Opinion |

Why Israelis Should Hope the Palestinian National Movement Is Not Dead Yet

Netanyahu is itching to claim defeat over the Palestinians. But that 'victory' would also be a swansong for Zionism

Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich
The sun sets over a mosque on the sea front in Gaza City on September 17, 2017
The decline of the Palestinian national movement shouldn't be cause for celebration: The sun sets over a mosque on the sea front in Gaza City. September 17, 2017Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

Two prominent Palestinian academics, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi, recently published a fascinating article in the New Yorker, a powerful self-indictment, which essentially argues that the Palestinian national movement is nearing its end.

Both authors served in the past as advisors to Palestinian presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and the article, while not official, does reflect important trends in Palestinian thinking. Two weeks earlier, Newsweek published a lengthy article entitled “How Israel Won the War and Defeated the Palestinian Dream”, which makes a similar argument.

Agha and Khalidi maintain that in Arafat’s absence and with Abbas’ opposition to the "armed struggle", the Palestinian national movement has been left not only without its father and leader, but the very ideology on which it was based from its earliest days - and even its very raison d’tre.

The Palestinians did succeed in attaining various milestones in the struggle against Israel, but most were lacking in practical importance and some could credibly be described as "fake", such as the purely symbolic but much lauded upgrading of their status in the UN to that of an observer state.

Moreover, the PLO never became a true governing party and ceased, over the years, to truly represent the Palestinians. It is now even at risk of losing its status as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. Consequently, "the Palestinian national movement [has been] a liberation movement not doing much liberating, locked in a fruitless negotiating process."

The Oslo Accords, they believe, were the height of the Palestinian movement, but also the beginning of its demise. Bottom line, the Palestinians must adapt to a new and less conducive regional and international situation.

Agha and Khalidi present numerous explanations for the Palestinian decline, inter alia, the absence of successors to Abbas who have the stature and public standing required to make peace, as a result of which he remains the last slim hope for a diplomatic solution; Palestinian loss of faith in the negotiations with Israel; hardening of Israeli positions; Palestinian diplomatic initiatives which did not succeed, including the repeated threats to dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA) and attempts to establish diplomatic facts in the UN; and the deterioration in Abbas’ public standing, due to the "fruitless" negotiations, his consistent opposition to the use of violence, security cooperation with Israel, and the evolution of the PA into an authoritarian entity with one-man rule.

According to critics, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has presided over the evolution of the PA into an authoritarian entity with one-man rule. Credit: Michel Euler/AP

As is typical of most Palestinian intellectuals, even Agha and Khalidi fail to note Arafat’s and Abbas’ responsibility for derailing the dramatic peace proposals put forward by Barack, Clinton and Olmert.

They similarly do not acknowledge that the fundamental Palestinian approach from the conflict’s earliest days, of everything or nothing at all, has been their undoing and truly left them with nothing, i.e., that the Palestinians themselves bear the primary responsibility for the demise of their national movement and the loss of the opportunity to establish a state of their own. There is, apparently, a limit to what one can say publicly.

Ostensibly, we in Israel should be pleased. In the 70th year of our national independence, after more than a century of bitter conflict, we "won", and if Israel's Prime Minister does not drown in a sea of corruption, he will be able to crow all the way to the polling stations. Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign slogan is clear: The Palestinians were defeated – and on my watch.

The truth, of course, is much more complex.

The fate of the Jewish national movement is inextricably linked to that of the Palestinian national movement and there is no way to get around this. Indeed, the ostensible "victory" will leave us with a binational state and endanger the future of the entire Zionist enterprise.

It is rare that history allows us to see a preview of coming events, but a binational reality has long gone from a potential future nightmare, to a bitter present. A present which is played out daily on our TV screens, with the terrorism which has become a self-evident part of our lives, the defense establishment’s repeated fears of renewed waves of violence, this time during the upcoming holidays, the demographic trends underway and the brutalization of public discourse.

Already today – not in some distant and vague future, the product of the feverish imaginations of defeatist leftists – over 40% of the combined populations of Israel and the West Bank are not Jewish. The Zionist movement never provided a precise definition of the concept of the "nation-state of the Jewish people", certainly not in percentages, but it is clear that a state in which less than 60% of the population is Jewish, will not remain such for long.

Saving a Jewish majority in areas under Israel control: Israeli APCs and tanks exit the Gaza Strip at the Kissufim crossing as part of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. Sept 12 2005Credit: BAUBAU

Moreover, had it not been for the disengagement from Gaza (the "expulsion" according to the hard right, the "beginning of the redemption" to those who believe in the sanctity of the People of Israel, rather than the Land of Israel), there would have already been an Arab majority.

The radicalization of the political spectrum and growing strength of the right, notwithstanding, polls demonstrate that a clear majority are strongly opposed to a one-state binational solution. Public discourse should thus be directed away from the Palestinian issue, to the battle to save the future of the Zionist enterprise and to this end, the means of keeping the two-state solution alive pending the conditions for its realization.

Regardless of Israeli policy, the prospects of a final settlement are meager, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, a variety of measures could be undertaken today to keep the two-state solution alive, such as the transfer of additional territory from Area C to the Palestinians, so that a truly autonomous region can be created; steps to both build trust and strengthen Palestinian society, for example, new construction permits in Qalqilya and other places; and above all, a halt to settlements outside of the “blocs" and provision of incentives to settlers to begin "coming home", even without a final settlement.

The radical right wing in the coalition thwarts all such ideas today, but we have had different governments in the past, which have presented dramatic peace initiatives, and we will have them again in the future. It gets harder with the passage of years, but the alternative is a binational state and an end to the Jewish national movement. In the end, hopefully in the not too distant future, both circumstances and simple self-interest will prevail over messianic ambitions.

Reports of the demise of the Palestinian national movement are probably premature. For our own sake, let’s hope so. In any event, it is essential that we ensure that a Palestinian requiem does not become a Zionist swansong.

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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