Shifting the Paradigm for Palestine: From the Political to the Humanitarian

Professor Martin Sherman is the 2009-2010 Hebrew Union College/University of Southern California Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor of Security Studies and International Policy.

Professor Martin Sherman is the 2009-2010 Hebrew Union College/University of Southern California Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor of Security Studies and International Policy.

Professor Sherman is the academic director of the Jerusalem Summit and a research fellow in the Security Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He is also a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and was an academic advisor to the Herzliya Conference. Professor Sherman served for several years in operational capacities in the Israeli intelligence community and has held the post of ministerial advisor to the Israeli government.

Professor Sherman’s books include The Politics of Water in the Middle East, (1999) and Despots, Democrats and the Determinants of International Conflict, (1998). He has been published widely in journals and has edited books and policy papers on a range of strategic and foreign policy issues. His latest work focuses on Israel’s developing ties with India. Professor Sherman is a frequent television and radio commentator on foreign and security policy topics in Hebrew and English.

April 15, 2010

The following is an alternative proposal for a non-coercive resolution or, rather, dissolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict­ – to replace the disastrously failed “two-state/land-for-peace” paradigm.

Clearly, within the restricted limits of a single “Briefing” it is not possible to provide either a comprehensive presentation of any far-reaching departure from conventional wisdom, or persuasive argumentation to justify each of its component elements. The most that can be achieved under such severe constraints is to sketch the outlines of the proposal, to list briefly its major components and to hope that it will spark a wider, more detailed debate of the proposal’s feasibility, economic costs, international acceptability and, of course, its relative merits and demerits compared to other alternatives currently “on the table.”

In formulating an alternative paradigmatic approach to the Palestinian issue, a few simple, but starkly significant factors should be kept firmly in mind:

Firstly, to survive as the nation-state of the Jews, Israel must successfully address two imperatives, one demographic and the other geographic.

Secondly, in contending with these imperatives, Israel must face two dangers, one of the two-state solution, which does not adequately address the “geographic imperative” and the other of the emerging (and arguably more severe) danger of the one-state solution, which does not adequately address the “demographic imperative.”

Addressing Both Geographic and Demographic Imperatives

Accordingly, any comprehensive alternative, whose underlying strategic goal is the permanent preservation of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, must address both the geographic and the demographic imperatives and contend with the dangers that both the two-state and the one-state approaches entail.

Moreover, any realistic policy approach cannot be oblivious to the enduring failure of the Palestinians to function as an effective, coherent national entity. In spite of the fact that they have had arguably the most conducive conditions ever enjoyed by any post World War I national independence moment, they have proven to be totally incapable of establishing any semblance of a stable, productive civil society.

Indeed during the last Half Century, the Palestinians have had the benefit of:

  • The unmitigated superpower (Soviet) support during the decades of the Cold War;

  • Wall-to-wall international endorsement of their claims;

  • Highly favorable coverage by the international media;

  • Huge financial aid-until recently, the world’s highest on a per capita basis;

  • Almost two decades of Israeli administrations that not only explicitly acknowledged their demands, but in some cases actually identified with them. In fact, even fashioning their domestic political platform on the basis of that identification.

Yet despite this glut of advantages, in the two decades since the Oslo Agreement thrust the opportunity of statehood upon them, all the Palestinians have managed to produce is:

  • A corrupt kleptocracy under Fatah,

  • A tyrannical theocracy under Hamas; and

  • A chronic chaos under both.

Accordingly, an increasingly plausible claim can be made that, as a national entity, the Palestinians have failed the test of history. This is a position strongly endorsed by Azmi Bishara, a self-proclaimed “Palestinian,” who served as a member of the Knesset, representing Balad, an anti-Zionist Arab party, until forced to flee because of allegations of treason for aiding Hezbollah in the 2006 War in Lebanon.

In 2002, Bishara declared,“… I don’t think there is a Palestinian nation at all. I think there is an Arab nation. When were there any Palestinians? Where did it come from? … until the end of the 19th century, Palestine was the south of Greater Syria.”

