, whilst rhetorically accepting the need for a two state solution. At the beginning of this latest round of violence the US blocked a UN statement calling for a ceasefire.

This is part of the now familiar foreign policy balancing act. The Israel lobby continues its work in backrooms, the PLO in a perpetual power struggle both internally and externally. The US admonishes Israel in private, yet provides tens of billions in military aid. Blocks UN resolutions but considers itself chief-negotiator. President Obama and PM Netanyahu clashed several times, the latter making a speech to a joint session of congress on the invitation of the Republican Party. The US does not, as official policy, recognize the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Every US President since Bill Clinton has signed a ‘secret letter’ pledging not to publicly discuss the Israeli nuclear programme. For all this, Israel knows that it is still essentially a client state of the American empire.

A History of Violence

For context, data from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) places the death toll at 5,850 since 2008. The breakdown? Israeli deaths: 250, Palestinians deaths: 5,600.

The Zionist political project was well organized with prominent proponents in the chambers of power in the United Kingdom and beyond. A Jewish state was always on the colonial agenda in the early 1900s, not least due to rising anti-Semitism in London following the rapid expansion of the Jewish population. Between the late 1800s and 1919, the Jewish population in the UK multiplied five times due to the ‘Great Exodus’ following pogroms in Russia. The architect of the ‘Balfour Declaration’, former UK Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, was overtly against the continued arrival of Jewish refugees in the UK.

The Zionist Organization (ZO) even proposed the ‘Uganda Scheme’ in 1903 to create a Jewish homeland in British controlled East Africa. The UK Government offered the ZO 13,000 SqKms in the British Colony.

Following the creation of Israel, the 1949 Armistice Agreements set out a border between this fledgling nation state and its neighbours, widely known as the ‘Green Line’. Relations between Israel and the major Arab states including Egypt were tenuous. Egypt blocked shipping routes vital to Israel, leading to hostilities that peaked with the 6-Day War of 1967. There were definitive confrontations between Israel and the Arab states that lead up to the next great period of conflict; the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

In 1972 alone there was the Israeli Lod Airport Massacre; 24 killed by a Japanese Paramilitary group on the orders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). A spokesman for the PFLP was killed, along with his 17 year old niece, by an Israeli car bomb in Beirut. The massacre at the Munich Olympics. The bombing in London of an Israeli Embassy worker. The bomb in Paris which took the life of a PLO member. In January 1973, Director of Operations — Mossad was killed by a Fatah Gunman. The Saudi Embassy Attack in Khartoum in March, another Mossad Agent murdered in Cyprus. The list is long in any given year.

Two States or One?

The complexities are worth examining. Scholars including Israeli Meron Benvenisti have pointed out that implementation of the Two-State Solution would create Palestinian “Bantustans”; racially segregated communities; a feature of apartheid South Africa. An EU report (2000) stated that Israeli settlements would dilute and eventually extricate organic links between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Further, the decades long failure to enforce some version of the Green Line and the consequent frustrations regarding settlement expansion have led many to state that the two state solution is essentially dead in the desert. Dr. Jayatilleka states that the two-state solution has been rolled-back by cynical, systematic building of illegal Israeli settlements in the land that should belong to a future Palestinian state. In order to make the two-state solution viable again, those settlements would have to go, or there should be compensatory land-swaps. However, with each passing day, the Israelis leave less land to swap. It is difficult to envisage that the US will be able to mount enough pressure on Israel to roll-back the settlements”.

This leaves the one state solution. That has an interesting history. In recent years, the whistle was blown on the unviability of the two-state solution and a clarion call was sounded for a one state solution, firstly by Prof Richard Falk (Princeton University) the former UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine. He is Jewish. I am proud to have him as a friend”.

Writing as recently as 2019, Prof. Falk stated “the zombie manoeuvres of the past 20 or more years with continued advocacy of long-moribund two state negotiations must end: the only question is what kind of state will emerge — secular or apartheid”.

Dr. Jayatilleka continues: “The one-state solution was initially the slogan of the Palestinian Marxist Left, notably Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, though it was termed a ‘bi-national” state of Israelis and Palestinians possessing/exercising equal rights”.

