Rethinking “Palestine”

With all the talk of change from the Obama administration, there is an area in which the President and Secretary of State have chosen to follow lines previously set. Wedding itself to the “Two State Solution” – which they describe as a secure State of Israel living next to a democratic State of Palestine – the administration is following the mistake previously set as well. In so doing, it is missing an opportunity to bring real change and progress for both Israelis and Palestinians.

With all the talk of change from the Obama administration, there is an area in which the President and Secretary of State have chosen to follow lines previously set. Wedding itself to the “Two State Solution” – which they describe as a secure State of Israel living next to a democratic State of Palestine – the administration is following the mistake previously set as well. In so doing, it is missing an opportunity to bring real change and progress for both Israelis and Palestinians.

At its theoretical best, the old Ottoman territory of Palestine never divided itself into two states for two people.

It could have been four states – Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza – for two-and-a-half-and-a-half people: Israelis in Israel; Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan; and the two halves being Arabs in Israel and Bedouins in Jordan. At its worst, it is two states – Jordan and Israel – with enclaves of irredentist Palestinians supported by Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba eating at their sides. And always, there are hundreds of thousands of original refugees and their descendants festering in third countries – Lebanon, Syria and Egypt – unable to go where they want, and unwilling to go where they can.

At their theoretical best, the Palestinians could have taken up President Bush’s conditions for American political support of their independence:

Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts.

Lyrical, but very theoretical. The old, terrorist-dominated Palestinian leadership wasn’t interested in ceding authority to young technocrats. They weren’t interested in tolerance of either Jews or independent-minded Palestinians. They weren’t interested in liberty or practicing anything. Each gift or concession Fatah and Hamas received from Israel or the international community was turned to the furtherance of violence and the veneration of death and destruction.

[Parenthetical note: The denunciation of the terrorist-dominated Palestinian leadership in no way implies that all the Palestinian people are terrorists, or all the Palestinian people want to kill Israelis, or that the Palestinian people have no interest in a peaceful, successful future. Although they voted for Hamas when given the chance, it was an electoral Hobson’s Choice. It must be said, however that Palestinian leadership – the people with guns who make the rules – has no interest in a peaceful, successful future that includes a State of Israel. That the Palestinian “people” are at the mercy of that leadership is nowhere more clear than in the fact that Hamas has been firing at Israel from amid civilian neighborhoods in Gaza and hid behind women and children during Israel’s operation in Gaza in December and January.]

The “Two-State Solution” is embedded in the principles of the Oslo Accords, negotiated without US participation and signed in 1993. From the Israeli side, Oslo was founded on three underlying principles:

  • That Palestinian nationalism was the mirror image of Jewish nationalism;

  • That Palestinian nationalism could find its full expression in a rump state – the West Bank and Gaza Strip – squeezed between Israel and Jordan; and

  • That there was a price Israel (and the US) could pay to the Palestinians that would overcome any remaining Palestinian objection to Jewish sovereignty in the region.

The Israeli principles underlying Oslo were mistaken.

First, Jewish nationalism was based on the idea of “regularizing” Jews in their historic homeland. It was about the condition of the Jews. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, said he wanted to see Jewish policemen arresting Jewish criminals because that’s what “normal” people do. (Actually, he said “Jewish prostitutes.) For him and for most Zionists, statelessness was an impediment to normalcy. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, said as the League of Nations was discussing the parameters of the British Mandate for Palestine and the emergence of Jewish and Arab states there, “Make the state the size of a postage stamp; just make it a state.”

It was this Jewish notion of the problem of statelessness for a people that the Israelis mirrored onto the Palestinians at Oslo. It was less a concern about the size and shape of the state, and more a concern for the “people problems,” which is why many Israelis are still willing to part with land in order to “make peace” with the Palestinians – the physical boundaries are less important for them than getting on with advancing people on both sides.

