In 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), failed to win U.N. acceptance of Palestine as an independent state1. This year, he lowered the bar to upgraded status within the U.N. In the intervening year, Palestinian finances have collapsed, Palestinians have taken to the street to denounce PA corruption rather than Israel, and Hamas in Gaza has begun a new relationship with Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. By going the “more than territory but less than statehood” route, Abbas has essentially slipped the bonds of the Oslo Accords.
It’s about time.
The Oslo Accords, negotiated without U.S. participation and signed in 1993, were founded on the mistaken belief that Palestinians and Israelis were trying to solve the same problem — namely, how to fit “two states for two people” in the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelis, joined by the Americans, based their participation in the process on three mistaken principles:
• That Palestinian nationalism was the mirror-image of Jewish nationalism. Statehood had ameliorated many of the difficulties of the Jews in diaspora and would do the same for the Palestinians.
• That Palestinian nationalism could find its full expression in a split rump state — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — squeezed between Israel and Jordan, rather than requiring that the state be formed in its entirety; and
• That there was a price Israel (and the U.S.) could pay to the Palestinians that would overcome any remaining Palestinian objection to Jewish sovereignty in the region.
The Palestinians, anxious for the legitimacy any conversation would bring, didn’t correct them. Palestinian nationalism, however, is based not on historical statelessness, but rather on the idea that their land was taken by the international community and given to Israel — not in 1967, but in 1948. The Palestinian “refugee problem” was created in 1948, and it is the original problem — called the Naqba (catastrophe) and observed on Israel’s Independence Day — that in their view needs to be corrected. That’s why people still talk about having to induce Arabs to accept Israel’s “right to exist”2.
President Obama perpetuates the error when he exhorts Arabs to stop denying the Holocaust. The problem isn’t primarily Holocaust-denial; even most radical Arabs agree that the Holocaust happened. The problem is that the Arabs also believe that the Europeans expiated their Holocaust guilt by foisting the remaining Jews off on the Middle East. They do not accept the historical relationship of Jews to the land, and the president has failed to ask for that acceptance.
The Real End of Oslo
While Abbas’s speech (to be followed by his resignation?) was the formal death knell of Oslo, the process actually ended with Yasser Arafat’s so-called Second Intifada, the Palestinian war against Israel that killed more than 1,000 Israelis3 and injured several thousand more between October 2000 and 2004.
The war ended with the IDF in full security control of the West Bank. Intelligence and the IDF presence since then have largely prevented the coalescence of groups and cells that could organize large-scale terrorist operations. It hasn’t always worked smoothly, but since 2005, there has been economic advancement amid relative quiet under the PA, including during the potentially disruptive 2008/9 Gaza war; the U.S.-Israel dust up over settlement construction; the May 2011 “Naqba Day” riots that took place largely in Lebanon and Syria, not on the West Bank; Abbas’s U.N. speech; and the sweep of the Arab Revolution.
In Gaza, a different process unfolded at the end of the Second Intifada. Israel removed both its civilian and military presence in 2005, allowing Hamas unimpeded time and space to arm and train. Hamas’s political victory in legislative election was followed by the short and brutal Palestinian civil war, the ousting of Abbas’s Fatah government from Gaza (although the PA still pays most of the bills), and the continuing encroachment of Hamas in the West Bank to undermine Fatah’s authority there. Hamas’s burgeoning missile capability has required both active and passive Israeli intervention.
2012 – Bad News Ahead
On the West Bank, a relatively stable situation is deteriorating. The IDF cannot protect the PA from ongoing and increasing protests by its own people, and if Abbas is serious about separating from Israel, the IDF will be less able and willing to protect him from his Hamas adversaries. Abbas’s resignation might offer younger Palestinians a way forward, but it might also empower radical groups as the demise of dictatorships did in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
Jordan is the unmentioned player here, the “fourth state” in the so-called “two-state solution”4. King Abdullah — whose Hashemite family hails from the Arabian Peninsula — is trying to balance the interests of his Palestinian and Bedouin populations, separate them from West Bank Palestinians, and maintain his throne under increasing pressure from all sides. The government insists that “Palestine” be established solely west of the Jordan River, but there are Palestinians in Jordan and on the West Bank who believe that the eastern border of Palestine is Iraq as much as they believe that the western border is the Mediterranean.
Israel has long been committed to the monarchy and receives support for security in the West Bank in return. Their shared interests could founder if the king is unable to quell unrest that is primarily the result of limitations on free speech, government accountability, and the media — coupled with economic stress and rising tribal/ethnic tension.
In that context, it is a mistake for the U.S. to continue to enhance the security capabilities of the Palestinian security services or provide them with “counterterrorism” resources that could be turned against either Israel or Jordan. It was a mistake also for President Obama to promise the Palestinians “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt” without having discussed it with Jordan.
Gaza is a different sort of problem. While Hamas has been funded and trained by Iran, to the consternation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government no less than its predecessor, it is, in fact, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. That being the case, Egyptian and Hamas leadership have begun a delicate dance about how close they may become. “Tunnel traffic,” the smuggling of goods into Gaza from Egypt, has already fallen by about 90% as open trade passes through the Egyptian-controlled crossing points. While Egypt presently rejects the notion of a Gaza-Egypt free trade zone , the fact that it has been floated is noteworthy.
The Gaza Strip in coordination with Egypt makes historic, ethnic, and economic sense. However, it will likely leave Israel with a festering security problem. Egypt may find that Hamas attacks on Israel while Cairo disclaims responsibility can work the way Hezb’allah did for Syria. For decades, the Golan Heights was quiet while Hezb’allah attacked Israel with both Syrian and Iranian complicity. Israel was unwilling to hold Syria responsible for the activities of its surrogate for fear of war with the better-armed state. Using Hamas as a surrogate could enable Egypt to harass Israel without having to formally break the Israel-Egypt peace treaty that serves as the basis of U.S. foreign aid.
While Oslo may have died, support for the “Two-State Solution” appears alive in Washington. But American support for Palestinian independence was predicated by both the Bush and Obama administrations on political decisions Palestinians would take, whether it was “new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors” (President Bush ) or having Hamas “recognize the right of Israel to exist, to renounce violence and to accept previous agreements negotiated by the Fatah government” (President Obama ).
Neither indicated what would happen if the conditions were not met, but the consequences should probably include abandoning forums dedicated to Palestinian independence: the Roadmap, the Quartet, and the committees of the U.N. dedicated to “Palestine” — of which there are at least five. Palestinian diplomatic status, which was offered prematurely, should be revoked. If, in the future, the Palestinians hold elections that produce leadership “not compromised by terror,” (President Bush ) we can reinstate our support. If they don’t, they don’t.
What the U.S. should do and what it will do are likely different, but in any event, Washington would be well-advised to limit its support for the establishment of independent Palestinian dictatorships in either the West Bank or Gaza.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.
1The move was mischaracterized as seeking to “create” a state in The U.N. “Palestine” was unilaterally declared independent in 1998, and the U.N. does not create countries; it only sets conditions for their recognition.
2An offensive phrase — Israel was established through internationally accepted mechanisms. There is no ex post facto discussion of any one else’s “right to exist.” The fact that this remains an unfulfilled demand is a reminder that the problem emanates from 1948, not 1967.
3The American population equivalent would have been 49,000 in 2000.
4Gaza, separately governed, is the third.