“Given the apparent unviability of a two-state solution, the one-state solution is the only available default option. But that too is problematic. As President Barack Obama pointed out to the Israelis, who weren’t really listening, time is not on their side, because of demographics. Unless a surgical separation is effected by means of a two-state solution, Israel will be unable to exist as a democratic Jewish state. If it is to continue to claim to be the sole democratic state in the region and therefore the natural ally of the USA, it has to give citizenship, voting rights and equal rights in general, to all those who live within its borders. This would mean enfranchising all the Palestinians in the annexed territories. This in turn would change the demographic ratio, bringing into view the possibility that Israel would be democratic but no longer Jewish. Conversely Israel would remain Jewish by maintaining the status-quo but would be increasingly disqualified as democratic”.

Speaking in 2014, famous political dissident and public intellectual Prof. Noam Chomsky described the one state solution as “misleading”. He claims that granting Israel the ability to take over the West Bank and have the Palestinians launch a civil rights movement or “anti-apartheid struggle” is a “pie in the sky”. He sees the second option as essentially the ‘status quo’; Israel carves up the West Bank “in a way that integrates into Israel the parts of the West Bank that they want”; the developed Suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Jordan Valley, Ariel, which covers major resources, water and leaves out the Palestinian population.

The Empty Symbolism of Oslo

Complicating matters further, the Oslo Accords, a foundational aspect of a future peace deal, was heavily criticized at the time of signing in 1993. Almost 30 years later, the criticism seems vindicated. Dr. Jayatilleka cites the work of Palestinian intellectual Prof. Edward Said and his critique of the Oslo Accords, specifically the concessions made by the PLO.

Anybody paying passing attention in 1993 would recall the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington DC. The spectacle of the PLO leader Yassar Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, smiling cordially and shaking hands was labelled ‘historic’. Adding to the contrived nature of this media event was a young President Clinton, towering over his charges like an ill-considered chaperon.

To the untrained eye, peace in the Middle East was just around the corner. To Edward Said and many of his contemporaries, the agreement was little better than a “capitulation”. In an October ’93 essay ‘The Morning After’, Mr. Said wrote of the “degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights”.

As per Said and many others, this agreement, heralded by the mainstream media and now a compulsory slab in the delicate foundation of the two state solution, was inherently flawed. Mr. Said expertly condemns the accords as a vehicle to establish the authority of Yassar Arafat and the PLO. The alternative? Around the same time a delegation of Palestinian intellectuals began formal, specific and technical negotiations as representatives of the PLO, among them, Hanan Ashrawi. Ms. Ashrawi has written that the Oslo Accords which were initially negotiated in private, simply postponed the important questions surrounding any peace agreement.

Dr. Jayatilleka explains that as a student of Edward Said, Ms. Ashrawi understood the importance of building a strong intellectual lobby in Washington DC. One that furthers the Palestinian cause but also legitimizes the PLO. “Edward Said, who had campaigned for and supported the recognition in the PLO Charter of the right of the state of Israel to exist also opposed the Oslo Accords but for a reason different from most critics on both sides. He opposed the calling off of the First Intifada (which unlike the second, was not an armed Intifada) by the PLO so as to arrive at the Accords. History has proved him right and today the Palestinians are back on the agenda precisely because of the recent uprising… Hanan Ashrawi was also a critic of the Oslo track as distinct from the Washington track in which she was the key PLO spokesperson. The Said-influenced discourse of Ashrawi, helped the PLO make headway in Washington, but the PLO hierarchy preferred the Oslo track and pretty much abandoned the Washington track”.

In the aforementioned “Washington track”, Ashrawi and her colleagues were discussing crucial elements including the structure of Palestinian statehood, the status of Jerusalem, control over the land and population registries. The main achievement of the Oslo Accords, it seems, was the confirmation of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Continuing in ‘The morning After”, Said writes, “in the late Seventies, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance asked me to persuade Arafat to accept Resolution 242 with a reservation (accepted by the US) to be added by the PLO which would insist on the national rights of the Palestinian people as well as Palestinian self-determination. Vance said that the US would immediately recognize the PLO and inaugurate negotiations between it and Israel. Arafat categorically turned the offer down”. Thus, while there was displeasure amongst Said and others at Arafat’s unnecessary concessions, Israeli PM Rabin was equally unpopular. Rabin would be assassinated a few years later by an ultra-nationalist Israeli for making too many concessions to the Arabs.

