‘Shrinking the Conflict’: What Does Israel’s New Mantra Really Mean?

JERUSALEM — There’s a new three-word concept taking root in political and diplomatic discourse in Jerusalem: shrinking the conflict.

The idea is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved in the near future, since the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are both too divided to restart peace negotiations, let alone reach a peace deal. But Israel can work to reduce the impact of the century-long conflict on Palestinians, thus making peace more likely.

If the conflict cannot be solved, the argument goes, it can at least be shrunk.

The idea has gained momentum since Naftali Bennett replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister in June. On the day he took office, he promised in a speech to Parliament to contribute to “the reduction of friction and the shrinking of the conflict.”

Two weeks later, Yair Lapid, the Israeli foreign minister, pledged to “minimize” the conflict, in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

The State Department does not use the term, but its officials channel the concept’s logic. They avoid calls for a resumption of negotiations, pressing instead for policies that ensure Palestinians and Israelis experience “equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity,” a formulation Mr. Blinken used in May.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett promised to contribute to “the reduction of friction and the shrinking of the conflict.”Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

To its supporters, “shrinking the conflict” is a welcome paradigm shift after the peace process juddered to a halt during Mr. Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure. Negotiations to establish a Palestinian state petered out in 2014, and Mr. Netanyahu became more dismissive of Palestinian sovereignty. Mr. Bennett also rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, but his backers argue that he is taking steps to improve the lives of Palestinians.

To its critics, the new mantra is merely a rebranding of Israel’s decades-old approach to the Palestinians. They frame it as a clever public relations strategy that obscures a longstanding intention by successive Israeli leaders, including Mr. Bennett, to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, entrench Israel’s presence there and make it harder to reverse the 54-year occupation.

The phrase was coined by Micah Goodman, an Israeli philosopher who is an unofficial adviser to Mr. Bennett.

“For the past 12 years, we were trapped in a false dichotomy,” Mr. Goodman said in a recent interview. “There were attempts to end the conflict, and when they failed, we chose not to do anything about the conflict.”

There is another way, he argued, including in articles for The Atlantic and The New York Times. Short of a peace agreement and without withdrawing from the West Bank, the government could still take concrete steps to promote “Palestinians’ economic independence and prosperity.”

A Palestinian market in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Israel has taken steps aimed at improving life for Palestinians.Credit…Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Shrinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t solve or end the conflict,” Mr. Goodman wrote in The Times. “It would contain it, it would lessen it. It would broaden the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, their freedom to develop and their freedom to prosper.”

So far, the Bennett government’s attempts to improve the status quo include a promise to provide 4G mobile internet to Palestinians in the West Bank; reduce the number of Israeli army raids in the nearly 40 percent of the West Bank that is administered by the Palestinian Authority; and potentially build nearly 900 new Palestinian homes in the areas run by Israel.

The Bennett government has also lent the Palestinian government $156 million to help it survive a financial crisis; allowed a further 15,000 Palestinians to work in Israel; and pledged to regularize the status of thousands of West Bank Palestinians who lack proper paperwork. Public contact between Israeli and Palestinian officials has also increased since Mr. Bennett took office, after years of minimal ties under Mr. Netanyahu.

Explaining his approach in an interview with The Times in August, Mr. Bennett said: “They’re not going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere — we’re here together, stuck. But then what do we do? Economy, economy, economy.”

He said that “if people have a good future, have a reasonable job, can provide for their family with dignity and send their kids to good education,” this would prove “way more important than dealing with the usual stuff that got us nowhere.”

To Mr. Goodman, these are welcome measures — but not exactly what he meant when he first wrote about “shrinking the conflict” in 2019.

Palestinian protesters throwing back a tear gas grenade at Israeli soldiers after a protest against Israeli settlements in August.Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Goodman’s idea was not just to improve the quality of Palestinian life, but to expand Palestinian self-rule. He proposed expanding the Palestinian Authority’s area of jurisdiction, providing more land for Palestinian officials to allocate for building projects. And he suggested creating a network of Palestinian-patrolled highways in the West Bank, allowing Palestinians to move around without spending hours at Israeli checkpoints.

All this, Mr. Goodman reckoned, could be achieved without returning to negotiations, and without addressing more contentious issues such as the future of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides as their capital.

“It’s misunderstood by many reporters around the world that shrinking the conflict means making life easier and better for Palestinians,” he said. “I am all for that. That’s great. But that’s not what stands at the heart of shrinking-the-conflict paradigm shift. Shrinking the conflict is about increasing Palestinian self-governance. It’s about increasing Palestinian freedom — freedom to build, freedom of movement.”

Mr. Bennett’s critics argue that he is less interested in shrinking the conflict than ignoring it.

In his speech to the United Nations on Monday, he did not once mention the Palestinians.

And while some of his policies display an attempt to reduce tensions in the West Bank, others perpetuate practices that have contributed to, rather than shrunk, the conflict.

The government’s plan to build nearly 900 new Palestinian homes was accompanied by a proposal to build nearly three times as many Israeli homes in the occupied territories. Critics said the settlement expansion would make it far harder to create a contiguous Palestinian state, rendering a peace agreement even less likely.

The Israeli government has continued to expand Jewish settlements like Efrat, in the occupied West Bank. Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The military has continued to use live fire during protests, clashes and confrontations. Since Mr. Bennett took office, 20 Palestinian civilians have been killed, more than three times as many as during the equivalent periods in the last three years, according to records compiled by the United Nations.

The Bennett government has also permitted public Jewish prayer at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, a policy that began covertly under Mr. Netanyahu and that threatens a delicate arrangement aimed at keeping the peace at one of the most contentious sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A recent Palestinian poll suggested that more than half of Palestinians are largely happy with the new policies that aim to make their lives easier, but a similar number also support armed resistance against the occupation.

Mairav Zonszein, a Tel Aviv-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research group, said Israel’s military presence in the West Bank makes it hard to reduce the conflict.

“While Bennett’s policy of shrinking the conflict with the Palestinians seeks to keep the West Bank quiet by assuaging some of the most egregious Israeli restrictions on Palestinian livelihood, Israel’s permanent occupation of the West Bank remains an obstacle to that goal,” she said. “You can’t have economic peace or stability under occupation, because occupation prioritizes Israeli interests, resources and expansionism over all else.”

The government’s policy permitting public Jewish prayer at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem threatens a delicate arrangement aimed at keeping the peace.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Jonathan Shamir contributed reporting.

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