In recent years, starting with the Israeli handover of West Bank cities and the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s, the Palestinians, ever-so-slowly and inefficiently, have built pre-state institutions of governance—most recently and competently under the leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. During the past few years alone, Western observers have noted substantial improvements in Palestinian taxation, infrastructure, and economic development, and in the functioning of the (American- and European-trained) security services. Indeed, under Fayyad, the West Bank is flourishing economically (around 9 percent annual growth, according to the International Monetary Fund, even if the gains are fragile) and is a largely peaceful place, with residents even paying traffic tickets, and militants of Hamas and other organizations largely inactive, with some jailed in periodic round-ups.
At the same time, Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 from the Palestinian National Authority, in the process throwing PA officers off of tall buildings and knee-capping others, has also demonstrated an ability to rule, in an orderly if brutal fashion.
A series of question marks hangs over these recent improvements in the governance of the West Bank: How deep do they run? And can they outlast Western financial aid and political backing and the overriding guardianship of Israeli bayonets? Will the American- and European-trained security forces, in crisis, hold their own against Hamas or fade away, like the Western-trained Iraqi and Afghani forces have when left to perform independent of their American and British instructors?
Even before we can get to such practical questions, though, there is a another more fundamental question that goes to the heart of the continuing historical struggle between two peoples for the same piece of land: What will be the geographical contours of the envisioned Palestinian state and what will be its nature? Put simply, will the envisioned state encompass all of Palestine, including the territory of the existing Jewish state, Israel, or will it include only the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, perhaps, Arab-populated East Jerusalem? And will the envisioned state be a secular, perhaps even “democratic,” republic as promised by the Fatah-led PNA, which rules the West Bank, or will it be a fundamentalist, Islamic, sharia-based state, as sought by Hamas, which rules Gaza? Will one of the parties absorb or co-opt the other, or will the Palestinians maintain this political bifurcation indefinitely?
Which brings us to the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiating impasse. I am not talking about the tactical problem posed by continued or discontinued Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, which will probably be resolved, after some bumps and hesitations. I am speaking of a basic, strategic impasse which, unfortunately, is far more cogent and telling than the ongoing “negotiations,” which are unlikely to lead to a peace treaty or even a “framework” agreement for a future peace accord. This unlikelihood stems from a set of obstacles that I see as insurmountable, given current political-ideological mindsets.
The first, the one that American and European officials never express and—if impolitely mentioned in their presence—turn away from in distaste, is that Palestinian political elites, of both the so-called “secular” and Islamist varieties, are dead set against partitioning the Land of Israel/Palestine with the Jews. They regard all of Palestine as their patrimony and believe that it will eventually be theirs. History, because of demography and the steady empowerment of the Arab and Islamic worlds and the West’s growing alienation from Israel, and because of Allah’s wishes, is, they believe, on their side. They do not want a permanent two-state solution, with a Palestinian Arab state co-existing alongside a (larger) Jewish state; they will not compromise on this core belief and do not believe, on moral or practical grounds, that they should.
This basic Palestinian rejectionism, amounting to a Weltanschauung, is routinely ignored or denied by most Western commentators and officials. To grant it means to admit that the Israeli-Arab conflict has no resolution apart from the complete victory of one side or the other (with the corollary of expulsion, or annihilation, by one side of the other)—which leaves leaders like President Barack Obama with nowhere realistic to go with regard to the conflict. Philosophically, acceptance of the rock-like unpliability of this reality is extremely problematic, given the ongoing military and philosophical clash between the West and various forces in the Islamic world. Perhaps the fight between America and its allies and its enemies in the Middle East and South Asia and North Africa and the banlieues of Western Europe will go on and on, until one side is vanquished?
In this connection, our age, it may turn out, resembles the classic age of appeasement, the 1930s, when the Western democracies (and the Soviet Union) were ranged against, but preferred not to confront, Nazi Germany and its allies, Fascist Italy, and expansionist Japan. During that decade, Hitler’s inexorable martial, racist, and uncompromising mindset was misread by Western leaders, officials, and intellectuals—and for much the same reasons. Living in unideological societies, they could not fathom the minds and politics of their ideologically driven antagonists. The leaders and intellectuals of the Western democracies, educated and suffused with liberal and relativist values, by and large were unable to comprehend the essential “otherness” of Hitler and ended up fighting him, to the finish, after negotiation and compromise had proved useless.
Another problem for Westerners is that the Palestinians, by design or no, speak to them in several voices. Hamas, which may represent the majority of the Palestinian people and certainly has the unflinching support of some 40 percent of them, speaks clearly. It openly repudiates a two-state solution. Hamas leaders, to bamboozle naïve (or wicked) Westerners like Henry Siegman, occasionally express a tactical readiness for a long-term truce under terms that they know are unacceptable to any Jewish Israelis (complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and acceptance of the refugees’ “Right of Return”), but their strategic message is clear, echoing the Roman statesman Cato the Elder: “Israel must be destroyed.”
The secular Palestinian leadership looks to a similar historical denouement but is more flexible on the tactics and pacing. They express a readiness for a two-state solution but envision such an outcome as intermediate and temporary. They speak of two states, a Palestinian Arab West Bank-Gaza-East Jerusalem state and another state whose population is Jewish and Arab and which they believe will eventually become majority-Arab within a generation or two through Arab procreation (Palestinian Arab birth-rates are roughly twice those of Israeli Jews) and the “return” of Palestinians with refugee status. This is why Fatah’s leaders, led by Palestine National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, flatly reject the Clintonian formula of “two states for two peoples” and refuse to recognize the “other” state, Israel, as a “Jewish state.” They hope that this “other” state will also, in time, be “Arabized,” thus setting the stage for the eventual merger of the two temporary states into one Palestinian Arab-majority state between the River and the Sea.