Fast forward to the end of Bill Clinton’s final term and the Camp David Summit of 2000 between Yassar Arafat and Ehud Barak. Mr. Barak had been elected with a mandate to advance the peace process. While the proposals at Camp David were verbal and there is no record of what was discussed, it is understood that the plan was broadly based on the Oslo Accords. Reporting suggests that Yassar Arafat thwarted negotiations. It is widely held that Arafat made a political miscalculation by not accepting draft proposals in the year 2000. The issues were centered on the Palestinian right of return and land/ population swaps. It has also been speculated that an agreement was all but finalized 6 months later at a summit in Taba, Egypt. However while the terms were agreeable, political shifts proved fatal. In Israel, a right wing shift signaled the arrival of Ariel Sharon and Likud. In Palestine, the Second Intifada was raging.

Religious Narratives Informing Territorial Boundaries

The media tends to tip-toe around a crucial aspect inextricably linked to any political settlement. Dr. Jayatilleka states that the “The Israelis erred by never accepting in their actions, the UN resolution and by succumbing at first covertly (under Labor Governments) and later overtly (under Likud) to an Old Testament notion of its borders”.

“Thus, secular, strategic and security imperatives, which were justifiable given the traumas of the holocaust, were overlaid by a Biblical mandate as it were, which made for expansionism and annexation. This zero-sum thinking on the part of both sides in 1948 was the Original Sin. It continues today, with the non-zero-sum political leaderships being marginalized on both sides”.

Hamas deals in a brand of militancy clothed in religious fundamentalism. Their roots, as a sub branch of the Cairo based Muslim Brotherhood as well as the ultra-religious, even ethno-supremacist Shas Party in Israel, underline the overt religious element of the conflict. For example, one of the slogans used by Hamas in the run up to the 2021 elections was “Jerusalem is our Destiny”.

During a 2010 public debate with Tony Blair, author Christopher Hitchens stated “everyone in the civilized world has roughly agreed including the majority of Arabs and Jews and the international community, that there should be enough room for two states, for two peoples, in the same land… why can’t we get it? The UN can’t get it, the US can’t get it, the quartet can’t get it, the PLO can’t get it, Israeli Parliament can’t get it, why can’t they get it? Because the parties of god have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true; because of the divine promises made about this territory, there will never be peace, there will never be compromise…”

Even in the context of Palestinian Statehood, how ‘free’ would a Palestinian State be if Hamas and other militant elements continue their success at the polls. Would the emergence of a theocracy in Palestine be any more beneficial to Palestinian rights than the currently untenable situation? Does Fatah still count itself amongst the other Secular Nationalist parties?

Closing Credits for Manufactured Consent

Much has been stated regarding the media’s portrayal of the conflict in the past, the present escalation is no different. Over recent decades, the dynamics of mainstream cable news media has shifted with the popularization of alternative channels such as Russia Today (RT) and the Doha based Al Jazeera. In brief, the main charge concerns the media’s consistent lack of coverage regarding Israeli settlement expansion and evictions of Palestinians from traditional lands. Further, when hostilities escalate, the media is then accused of using a ‘both sides’ argument without adequate context. Another contention is that the debates on cable TV unnecessarily conflates the Palestinian leadership with Hamas.

The US media receives the most accusations of bias. Prof Chomsky, speaking during the 2002 Intifada; “… in the first days of the Intifada Israel immediately began using what are called in the press ‘Israeli helicopters’. They’re not Israeli helicopters, they’re US helicopters with Israeli pilots that were used to attack civilian complexes, killing and wounding dozens of people. That was sort of reported, it wasn’t a secret… The US did react to that officially. October 3rd 2000, the Clinton administration made the biggest deal in a decade to send new military helicopters to Israel… When you hear of the atrocities in Gaza (July 22nd 2002, 14 civilians killed by a helicopter missile attack)… How did the American press respond to this? They did report helicopters attacking civilians, but the deal made by the Clinton administration went literally without report. To be precise, one opinion column in a small newspaper in Virginia mentioned it. That’s it for the ‘free’ press”.

