Palestinian statehood and strategic perceptions of time
What exactly will Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas bring back with him when he returns from the United Nations in New York later this month? In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and in a conflict where reality can and does change by the minute, most speculation and analysis tends to focus on what will happen the day after statehood is declared. But while such a short-term analysis is appropriate from the Israeli perspective, looking at the latest diplomatic move from the Palestinian side requires a much longer view.
“We don’t want to raise expectations by saying we are going to come back with full independence,” Abbas said in his much-anticipated speech last week describing his foray in the United Nations. Even if the statehood bid in the UN is successful, he cautioned, it will not “end the occupation.”
Abbas, a protégé and ideological successor of late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, shares the primary strategy of the iconic Palestinian leader and the current move should be understood in the context of Arafat’s strategic philosophy.
Israeli diplomat Abba Eban’s once remarked in a much clichéd quote: “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Arafat’s strategy is understood in Israeli mythology as one of refusal.
But that reading of Arafat, Abbas and the contemporary Fatah strategy fundamentally misunderstands every political move taken by the Palestinian political leadership. In the handful of cases when Arafat and Abbas declined Israeli offers, proposals viewed in Jerusalem as progressively generous, the peace initiatives were not rejected because they didn’t want independence (or even peace), it was because the offers on the table were not presented on the Palestinians’ terms.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 News on Monday, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat described Palestinians’ perception of Israel’s attitude toward them in peace negotiations. Netanyahu, he said, tells the Palestinians: “Come here boy, we know what’s best for you.”
For the Palestinians, the very concept of a two-state solution as it has been presented thus far is an Israeli concoction designed to serve Israeli security needs and to preserve the Zionist project. It has never seriously addressed the most central of Palestinian demands – the right of return, which in terms of Palestinian national priorities, trumps even self-determination.
Consistent rejection is part of a much longer-term strategy aimed at totally changing the terms of reference for solving the conflict. By constantly refusing to agree to Israeli (and American) terms for peace, the Palestinian strategy has indeed succeeded in transforming the Israeli position, slowly shifting it toward the only terms popularly accepted in Ramallah and the larger Palestinian body politic scattered in refugee camps throughout the Arab world.
A short retrospect of the positions articulated by Israeli prime ministers over the past 15 years clearly shows that there has been a shift in Israel’s frame of reference to peace negotiations.
Yitzhak Rabin is regarded in modern folklore as the man who was closer than any other leader – ideologically and practically – to bringing about peace with the Palestinians.
At the time, Rabin had espoused positions on the peace process that were further left than any previous Israeli prime minister. But compared to the positions of Israel’s current “right-wing” prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Rabin would himself be considered a peace refusenik today.
At the height of the peace process and in his last speech to the Knesset before his assassination in late 1995, Rabin described his vision for peace to skeptical and worried lawmakers.
A permanent solution, he said, would see a Palestinian entity, “which is less than a state.”
The peacenik prime minister went even further, laying out plans for the type of settlement annexation and expansion that today regularly brings the strongest of diplomatic condemnation.
Changes, he said, “will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the ‘Green Line,’ prior to the Six Day War.”
Rabin advocated the “establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], like the one in Gush Katif.” (Gush Katif was the largest of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, later evacuated by Ariel Sharon in 1995).
In later years, Ariel Sharon, one of the most hawkish Israeli prime ministers in history, made an indicative historic transformation when he came to the conclusion that Israel must disengage from the Palestinians.
Sharon’s protégé and successor Ehud Olmert went even further. He reportedly offered the Palestinians nearly 100 percent of the West Bank as part of a future state, offered East Jerusalem as its capital and made symbolic concessions on the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
It is in this context, the progressive transformation of Israel’s position, that the Palestinians’ long-term strategy must be viewed.
What Abba Eban framed negatively as Palestinian obstructionism may one day be seen as a successful long-term strategy to shift the terms of peace and independence to ones Palestinians find more acceptable.
Abbas’s attempt to seek full membership in the United Nations will not bring independence, end the occupation or see the return of Palestinian refugees, as he warned before boarding his jet to New York this week. But just as the idea of Palestinian statehood is now an a priori foundation for peace talks 15 years after Rabin, it is not unimaginable that in another 15 years the full Palestinian right of return may be on the negotiating table as well.
Addressing the fundamental differences in perceptions of the time frame of any a solution to the conflict, Erekat spoke directly to Netanyahu at the end of a recent interview. “Stop looking at the nine-o’clock news, look at 200 years from today, 20 years from today. Close your eyes, Mr. Netanyahu. Walk me from my hometown [of] Jericho to Tel Aviv. In the next 20 years… how do you see it in the year 2030?”
As long as Israel thinks only in the short term and the Palestinians patiently wait for circumstances and the world to shift in their favor, which recent history has shown to be a successful strategy, Israel can only lose.