Continue reading: The Palestinian national movement, Fatah, and a second insurmountable obstacle to peace. Or view as a single page.
The Palestinian national movement, since its inception in the 1920s, has sought to establish a unitary Arab state in all of Palestine as defined by the British Mandate: the territory lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, stretching southward to the Gulf of Aqaba. This state was to contain only a small Jewish minority—as defined by the first leader of the movement, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al Husseini, restricted to the Jews who lived in Palestine prior to World War I (or, in a variant, prior to November 2, 1917, when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration).
But the Palestinian Arabs proved unable to eject the British (in the failed 1936-1939 Revolt) or to contain or drive out the Zionists (in the 1947 War), or to establish “their” state—and were themselves “expelled” from history for more than a decade. Their return to history was signaled by the emergence of the Fatah resistance movement in the early 1960s (its founders claimed it was established by Palestinian exiles, led by Yasser Arafat, in Kuwait in 1959) and the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The PLO was established in May 1964 in Jerusalem by resolution of Palestinian representatives from “Palestine” and the Palestinian diaspora, convoked as the Palestine National Council. That meeting of the PNC also issued the Palestinian National Charter, the national movement’s “constitution.” It called for the destruction of the Zionist entity and “the liberation of [all of] Palestine,” designating Zionism as “evil,” “racist,” and “fascist,” and resolved that the Palestinians, once victorious, “exercise their right of self-determination and sovereignty.” The gathered dignitaries may have avoided the explicit term “statehood,” in clear deference to their Jordanian hosts (who had annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1950) and to the wishes of some of the PLO’s constituent members, who supported “Arab unity,” which theoretically posited the establishment of a single large pan-Arab state. But the PLO and PNC clearly strove, and strive to this day, to establish a Palestinian state.
The PLO’s main ideological rival in the Palestinian arena, Hamas, preferred to avoid defining which Jews, if any, would be granted citizenship or allowed to reside in the future Palestinian state. In its founding Covenant or Constitution of 1988, Hamas, like Fatah before it, also avoided using the word “state” as the movement’s goal, stressing, instead, the aim of the “liberation,” through “jihad,” of Palestine and the “obliteration” of Israel. Again, the idea of “unity”—this time pan-Islamic rather than merely pan-Arab—and Hamas’s self-image as part of a “universalist” Muslim Brotherhood, precluded explicit endorsement of a separate Palestinian Arab state.
Still, Hamas clearly aimed and aims to establish such a state, albeit governed by sharia law rather than a secular constitution. And the main component of the PLO, the Fatah movement, headed today by Abbas, in its founding constitution from the mid-1960s, clearly affirmed the establishment of “an independent democratic state with complete sovereignty on all Palestinian lands.” Since the early 1990s, the PLO—at least in its overtures toward and contacts with Western governments—has identified its goal as establishing a Palestinian state in those territories captured by Israel in 1967: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
Yet the Palestinian national movement failed to prepare their people and movement for statehood. In contrast with their Zionist rivals, the Palestinians, during the years of Ottoman rule (ending in 1917 and 1918) and the subsequent British Mandate (1917 or 1918 to 1948), failed to set up representative or substantive political parties, or to establish a competent, public-service-oriented leadership cadre, institutions of self-government, and a national militia that could carry their people toward statehood when the moment ripened. This reinforced the image of a national movement bent only or mainly on destruction of the “other” rather than seeking self-realization.
The key to understanding Fatah objectives today lies in its leaders’ stance on resolving the refugee problem. Contrary to what many Western commentators and analysts have chosen to believe, the Palestinian stress on the importance of the refugees is not a tactical matter—a way to gain further leverage in negotiations. The Palestinian leadership is unanimous and resolute in insisting that the problem’s solution lies in the “Right of Return”: Israel, and the world, must accept the principle of repatriation and eventually facilitate repatriation. The idea that the refugees must return to their homes has been the ethos, the be-all and end-all of Palestinian politics and policy, since 1948. No Palestinian leader can or will ever abandon this principle, on pain of assassination, and none has. (For Western journalistic consumption, Yasser Arafat once vaguely wrote that the Palestinians would take account of Israeli demographic sensibilities when it came to implementing refugee repatriation; and more recently, Abbas was reportedly willing, in his secret 2008 negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to countenance less than full refugee repatriation in the initial phases of a deal. But in their public utterances during the past two years, Abbas and his colleagues have been rock-solid in their advocacy of an unrestricted “Right of Return”—and why not take them at their word?)
And this represents the second insurmountable obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The United Nations has on its rolls 4.7 million Palestinian refugees; the PLO claims that there are 7.5 million, only a small number of whom belong to the 700,000-odd Palestinians originally displaced from their homes in what became the state of Israel. Some two-thirds of the 700,000 moved or were removed to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; one-third ended up in Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Abbas himself is a refugee from Safad, the Arab-majority eastern Galilean town that the U.N. General Assembly partition plan of November 1947 (Resolution 181) earmarked for Jewish sovereignty.
The vast majority of the current 4.7 to 7.5 million “refugees”—say nine-tenths of them—are the children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren of the originally displaced 700,000. And more than half of them live in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian demand that Israel accept a mass refugee return means that, if implemented, Israel, with its 6 million Jewish and 1.5 million Arab citizens, would instantly or over a short time, become an Arab-majority state.
Continue reading: Obama, “a wind-blown piece of paper,” and the prospects for peace. Or view as a single page.
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.
Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of One State, Two States.
Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and the author, most recently, of Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale 2022).