Authors of the 2007 book ‘The Israel Lobby’, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt refer to both formal and informal groups within the US that influence the media. Chomsky discusses the sanitization of violence in a 2001 essay: “As in the rule of properly sanitized history, Palestinians carry out terrorism, Israelis then retaliate, perhaps too harshly. In the real world, the truth is often rather different” pointing out that Israeli terrorism is barely criticized in US media.

This tide seems to be turning. With the advent of new media (youtube, substack) and social media as platforms of distribution, new voices are finding viewers. Dr. Jayatilleka considers the current escalation: The last time Israel fought a war against Gaza it went on for over 50 days. This time it stopped in 1/5th the duration. It was the first time ever that the mood on the Arab street coincided with the moral outrage on the American streets and in the US Congress, putting pressure on the US Government. From Gaza to New York and Chicago, from Jerusalem to Sydney, Palestinian flags are ubiquitous. One could not distinguish the coverage on CNN and the BBC from Al Jazeera. Israel lost the war of public opinion in the West, most significantly in the USA, and still more significantly, among the young American Jews. Another factor at work is the easy identification of Trump and Netanyahu in the minds of young Americans and young people in general the world over. The discourse and behavior of the Israeli rightwing mobs and the US Far Right which stormed the capitol on January 6th, are on a continuum. The ideology of the US Confederacy, revived by the US Far Right, and that of the Israeli religious Right, is easily recognizable as belonging to the same family”.

There is also a war happening in the US and wider media world. Mehdi Hasan, Abby Martin, Robert Fisk are noted for their reporting on the conflict from a Palestinian perspective. In 2018, journalist Marc Lamont Hill was removed as a political commentator on CNN after a speech was deemed ‘anti-Semitic’. Abby Martin is a staunch supporter of the ‘Boycott, Divest and Sanction’ (BDS) movement which aims to pressure the government of Israel. She was asked to sign an anti-BDS pledge before a university event in the US state of Georgia. She refused to sign the pledge, the event was cancelled. She is currently in court against the State of Georgia. Emily Wilder, a journalist at the Associated Press was terminated just last month due to what she deemed a smear campaign by fellow alumni at Stanford University regarding her ‘past activism on Palestine’.

Ilhan Omar, a Somali born Congresswoman from Minnesota has been regularly called out as ‘anti-semitic’ from both her own party and the Republicans, for mild criticism of the Israel Lobby. Right-wing media giant Fox News has regular segments decrying her statements, but even at this network, the Palestinian narrative is starting to gain traction. Geraldo Rivera is a popular political commentator that appears regularly on Fox News. Being partly Jewish through his mother’s ancertry, Rivera has recently been arguing the Palestinian case against his own colleagues including Sean Hannity. Rivera tweeted in May this year “American Bombs should not be used to kill defenseless civilians in Gaza” and agreed with the only Palestinian American member of congress, Rashida Tlaib when she stated that a $735 Mn weapons sale to Israel should be halted.

Dr. Jayatilleka sees the shift in media reporting as being a significant factor. The international media is no longer ‘manufacturing consent’ for Israel. That is the biggest change that I have seen in the recent Gaza conflict. There has been a major shift in the consciousness of Western journalists and anchors, as a result of struggle against Trump and Trumpism, and the coverage of the George Floyd murder, Police shootings and the Black Lives Matter protests. While Western journalists have shifted, so also have the TV channels because their own audiences (apart from FOX) have shifted left. The Israeli-Palestinian question is therefore covered in a far more balanced way. Today, the headway made in positively impacting the international media and world opinion is because of the sons and daughters of Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi, in terms of their discourse: they know how to address young Western audiences”.

The Real ‘Special Relationship’?

Strategic relations with Israel are a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East. There is no escaping that Israel has utilized US foreign policy to further its own objectives in the region. Political support from the most recent President, Mr. Donald Trump, was forthcoming. The shifting of the embassy was symbolic. Suspending US aid to Palestine as well as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the water-rich Golan Heights were straight from the Israeli wish-list. As was the ratcheting up of tensions with Iran by unilaterally disengaging from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and assassinating General Qasem Solemani. Not to mention the tweets in support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

The Trump Peace Plan was negotiated with no input from the PLO, since the Palestinians boycotted the Trump administration following the aforementioned relocation of the embassy. The Trump plan keeps Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, recognizes Israeli sovereignty over west bank settlements, cancels the Palestinian right of return but did provide a separate state for Palestinians that amounts to control over 15% of ‘historic Palestine’.