The Palestinians had a different problem to solve. Their nationalism was based not on historical statelessness, but on the idea that “their land” had been taken by Israel – not in 1967, but in 1948. The Palestinian “refugee problem” was created in 1948 and it is the original problem – the establishment of the State of Israel – that in their view needs to be corrected. That’s why people still have to talk about inducing the Palestinians to “accept Israel’s right to exist.”

That is an offensive phrase – Israel was established through the same internationally accepted mechanism that established states all over the world. There is no ex post facto discussion of their “right to exist,” nor should there be one for Israel – the fact that this remains an unfulfilled demand by our government to the Palestinians and other Arabs tells you that the problem emanates from 1948, not 1967.

The same is true of Palestinian attitudes toward Jordan, the legitimacy of which is not accepted by Palestinian leadership either – the PLO came into existence in the 1960s, before Israel was in control of the West Bank, to fight the Kingdom of Jordan as well as Israel. The 1970 Jordanian Black September was a PLO attempt to overthrow King Hussein.

As a practical matter, this points to the second and third problems of Oslo:

Second, the broadest definition of Palestinian nationalism cannot be satisfied with a rump state squeezed between Jordan and Israel.

Third, there is nothing Israel (or the US) can use to bribe or pay off the Palestinians to give up their deeply held belief that Israel has to disappear in order for Palestinians to have what they consider to be rightfully theirs.

Oslo foundered over the fact that the most Israel could give to the Palestinians was short of what the Palestinians could accept. It was and remains inevitable – they are trying to solve different problems.

Oslo was replaced by Yasser Arafat’s so-called Second Intifada, the bombing and sniping campaign that killed more than 1,000 Israelis and injured several thousand between October 2000 and the point where Israel re-established security control over the West Bank in 2005. That security control was achieved through the restoration of the IDF to the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and the building of the Security Fence. Since 2002, Israeli policy has been to use intelligence information and the IDF presence to prevent the emergence or coalescence of groups and cells that could organize to plan terrorist operations, and to prevent the stockpiling of weapons.

Essentially – and crucially – Israel re-established Israeli responsibility for the security of its own people – the first obligation of an independent country.

Operation Defensive Shield and construction of the Fence had three positive outcomes:

  • Ending the war known as the second intifada

  • Providing an unequivocal victory against terrorists and the states or entities that harbor and support them – which

  • Set the stage for political progress and a security program between Israel and Abu Mazen – benefitting both.

Today Palestinian security forces operate in the West Bank with Israeli acquiescence and support. However, they are limited to police functions while Israel controls counter-terror operations.

Largely because of the general quiet that prevails – including during the time of the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December and January – and because of the political mechanism that exists between Israel and Abu Mazen, people are unaccustomed to thinking about the security mechanism that protects Israel and protects Abu Mazen’s relatively pragmatic government. The IDF.

Recent economic indicators in the West Bank show unemployment down, economic activity up and Christmas 2008 in Bethlehem financially and religiously successful.

In Gaza, the obverse happened.

Israel removed both its civilian and military presence. This allowed Hamas unimpeded time and space to arm and train.

Hamas’s political victory in the parliamentary election was followed by the Palestinian civil war, the ousting of Abu Mazen’s government from Gaza, and continuing encroachment of Hamas in the West Bank to undermine Fatah’s authority there.

To talk now about a two-state solution ignores the reality that there are three governing entities between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River – one of which, Hamas, is actively fighting the other two with no plans to surrender either its physical property – the Gaza Strip – or its right to armed resistance against Israel and Fatah. It is supported in both of those positions by money, arms and military training from Iran.

The result of the Gaza operation was a clear military defeat for Hamas, which lost more than 600 fighters. However, Hamas has achieved a political victory. American pressure for a Palestinian Unity Government makes Hamas an essential player – when its threats to both Israel and Fatah should make it an outcast.

