Repeating a Historic Failure

The current Palestinian excuse is that it is difficult to establish coherent political institutions in conditions of territorial fragmentation, refugees and occupation. This is true, but irrelevant.

Many people believe that Palestinian extremism is responsible for the fact that the Palestinians do not have a state: because they rejected the United Nations partition plan of 1947, because they rejected the proposals of prime minister Ehud Barak and U.S. president Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000, and because they then reverted once again to terrorism against civilians. All this is true, but a review of history shows a more profound structural failing, which has accompanied the Palestinian movement over the years: the inability to establish institutions that are based on a national consensus and that are able to serve as the foundation for a state.

The failure began back in the time of the British Mandate, which allowed the Jews and the Arabs to establish structures of self-government to deal with education, economics, development and welfare. The Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Palestine] took advantage of this to establish a widespread system of self-government that became "the state in the making": Elections were held for an assembly of representatives in which more than a dozen political parties participated, and educational and welfare systems, as well as municipal and village government networks, were established that served most of the Jewish community. The National Committee (Va'ad Leumi) and the Jewish Agency became the foundation on which, when the time came, the institutions of the State of Israel were built.

The Arab community, however, did not succeed in establishing a parallel institutional system. The Arab Higher Committee was no more than an assembly of notables, who were appointed on a regional and clan basis without elections, and it represented only itself. The committee never established education or welfare systems, and a party-based political system never developed.

This weakness was clearly evident in the years 1936-1939, which in the Palestinian narrative are called "the Great Revolt" against British rule. A united command for the revolt was never created, and the situation degenerated into an Arab civil war in which armed militias killed each other's members: the mufti's followers and the Husseinis against the militias identified with the Nashashibi clan. In this struggle more Arabs were killed by Arabs than were killed by the British or the Jews.

A similar picture also emerged after the United Nations partition resolution. The Palestinians (apart from the few communists) were united in their opposition to partition, but they never established a consolidated political and military leadership, and the lack of such a leadership is responsible for some of their weaknesses in 1947-48. The Arab Higher Committee did not have at its command effective administrative and institutional structures, and many of its members fled the country when the violence started. The fighting was left to regional and local leaders.

What we are now seeing in the Gaza Strip - the inability of the two Palestinian factions to work together within an agreed-upon framework - is nothing but a repeat of this historic failure of the Palestinians. The current Palestinian excuse is that it is difficult to establish coherent political institutions in conditions of territorial fragmentation, refugees and Israeli occupation. All this is true, but irrelevant. Every national movement emerges in difficult conditions, which usually have to do with being under foreign rule. It is hard to imagine more difficult conditions than those that faced the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine in the 1930s and '40s, with the rise of the Nazis, abandonment on the part of Britain, the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. But this is the test of a national movement: whether it is able to transform a crisis into a historical moment of opportunity.

The Arab world as a whole does not excel at building institutions, and certainly not democratic ones. Thus far the Palestinian movement has not transcended this common Arab heritage. In the near future this will be its major test: If it does not become aware of the historical burden it is carrying on its shoulders and overcome it, the Palestinians' legitimate desire for independence will shatter on the rocks of the harsh internal reality that has accompanied their movement from its very beginning.