Now Mr. Trump is out of office, the PLO must contend with a new President with an old history of being pro-Israel. President Joe Biden must however contend with pressure from the left of his party, including the large and growing progressive caucus currently led by Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite Mr. Biden surprisingly maintaining his position on the JCPOA, Dr. Jayatilleka remains an “optimist… What we have seen around this Gaza war is something that would not and did not come as a surprise to Prof Richard Falk, who had long argued that Palestine can win a ‘legitimacy war’ while Israel can lose it — and therefore that Palestinians should wage such a legitimacy war on the battlefield of justice. That is what happened this time around. Two factors coincided. Firstly, the emergence of Generation Z Palestinians fluent in English and social media-savvy. Secondly, and most importantly, the change in the global zeitgeist, starting in the USA, with the fight against Trump and Trumpism, morphing into the massive mobilization led by Black Lives Matter, around the George Floyd murder. As Noam Chomsky noted, this was the biggest movement ever in American history and drew in as many young whites as it did blacks”.

As for the Biden administration, it cannot but be sensitive to shifts in the Democrat base. But far more significantly, it cannot step up its competition with China while leaving itself open to criticism, even from its own ranks, for double standards on human rights, democracy and racial justice as exemplified by its stand on Israel/Palestine. This time, in the Security Council, China clearly stole a march on the US”.

“The impact of the George Floyd protest and Black Lives Matter on the Biden administration is best evidenced by the fact that US Secretary of State Blinken instructed US Embassies to fly the Black Lives Matter flag on the first anniversary of the George Floyd murder”.

“It is my hope and indeed my bet that Israeli society will not wish to be out of sync with mounting Western opinion. Netanyahu may hope that his friend Trump or someone with his views may make a comeback, but there’s been a seismic shift in consciousness which will never snap back. Jewish values are no longer preponderantly represented by Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Naftali. Three American figures of Jewish origin have contributed to this new, justice-centered consciousness: Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders and Richard Falk”.

“The issue will finally be decided not by an abstract discussion over ‘two states vs one’, but by the real dynamics of history” Would Israel even have thought, that after the Abraham accords and the self-assurance, that the Palestinian issue had been peripheralized?… After exercising its military might, and despite the old propaganda magic wand of ‘terrorist rockets from Gaza’: the words Palestine and Palestinian are back in the consciousness of the world”.

Many consider the eight years of the Obama administration as a lost period in the fight for Palestinian rights. Reporting acknowledges that Obama did press Netanyahu in private meetings to scale back settlements, some of these have been described as confrontational.

Dr. Jayatilleka believes that Obama was the victim of political circumstances. He might be right as the Obama victory coincided with the rise of the right wing Tea Party as well as the rightward shift in Israeli politics.

“If Obama had the same favorable social consciousness on Israel-Palestine that exists now, he could have made more headway, but he didn’t. Though Secretary Kerry was progressive, Obama had to deal with the strong pro-Israeli lobby which included Hillary Clinton. So, all in all, I wouldn’t blame him too much”.

“What is decisive is the moral-ethical factor and Israel has lost the moral high ground. I am certain that Israeli society will halt that drift someday, sooner rather than later, by evolving. As for the Palestinians and the danger of a theocracy, Hamas will also have to evolve to retain the support of the new generation (which includes kids rapping in the rubble, in English!) and to win elections in the more sophisticated West Bank”.

“My hope and belief is that Israeli society, culture and politics will change for the better, bringing Israel more into congruence with the West which it has contributed so much to. That, together with the emergence of an articulate younger generation in Palestine, the real vanguard of the struggle this time and the global voice of the Palestinian people, will break the deadlock”.

“In History, miracles do happen, and Israel/Palestine is the most obvious place for it”.

- Kusum Wijetilleke with Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka


*A special thank you to Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka for taking the time to contribute to this piece.



Kus Wije

Sri Lankan free lance writer focusing on Politics and Foreign Relations