To discuss a Hamas-Fatah unity government under the circumstances is to ignore the fact that the only thing Fatah and Hamas agree on is that the creation of Israel was a mistake. And to bring the Hamas fox into the Fatah chicken coop is to ignore the fact that the only thing keeping Abu Mazen in power is the protection of Israel – protection Israel will not be able to provide if Hamas becomes a legitimate player, entitled to distribute wealth and entitled to assert some control over the security forces the US is training on behalf of Abu Mazen.

What the US can and should do

First, withdraw political support for an independent Palestinian state. American support for the two-state solution was predicated, according to President Bush and President Obama, on political decisions Palestinians would take.

President Bush said: “When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state.”

President Obama appears to have a lower bar – calling for Hamas to “recognize the right of Israel to exist, to renounce violence and to accept previous agreements negotiated by the Fatah government.”

Neither President Bush nor President Obama indicated what would happen if the conditions were not met, but it seems reasonable that the US would cease to support the establishment of an independent Palestine. That means:

  • No Roadmap

  • No Quartet

  • No treating Palestinian representatives as if they are diplomats of a sovereign state

  • No support for the committees of the UN dedicated to Palestinian independence – of which there are at least five.

This is not to punish the Palestinian people, although they voted for Hamas. It is rather the natural consequence of making American policy internally and externally consistent. The underlying assumption here about the Palestinians is that there will be future Palestinian elections. If, in some future election, the people choose leadership “not compromised by terror,” we can reinstate our support for Palestinian independence. If they don’t, they don’t.

One lesson of democracy has to be that ideas, words and votes have consequences. The Palestinians made a choice voting for Hamas, but nothing requires the rest of us to ignore the political ramifications of what they chose.

Tony Blair once said, “It’s for the Palestinians to elect the people they choose to elect. But it’s for us to say the consequences of electing people who aren’t serious negotiating partners is that we can’t move this forward.”

In the meantime, there are two separate entities that have to be dealt with.

The West Bank and its residents have far more in common with Jordan and with Israel’s Galilee Arabs than with Gaza and its residents. Refugees comprise a smaller percentage of the population, more of them live in the towns and villages of their ancestry and they have ethnic, familial and business ties to Jordan.

And Jordan has more than a passing interest in the security arrangements of the West Bank – cooperating with Israel to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the territory from Jordan, and training the Palestinian police force that currently serves in Jenin and Hebron. An essential “condominium” of interests has evolved that has Israel and Jordan cooperating on security arrangements over the head of Fatah. The evolution of this shared Jordanian-Israeli responsibility would allow the Palestinians maximum political, economic and social ties with both countries, and ensure a means of protecting the Fatah government from Hamas encroachment.

In that context, it would be a mistake to enhance the security capabilities of the Palestinian police force or require them to conduct “counterterrorism” operations that presumably would protect Israel, but which would actually give them capabilities and resources that could be turned against Israel or Jordan under some future circumstance.

Gaza is harder.

Gaza cannot be wished away and no one should be comfortable consigning the Palestinians to life behind bars while Hamas takes Iranian money and works on bigger and more precise missiles with which to destroy Israel. Nor should we be comfortable with ongoing Israeli military incursions and the social service “squeeze” that Israel has been forced into – even though the Israelis are doing their best to limit the humanitarian crisis.

There are three options – all better than what we have now.

First – increase the size of Gaza with long-term land leases in northern Sinai. We know from Israel’s experience with Yamit that the land will support farming and new communities. If part of the problem is density and the lack of room for productive enterprise, this would help. If would also give Egypt a stake in the area’s stability and future economic growth. An Israeli politician suggested it years ago as a humanitarian gesture, but Egypt rejected it out of hand – preferring to leave Israel with the full responsibility for Gaza. Clearly, that didn’t work out well. If one believes that radicalism stems from poverty this idea should have merit and the US government should use its leverage with Egypt to pursue it as a matter in Egypt’s security interest.

Second – abolish UNRWA and move the refugees and money to UNHCR with its mandate to resettle people permanently in Gaza or elsewhere. If coordinated with the first idea, and again if one believes that radicalism stems from poverty, the Palestinians could be given a stake in Gaza that could eventually produce productivity and perhaps economic advancement.

