Since Oct. 7, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been at the center of international attention. This is reflected in, among other things, intense discussions in the United Nations Security Council, multiple trips by high-level international actors to the region, and wide coverage in the international media. While this response might have been foreseeable, it stands in stark contrast to the international dynamics prior to Oct. 7. In recent years, the issue has, in fact, been sidelined in the international discourse, and the question of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has almost disappeared from the international diplomatic agenda (as well as in the local discourse on both sides).

The Biden administration had, from the outset of its time in office, given the matter very low priority. It did not appoint a special envoy for the issue and refrained from becoming significantly involved or launching serious initiatives to address it. During President Joe Biden's visit to the region in July 2022, the Palestinian issue was sidelined, receiving almost no mention. This approach is not specific to the US though and reflects a much broader international perspective. The Middle East Quartet — a group comprising the US, Russia, the UN, and the European Union, created in 2002 to sponsor the peace process — has been paralyzed and ineffective for many years. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace effort, which collapsed in 2014, was the last international initiative to deal with the conflict at its core. After it failed, the Obama administration, along with other international actors, abandoned the cause.

The Trump administration produced rhetoric about resolving the conflict but in practice contributed to its escalation, causing a rift between Ramallah and Washington, and facilitated the Abraham Accords as a way of bypassing the Palestinian issue. International actors criticized President Donald Trump’s policy toward the conflict, arguing that it contravened international norms, and struggled to prevent annexation plans. But they did not try to fill the vacuum or invest resources in changing the situation. In this context, France, Germany, Egypt, and Jordan formed the Munich Group, but it failed to exert influence and subsequently disbanded.

The EU has continued to issue statements on the conflict, provided funding to the weakening Palestinian Authority (PA), and appointed a special envoy on the matter. However, it has failed to take significant action or express a willingness to invest time or political capital in dealing with it. Likewise, some Arab countries have revealed a sense of fatigue surrounding the Palestinian issue. They prioritize other topics, such as the Iranian threat, and have expressed a willingness to establish relations with Israel even without addressing the Palestinian issue.

Over the years, there have been a few reports (such as the 2016 Quartet Report) and high-profile gatherings (including the 2017 Paris conference), but no serious international peace strategy or concrete plan has emerged. Notably, in September 2023 the EU and the Arab League convened to launch a new effort to reinvigorate the peace process. However, this appeared to be too little, too late.

Rounds of violence with no long-term strategy

But while the process was frozen, the situation on the ground was not. The conflict has cycled through rounds of violence, including a series of Israel-Hamas wars in Gaza in 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2021; periods of escalation in East Jerusalem in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2021; and increasing violence in the West Bank. All of these ended without any attempt to deal with the core problems or to translate these tragic events into long-term change and a peacemaking process that would offer a political horizon beyond short-term cease-fires between one round of violence and the next. All of the post-war efforts focused on preventive diplomacy, small short-term steps to stop flare-ups or prevent escalation, and discussions around small-scale economic-civilian gestures.

The local actors bear primary responsibility for this situation, of course. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursued a policy of “conflict management” with Hamas, out of a desire to preserve the division between Gaza and the West Bank, and supported the transfer of Qatari funding to Hamas as well as mediation efforts by Egypt and UN envoys to put out fires. Nonetheless, the lack of international engagement following these rounds of violence was also striking. There were vague statements about the two-state vision, but never a concrete long-term plan for addressing the challenges of the current situation and creating the necessary conditions for change and the implementation of this vision. There were no post-war efforts by international figures, as we saw, for example, with Ralph Bunche after the 1948 war, Henry Kissinger after the 1973 war, and James Baker after the 1991 Gulf War.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has suddenly shown a great interest in the conflict and even invoked Article 99 for the first time in decades, has never tried to advance any serious initiative. Before October 2023, he had not visited the region in six years or attempted to revitalize the international mechanisms established to promote peace.

A different type of forgotten conflict

The conflict resolution scholarship includes discussions of “forgotten conflicts” and the scholars Crocker, Hampson, and Aall (2004) distinguish between different types. They refer, for example, to “neglected conflicts” — those that are invisible in the eyes of the international community; “orphaned conflicts” — those that previously had high levels of international engagement but where third parties have since lost their willingness to assist, leading to their abandonment; and “captive conflicts” — those that strong international actors have interest in continuing, with their involvement reducing the likelihood of a negotiated agreement. The above terms typically refer to such conflicts as the Western Sahara, Sri Lanka, and Sudan but the literature never applies these terms to Israel-Palestine. This conflict is perceived as having special global interest and extraordinary attention.

However, analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian case in recent years might indicate a new unique category of forgotten conflict, where on the one hand, the conflict still generates international attention, routine statements and resolutions, or other forms of “lip service” (what Crocker, Hampson, and Aall term “rote diplomacy”); but on the other hand, the international actors have walked away from real peacemaking engagement and there have been no concrete international diplomatic initiatives to address the issue.

A study in which I participated, conducted by a few scholars from the Hebrew University (and published last year), illustrated how the international media discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had completely disappeared, even before the process formally collapsed. The world was apparently tired and fed up with this conflict. Netanyahu’s supporters identified the world’s ignorance and lack of engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one of his main achievements.

There are, of course, numerous explanations and legitimate reasons for this lack of engagement. The international community was discouraged by the many failed rounds of negotiations and did not detect the political ripeness for a breakthrough on either side. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu opposed a renewal of the process, lost domestic and international credibility, and in recent years, adopted increasingly extreme positions because of his dependence on a right-wing base. Israeli public opinion has indicated a shift to the right, reflecting a lack of interest or confidence in peace. On the Palestinian side, the persistent rift between the Fatah-led government in the West Bank and the Hamas-led government in Gaza presented a major obstacle. Hamas has consistently refused to accept the Quartet’s conditions (nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements), and the PA’s growing weakness and the loss of legitimacy on the part of President Mahmoud Abbas have further complicated the situation and deterred international involvement. Other issues and arenas attracted greater international attention, both in the region (Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan) and on the global stage (China, COVID-19, democratic backsliding, and more recently, of course, the war in Ukraine).

Necessary steps for effective international engagement

Now, as has often happened in various conflict zones, an eruption has changed the situation and prompted renewed international engagement. But one may wonder whether the resulting interest will only be temporary, limited to empty statements or political exploitation for global competition or domestic needs.

To have a meaningful impact, the relevant international actors need to show a real commitment to long-term involvement and a willingness to invest time and resources in effecting genuine change. To guarantee effective diplomatic activism with long-term implications, two components that have been missing in recent years are required.

First, an effective new international group must be established that aims to create a synchronized and coherent mediation process, enhance coordination among the relevant members, and divide up responsibilities for the process. The idea of a multiparty mediation framework (Vuković, 2016) is not new and not unique to Israel-Palestine; it was used in the Balkans (the Contact Group), in Cambodia, and in the Ecuador-Peru peace process. It could increase leverage, create more international legitimacy, and ensure ongoing international engagement over time. The group could be modeled along the lines of a Middle East “contact group” with the US as a leading mediator, together with regional actors (who were absent in the Quartet), such as Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, as well as EU countries.

Second, a long-term strategy and a gradual plan of action are also needed to link the immediate challenges with a broader, long-term vision for the future of the conflict. In past years, there have been initiatives that attempted to outline principles for a vision of peace without laying out a pathway to get there, and there were initiatives that focused on immediate confidence-building measures without connecting them to a long-term political horizon. Now a strategy is needed that connects these elements and can be based on “issue linkage” (Druckman and Wagner, 2021) between the main components, such as post-war Gaza, PA reforms, Israeli-Saudi normalization, and a path to a two-state vision. This involves a plan with demands and incentives from the parties at every stage, a binding timeline and sequence, and an international commitment to supervise and accompany the process over time. We need to avoid repeating the mistake of the 2003 Roadmap, which laid out an ambitious plan but was quickly abandoned. It can also include, if possible, a UN Security Council resolution that will update UN Resolution 242 (1967) and ensure an international commitment to the plan. An ongoing positive international engagement based on these elements could also influence the domestic inter-party discourse and shift the balance between moderates and extremists.

Our message to the international community can be summed up by borrowing the words of Leah Rabin when she addressed the many young Israelis who had gathered in the streets to mourn the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin following his assassination in 1995: “It’s unfortunate you weren’t here then, but it’s good you’re here now.”


Lior Lehrs is a Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of International Relations and The Swiss Center for Conflict Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

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