The decades-long conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has long commanded international attention and support for the opposing sides. Through the years, the dispute has galvanized the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa against the Israeli state. But over time, as tentative peace agreements have taken effect and unrest, and instability have overwhelmed much of the Arab world, the conflict has slipped out of the regional and international spotlight. This waning attention, combined with the irreconcilable differences between the two sides of the conflict, and within them, will keep a resolution at bay in the coming year. At the same time, though fractious and unpredictable, the conflict is unlikely to expand. Instead, the new year will bring more of the same for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the perennial risk of another flare-up.
While earlier we looked at the geostrategic problems of Israel, in the case of the Palestinians the story begins with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Middle East from 1517 to 1918, when World War I ended. The Ottomans divided the Middle East into provinces, one of which was Syria. Under the Ottomans, the Syria province encompassed what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Constantinople (Istanbul), the Ottoman seat, sided with the Germans in World War I. As a result, after the war the victorious British and French dismantled the Ottoman Empire, and the province of Syria came under British and French rule. Under a secret wartime French-British deal, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the province was divided on a line running from Mount Hermon due west to the sea. The area to the north was placed under French control.
Abbreviated Timeline of Israel-Palestine Territory Change and Conflict
But already, the conference has failed in its principal endeavor to coax the two sides of the conflict into the same room to discuss the situation. Prominent Israeli and Palestinian leaders have yet to confirm their attendance.
1948-1949: Israel Declares Independence After the British Give up Control of Palestine
Occupying the territory between the borders established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and those drawn after 1967's Six-Day War is part of Israel's defensive strategy.
1967: Israel Annexes Territory
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, lacks a government coherent enough to agree on a solution to present to Israel. The two most prominent Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, envision entirely different outcomes for the enduring struggle. Fatah's two-state solution is far too conciliatory for Hamas, which espouses violent opposition to Israel. Since Hamas swept elections in 2006, deep divisions have all but hamstrung the Palestinian government. The discord between Hamas and Fatah grew to such an extent in 2016 — despite their attempted peace agreement — that it derailed scheduled elections. To further complicate matters, the Palestinian Authority is at loggerheads over a succession plan for aging (and often ailing) leader Mahmoud Abbas.
1975-1982: Israel Withdraws From Sinai
Though Israel's borders and settlements have commanded international attention, they are internal issues that only the Israeli government has the power to address. Similarly, they will not prevent Palestinians from launching retaliatory attacks against the perceived Israeli occupation.
Solutions to the conflict's security and refugee crises will prove elusive. Palestinian terrorist attacks are still a pressing concern for Israel, but more and more, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are competing for the country's attention. And because Hezbollah currently wields more political and military power than Hamas does, Israel is devoting much of its offensive capabilities to countering that organization instead.
A Change in US Policy
As the peace process continues to flounder, Donald Trump is preparing to assume the U.S. presidency. Trump and his pick for the new U.S. ambassador to Israel have criticized President Barack Obama's stance toward the country and pledged to increase their support for Israel and its activities in the West Bank. If the Trump administration follows through on its promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he risks provoking a backlash from Middle Eastern countries that support the Palestinian Authority.
But for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Israel is a tacit ally in their efforts to counter Iran's influence in the region. (Turkey is also pursuing energy ties with Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.) Egypt, meanwhile, must work to preserve peace in the Palestinian Authority under its agreements with Israel or else risk losing vital economic and security assistance from the United States. Though Jordan has already spoken out against the proposed embassy relocation, its dependence on U.S. financial and military support will limit its criticism. Public outcry in these countries over Trump's policies toward Israel could prompt their leaders to take a tougher stance. Still, maintaining an alliance with Israel — either to keep Iran in check or, for Jordan and Egypt, to stave off instability at their borders — is more important for these governments.