Third – and most radical – surveying the population and economic growth data, similarities between post World War II Singapore and the Gaza Strip emerge. After the war, Singapore was one of the poorest places in the world, with labor and social unrest, unemployment, few natural resources and little undamaged infrastructure – as well as a shooting war with Malaysia.

It remained a backwater through Malaysian independence in 1963. Continuing ethnic and political trouble between Singapore and Malaysia led to Singapore’s establishment as a city-state in 1965. Its economic future was bleak, as it lost its primary trading partner and its domestic market at the same time.

Gaza, like Singapore, has an entrepreneurial population sitting on a crucial location that could make it a center of banking and trade. Singapore in Asia and Gaza at the meeting point of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

What did Singapore – or Hong Kong, or Dubai – have that Gaza doesn’t have? That’s not a trick question. The answer is forward looking leadership and the internal security produced by the rule of law.

If the international community is really concerned about the future of the Palestinian people, it should be willing to support the establishment of a UN protectorate and the rule of law in Gaza. The billions pledged – including $900+ million from the Obama administration, and $85 million pledged by the previous one – would go a long way toward establishing real institutions that serve the people. And if the people of Gaza are really interested in their future, they will appreciate the end of refugee status and the restored promise not only of independence but also of economic stability and advancement. And they will appreciate being rescued from the yoke of Hamas.

How to get there? That’s a problem, much in the way that Darfur is a problem.

The international community is often willing to make pronouncements but unwilling to back them up with the military force that is sometimes the only way to move recalcitrants. UN control would probably have to be established militarily – as it was during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

This is not an unreasonable international response to an entity in Gaza that has executed Fatah prisoners, held an Israeli soldier illegally for nearly 1,000 days, used its civilians as human shields and is bound and determined to erase a UN member including by randomly shelling its civilians. And it would be preferable to the possibility that Israel – which is unwilling to have an Iranian outpost in Gaza – will find that it has to take more extreme military action in the future.

It may prove impossible to put an end to Hamas ideology, but it should be possible to wrest the levers of government power from Hamas and UNRWA – its social arm.

In the meantime, as the US appears to be insistent that negotiations of some sort take place, the following conditions should be applied to them:

  • No Israeli-Palestinian bilateral talks on any except local issues and day-to-day security.

  • Multilateral talks can be held under American auspices between Israel and those countries and entities that publicly and in Arabic argue against violence as a means of achieving political ends, and that publicly and in Arabic accept the provision of UN Resolution 242 regarding terminating their states of belligerency with Israel and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Not the “right of Israel to exist,” but the legitimacy of the State of Israel that does exist.

  • The goal of these talks will be, among others, to find ways the Arab states can use their influence and their money to work on the political and humanitarian problems in the territories and in Arab countries in which Palestinians reside as unwanted aliens – specifically what to do about refugees in Lebanon and Syria. As the Arab states had a hand in creating and maintaining the refugee problem, they should have a hand in resolving it.

Under no circumstances should the US accept that Israel be pressured to find a way to satisfy an Arab interest in additional territory or Palestinian independence until the legitimacy and security of Israel are assured by the Arab states.

The obvious difficulties that arise from the above make it clear that the Arab-Israeli dispute – of which the Palestinian quest for independence is only one part – may have no clear parameters for resolution. That is not a reason not to suggest alternatives; in fact it may be the best reason to stretch the parameters of our thinking. Nor should we be stopped by the fact that the Palestinians will object to most of the alternatives. Putting forward only those propositions you know your opposite number will accept is the waste of a negotiation.

And finally, if the whole problem lacks a direct resolution at the present time, the US should pursue the parts that lend themselves to amelioration – such as advancing on the West Bank – and should continue to provide Israel with the security that comes from our long and close relationship.

That would be change we could believe in.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director for Security Policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington.


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