Indeed, what seems to be emerging is that the Palestinian behavior is motivated far more by a desire to dismantle the Jewish state than to establish a Palestinian one. This is reflected in numerous declarations by Palestinian leaders, one of the more explicit ones by Zuheir Muhsin, the former head of the PLO’s Military Department and member of its Executive Council: “…the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”

It should be clear, therefore, that the conventional wisdom approach of “land-for-peace/two-state-solution” is futile, fraudulent and fraught with peril. As former (far-left) Meretz Party Education Minister and Israel Prize Laureate Prof. Amnon Rubinstein once wrote in Ha’aretz: “Since the time of [Nazi propaganda chief] Dr. Goebbels there has never been a case in which continual repetition of a lie has borne such great fruits… Of all the Palestinian lies there is no greater or more crushing lie than that which calls for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank…”

Moving Beyond a Palestinian State, A Focus on the Humanitarian Needs

Accordingly, both political prudence and intellectual integrity dictate that the issues of a Palestinian state be removed from the international agenda. This, of course, is easier said than done, as the issue has become deeply ingrained into the culture of the international political discourse. It will require a huge public diplomacy (PD) offensive, way beyond the pathetically puny efforts presently devoted to this field by Israel. (Despite its crucial importance, the scope and substance of such a PD offensive, is beyond the scope of this essay).

Even if the issue of Palestinian statehood is removed from the international debate as an appropriate objective to be aspired to, however, this will not remove the genuine humanitarian plight of the Palestinians both under Israeli administration-and even more so under Arab administration. It is this plight that needs to be addressed both by Israel and by international community, and it is the focus on the humanitarian rather than the political that constitutes the core of this proposal.

There is little doubt that the ensuing proposal will, at least initially, provoke a fierce partisan debate as to its feasibility. There can, however, also be little doubt that if implemented, it will indeed address both the demographic and geographic imperatives and contend with dangers inherent in both the one-state and the two-state approaches.

Moreover, several opinion polls, conducted by both Israeli and Palestinians, indicated that there would be widespread support for its implementation, on both sides. And despite any controversy the proposal may raise, there can be little dispute at to the irrefutable libertarian nature of its components. These comprise:

  • Eliminating the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) anomaly that exacerbates the Palestinian “refugee” problem and perpetuates their culture of dependency.

  • Eliminating ethnic discrimination against Palestinians resident in the Arab world.

  • Facilitating the exercise of free will by individual Palestinians in determining their future.

The proposal diverges from the current attempts at resolving the conflict, in both methodology and substance, and advocates:

  • Abandoning the political paradigm and adopting a humanitarian one.

  • Abandoning a quest for a solution to the problem and focusing on its dissolution (i.e. its dispersion).

  • De-politicizing the conceptual discourse and dealing with individuals directly through practical policy measures.

  • Addressing the Palestinians not as a coherent collective but as discrete individual human beings.

Moreover and arguably most important, it can be implemented without having to secure any agreement with any Arab collective entity-whether a state or an organization.

UNRWA Perpetuates the Palestinian Refugee Problem, UNHCR Could Solve It

A brutally condensed tour de raison of the substantive elements of the proposal begins with UNRWA and the refugee issue. There is a growing awareness that UNRWA is one of the principal stumbling blocks to a resolution of the Palestinian predicament, as demonstrated by the increasing number of publications focusing on the dysfunctional nature of the organization. While a detailed account of the pernicious and obstructive role UNRWA plays is well beyond the possible scope of this piece, it must be stressed that UNRWA is a highly anomalous organization.

All the refugees on the face of the globe are under the auspices of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) except for the Palestinians. For them, a separate special institution exists, UNRWA. These two bodies even have different definitions of the term “refugee” and different mandates for dealing with them-a factor that has immense political and practical implications. For example, the UNHCR with a staff of about 5,000 deals with an annual “client population” of 30 million refugees, typically finding permanent solutions for them in less than two generations. By contrast, UNRWA, with a staff five times larger (25,000), has not managed to solve the problem for a client population five times smaller (of allegedly 4.5 million) in over six decades. As the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee once remarked:

… I am frankly baffled as to why, more than 50 years after the founding of the State of Israel, there continues to exist a UN agency focused solely on Palestinian refugees. Why has an agency that was established on a temporary basis evolved into a permanent institution that is outside the administrative and policy jurisdiction of the other UN voluntary agencies? Why have UNRWA’s responsibilities not been folded into the operations of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees? …No other refugee problem in the world has been treated in this privileged and prolonged manner.

A more comprehensive analysis of the far-reaching significance of Lantos’ observation must be delayed for another occasion. Suffice it to say, however, that if the universally accepted UNHCR criteria for refugees were applied to the Palestinian case, the number of “refugees” would shrink dramatically-from close to 5 million to around 200,000. These figures starkly underline that both the scale and the durability of the Palestinian refugee problem fueled by the anomalous and distorted parameters of it definition.

Folding UNRWA into the framework of UNHCR would, of course, have significant ramifications for large Palestinian populations resident in the Arab countries, who would no longer receive the anomalous handouts paid to them by the organization and which perpetuate the culture of dependency that prevails among them. This leads to the second element of the proposal: the intense ethnic discrimination against the Palestinians resident in the Arab world where Palestinians have severe restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement, employment opportunities, and property ownership. But most significantly, they are denied citizenship of the countries in which they have lived for decades.

