Palestine's strangely stubborn state of mind
Half a century of lost battles taught mightier powers to change their mindset – think of Germany after two world wars. The Palestinians never seem to learn
The UN vote upgrading the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to a non-member state with observer status has done nothing to move the cause of Palestinian statehood forward. Instead, it repeats the old adage of Palestinian history: rather than seeking compromise with Israel, Palestinian leaders have again put the fate of their cause into the hands of others, foolishly believing that others will deliver what they themselves are not capable of obtaining.
When nations gathered at the United Nations in 1947 to vote on the UN plan to establish two states – one Jewish, one Arab – in Mandatory Palestine, Palestinian leaders trusted the Arab League. They opposed compromise, since they hoped Arab armies would win the entire country by force. They did not.
Once Palestine was lost, for nearly two decades Palestinian leaders trusted the standard bearers of Arab nationalism to restore them to power and destroy Israel. Instead of asking Jordan – who occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem – and Egypt – who conquered Gaza – to turn those areas into a Palestinian state, Palestinian leaders trusted their Arab patrons to arm for a second victorious round.
Irredentism produced the opposite though: in 1967, Israel repelled the combined onslaught of the Arab world and took over what remained of the Old Mandate.
Half a century of lost battles taught mightier powers to change their mindset – think of Germany after two world wars!
Not so with Palestinian leaders – they embraced the Arab League’s decision, in the summer of 1967, to reject any opening to Israel and continued to wage war. Terrorism was a natural consequence of such an attitude – beneath the murderous acts that followed for nearly two decades rested the foolish belief that Israel could be done with by killing innocents abroad – thereby swaying public opinion in favour of Palestinian grievances.
Public opinion swayed eventually, but still no state.
Even as the PLO replaced Arab leaders as the standard bearer of Palestinian aspirations, their cause did not advance –the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, skilfully played Arab intramurals and non-aligned movement politics, but never renounced the old compromise-averse all-demands-and-no-concessions’ stand of Palestinian nationalism.
He relied on whichever Arab leader would champion his cause – and fought anyone who dared encourage compromise with Israel. That brought more grief onto the Palestinians than all the wars with Israel combined. Arafat’s brief stint in Jordan ended with its king, the late Hussein, slaughtering thousands of Palestinians to save his throne.
Arafat’s reliance on Saddam Hussein cost hundreds of thousands of Palestinians their livelihoods in Kuwait in 1991 – after the emirate was liberated – and in Iraq in 2003 after Saddam was deposed. The one leader who sought to negotiate a compromise for the Palestinians was Anwar Sadat – and Arafat called for his assassination to thank him for that “crime.”
In the end, no patron could do for the Palestinian cause more than the Palestinians were prepared to do themselves.
For a brief moment, in the early phases of the Oslo process, the PLO realized that, if it ever was to fulfil its dream of statehood, it would have to negotiate directly with Israel instead of relying on others to deliver its goals on a silver platter.
That the Oslo process turned into a failed opportunity is largely due to the fact that, as the moment of truth beckoned, Arafat chose to revert to habit and put his people’s fate away from direct negotiations and back into the hands of armed gangs on the ground and the international community in the corridors of diplomacy.
Hoping that international pressure could deliver him the deal that talks with Israel could not, in late 2000 Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada. Twelve years later, and eight years after his death, Palestinian leaders are still grappling with this legacy, unable to fully distance themselves from the path of violence embraced by Hamas and still tempted to believe that the international community can deliver what Israel cannot or will not concede through direct talks.
The UN vote upgrading the PLO's status at the UN to "observer state" is thus a continuation of this old adage – and it promises more of the same.
Mahmoud Abbas’ diplomatic victory does not deliver a state on the ground. It does not alter the balance of forces between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It does not solve the power deadlock between the PA government in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza. It certainly does not restore Abbas’ rule over Gaza. And it definitely will not bring peace closer.
Much like Arafat’s proclamation of a Palestinian state in 1988, the UN General Assembly vote is a farce. Palestine is not a state – 40 percent of the territory it claims is ruled by its rival, Hamas, and much of the rest is still under full Israeli control or joint PA-Israel rule.
What the latest chapter of Palestinian efforts to push others to deliver them a state does is to increase the theatrical aspect of Palestinian statehood – all the paraphernalia of a state, without a state. Adding an observer seat, along with the Vatican, on the UN roster will no doubt boost the Palestinian ego – and empower the PLO to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court. But independence, as in the past, will remain elusive.
All this was avoidable – the other option was direct negotiations between the parties, a process which demands give and take. Palestinian history, unfortunately, offers no precedent for that.
Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to take the UN route, sadly, is the latest chapter of this unfortunate story. The PLO can now call itself a state. Whether it ever gets to preside over one, is a different story.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC
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