The prospects for a Palestinian state have rarely been more grim
Paradoxically, the Palestinian demand for Israeli acceptance and implementation of the “Right of Return” is universally endorsed by Arab leaders—including those, like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose countries have peace treaties with Israel. No Arab leader has ever publicly disavowed the “Right of Return” or castigated the Palestinian insistence on it as contrary to the interests of peace.
The Saudi peace plan of 2002, endorsed repeatedly since by the Arab League, speaks of Israeli-Arab coexistence. It has been widely hailed in the West, and Israel is regularly criticized for not embarking on negotiations with the plan forming a basis of discussion. I believe that the successive Israeli prime ministers—Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu—were (and are) mistaken in not following up this Arab initiative, bluff or not. But even the Saudi plan proposes that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem be based on U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 1948, which the Arabs interpret as unequivocally endorsing the “Right of Return.”
To these formidable obstacles to peace-making—the unchanging Arab desire for what amounts to Israel’s disappearance and consistent advocacy of the demographic means by which this can be achieved—one may add the hardly routine challenges of differences over future Israeli-Palestinian borders, with sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City and, in particular, its Temple Mount complex, and the fate of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The demilitarization of a future Palestinian West Bank-Gaza state is a further bone of contention.
It is hard to envision any circumstances under which the current Obama-initiated direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks can succeed. Politically, the two contending leaders have little room for maneuver and, at least on the Arab side, little will to concede anything. And even if, by some miracle, Abbas and Netanyahu were to reach a framework agreement or even a detailed peace treaty (a departure into the realm of total fantasy) with Abbas accepting the Jewishness of the “other” state and waiving the “Right of Return,” and Netanyahu conceding Arab sovereignty over the bulk of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount, such an agreement would fail to stick and would never be implemented. Abbas might sign off on “an end to the conflict” and “no more demands”—and most likely be assassinated by Arab extremists in consequence—but a majority of Palestinians, and certainly a large minority of them, would continue the struggle, rendering the agreement no more than a wind-blown piece of paper. Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian general elections, would denounce the signers as traitors and continue the fight for all of Palestine, as would many in Abbas’ own Fatah party. The agreement would not end the conflict. Nor would it deter or obstruct future, continuing Palestinian claims.
In short, a Palestinian state will not arise out of the current round of negotiations. But it might emerge some time after their failure—and on the model of Hamas’ Gaza “republic.” Put simply, if faced with continuing Palestinian unwillingness to sign an end-of-conflict agreement, and with continued Israeli occupation portending the de facto emergence of a binational state or, alternately, an Israeli apartheid state with a Jewish minority lording it over a Palestinian majority (composed of Israel’s Arab citizenry plus the Arab inhabitants of the semi-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and the unoccupied but Israeli-dependent Gaza Strip), Israel’s leaders—Netanyahu or his successor—may opt for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank (and, perhaps, parts of East Jerusalem).
Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, under Ariel Sharon, was relatively simple; the 7,000 settlers were removed and their homes destroyed, and the IDF evacuated the Strip without a major internal Israeli crisis.
But a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem would be something else altogether.
Pulling out of the Arab districts of East Jerusalem, including the bulk of the Old City, without a full peace treaty, is politically inconceivable. Israel’s right (and center) would never agree. And uprooting tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from the hill-country of Judea and Samaria, east of the Security Fence, would, in terms of Israeli politics, be a major national trauma. The right would fight it tooth and nail, perhaps to the point of largescale bloodshed. And Netanyahu has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the steel or popular mandate that characterized Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet.
Alternatively, the IDF and the Israeli police could in theory unilaterally withdraw to the Security Fence while leaving a minority of the settlers in situ (the majority, in the border hugging settlement blocs, such as the Etzion Bloc, would remain on the “Israeli” side of the Security Fence, which runs more or less along the old Israel-West Bank divide, and leaves only some 7 percent of the West Bank in Israeli hands). But Arab attacks on the remaining settlers, their homes or transport, would most likely trigger Israeli re-entry into the evacuated areas.
Viewed militarily, a unilateral pullback to the Security Fence would pose a major strategic problem. Hamas as likely as not would try to take over the West Bank: How could Israel prevent this without physically re-entering the territory? And, even without a Hamas takeover, Arab control of the territory could result in continuous rocketing by Hamas and perhaps by Fatah itself. The scene would be reminiscent of that which followed Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip, but with this difference: Where Hamas since 2005 has rocketed small border towns and villages, short-range rocketry from the West Bank would doubtless hit Israel’s main population centers, such as West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, rendering life in central Israel untenable. Moreover, how would Israel ensure that foreign troops—Iranian, for example—would not be invited by the Palestinian government, the present one or a future Islamist regime, into the West Bank, strategically threatening the Jewish state?
What remains, in the absence of a basic change of Palestinian mindset, is a bleak picture. No viable peace agreement is remotely in prospect. Neither is the emergence of a full-fledged Palestinian state. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is so problematic as to be virtually unimplementable. Yet continued Israeli rule over the territory and its people, obnoxious to most Israelis and to the rest of the world, raises the prospect of a bi-national state or an apartheid state, both of which most Jews regard as anathema. That, unfortunately, is where we’re at.