The acquisition of citizenship of the countries of their long-standing residency is something overwhelming desired by the Palestinians as numerous opinion surveys indicate. Indeed, the prominent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki had his office trashed because his poll results showed that refugees were less interested in being nationalist standard-bearers than in living fuller lives in their current abodes (New York Times, 7-13-2003). Significantly, Mahmoud Abbas, PLO chairman and Palestinian National Authority president, endorsed this view when he “requested that the Arab states grant citizenship certificates to the Palestinians living within their borders.” (Ha’aretz, Aug. 21, 2005).

Arab League Continues to Use Palestinians as Pawns

Should any doubt prevail as to whether the Palestinians are being held in a state of “suspended animation” as a political pawn by the by their Arab brethren, the words of the Hisham Youssef, spokesman for the 22-nation Arab League should speedily dispel them. Youssef conceded that in the Arab world Palestinians live “in very bad conditions,” but claimed this policy is meant “to preserve their Palestinian identity, explaining that, “If every Palestinian who sought refuge in a certain country was integrated and accommodated into that country, there won’t be any reason for them to return to Palestine [sic].” (Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004) In fact, there is every reason for them not to return-for even fervent supporters of a Palestinian state acknowledge that an influx of millions from the Palestinian Diaspora would be burden too onerous for it to bear.

Accordingly, with the abolition of UNWRA and the accompanying changes in scope of the population eligible for refugee aid, an assertive diplomatic drive must be undertaken to mobilize international pressure on Arab governments to end their ethnic discrimination against the Palestinians; to desist from the perpetuating the stateless status of their Palestinian residents and allow them to acquire the citizenship of countries in which they have resided for decades.

Even if not entirely successful, such a drive would, at minimum, underscore the callous cynicism with which the Arab regimes exploit their Palestinian kin-folk and serve to deflect pressure currently exerted on Israel.

Offering Palestinians Under Israeli Administration a Choice

This brings us to the third and final element of the proposal: Allowing individual Palestinians under Israeli administration the exercise of free will in determining their destiny.

If the first two elements of the proposed solution are directed toward easing the plight of the Palestinians in the Arab world, this measure is aimed at those inside the Israeli administered areas.

In essence it involves permitting individual Palestinians free choice as to how to chart their future and that of their families. The major thrust of these efforts should comprise two major elements:

(a) Generous monetary compensation to affect the relocation and rehabilitation of the Palestinian residents in territories across the 1967 “Green Line”, elsewhere in world, preferably but not necessarily in the Arab/Muslim countries.

(b) Individualization of the implementation by making the offer of compensation and relocation directly to breadwinners and heads of families, and not through any Palestinian organizational entity which may well have a vested interest in foiling the scheme.

Although many skeptics may raise an eyebrow as to the acceptability of the proposal to the Palestinians and its feasibility in terms of economic cost, two points should be underscored.

Firstly, substantial statistical data exist that indicate that such a measure would be enthusiastically embraced by a very large portion of the Palestinian population. According to one poll, only 15 percent would refuse any a financial offer that allows them to seek a better life elsewhere, while over 70 percent would accept it. Indeed, given the choices of a life either under the rigors of Israeli control or worse, under the regressive and repressive regime that the Palestinians have hitherto provided, who could blame them?

As for that overall economic cost, it is easy to show that the implementation of the proposed plan would be comparable-indeed, probably less costly-than other alternatives currently under discussion, involving the establishment of a new state, developing its infrastructures and presumably absorbing a large portion of the Palestinian Diaspora within its constricted frontiers.

Finally, it should be remembered that for the prospective host nations, the scheme has distinct economic upside. Given the scale of the envisioned compensation, the Palestinian immigrants would not be arriving as destitute refugees, but as relatively wealthy families in terms of average world GNP per capita. Accordingly, their absorption would entail significant capital inflows into the host economies-probably around half a billion dollars for the absorption of every two- to three-thousand family units.

Summary – A New Humanitarian Initiative

The time has come for imaginative new initiatives to defuse and disperse one of the global community’s most volatile problems for which remedies hitherto attempted are evidently inappropriate. Accordingly, there seems ample reason to seriously address an alternative proposal, which at least, prima facie, suggests measures to

  • Improve dramatically the lot of individual Palestinians.

  • Defuse the Palestinian humanitarian predicament.

  • Ensure the continued survival of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

  • Inject billions of dollars of funds in to the economies of host nations.

Israel, the Palestinians and the international community can ill afford to dismiss it without a serious debate of its potential payoffs as well as its possible pitfalls.