Monday, November 23, 2009

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What’s It Really About and Why Does it Continue?

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By Barry Rubin

It is always the same theme: Palestinians are the victims of Israel. They want an end to the “occupation,” which in a real sense has not existed for 15 years, and are desperate for a state of their own. Help us! Help us! Help us!

But the funny thing is that it doesn’t turn out that the Palestinian political leaders behave as if they actually believe this stuff. Between 1948 and 1988, the Palestinian leadership explicitly rejected negotiations with Israel, rejected any two-state solution, and openly sought total victory. This was true for two decades after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, in 1979, for example, when local Palestinian notables indicated an interest in negotiating with Israel for a state (in the framework of the Egypt-Israel Camp David agreement), PLO leader Yasir Arafat told them they’d be traitors and die if they did any such thing.

In 1988, the PLO said it wanted a state of its own but did so with such double-talk language that it was all too clear this was intended only as a springboard for a second round in which Israel would be destroyed. Then the PLO opened a dialogue with the United States based on its agreement to stop terrorism. Though the United States bent over backwards to ignore terrorist attacks (it’s only a specific member group in the PLO attacking so it doesn’t count, said the State Department), Arafat so blatantly broke his promise that the dialogue was broken off.

Then Arafat supported Saddam Hussein of Iraq in his invasion of Kuwait and the Palestinian leader expressed the hope that Iraq would defeat the United States.

What followed at the PLO’s moment of weakness—Saddam defeated; the angry Kuwaitis and Saudis cut off his money—was an act of what they hoped would be enlightened generosity by Israel and America: now that the PLO was so defeated, they reasoned, it would see that victory was impossible and make peace. The result, the Oslo peace process, proved the Palestinian leadership didn’t want a stable peace with a two-state solution. Arafat repeatedly broke his commitments.

And when the moment of truth came, both at Camp David and in the Clinton plan during 2000, the Palestinian leadership (now the Palestinian Authority, PA) turned down offers of a state. Instead, Arafat launched an armed terrorist assault on Israel that went on for five years until the Palestinians were defeated.

Other than Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip, which cripples the PA’s negotiating capacity, nothing much has happened since then. The Palestinian leadership has not even begun to prepare its people for accepting Israel’s existence and peace. On the contrary, it has become even more extreme, preparing them for endless warfare and a refusal to accept Israel’s existence but rather bring it to an end.

I reluctantly present the above history because it is all too generally forgotten today. Why is reality reversed, with the Palestinians the alleged victim of an Israeli refusal to make peace?

The answer is that if one only looks at a snapshot of the present on the basis of either very little knowledge or a set of stereotypes, that interpretation makes sense. Israel wins; the Palestinians lose. Israel is strong; the Palestinians are weak. Israel is prosperous and the Palestinian economy is a mess.

And so many Westerners reason as follows: No one would voluntarily keep engaging in losing wars, choose poverty and occupation, and not want a state of their own. Therefore, the Palestinians must be forced into this situation by Israel. And the solution is more talks, more Israeli compromises, some clever new proposal about Jerusalem or borders or some other detail.

That makes sense in terms of Western sensibilities and politics but not in terms of Middle Eastern ones. The Palestinian leadership—which is quite well off materially, of course, you should have seen their villas in Tunis and now in the West Bank which are much nicer than your home—doesn’t care about its people. State? They are running things already. Poverty? They aren’t poor. Suffering? Well, they aren't suffering and that others keep suffering is preferable to treason against Islam and giving Arab rights to the whole country, isn’t it?

And besides, material improvement makes people soft (that’s their view of the West). If Palestinians do have a state and higher living standards they will be seduced by materialism and not want to fight on. This kind of thinking is far clearer with Hamas but is also in the saddle with Fatah and the PA.

Even today, with the Palestinians divided into two separate regimes, Israel getting steadily stronger, the main strategy being discussed by Fatah and the PA isn’t compromise but escalation. Thus, Saeb Erakat, one of the most relatively moderate people in the PA leadership (and the only one of the pre-1994, old West Bank notables still in any position of responsibility) said, in effect, that the more Palestinians lose, the more they demand:

“With the continuation of settlement activities, the two-state solution is no longer an option."

Continuation? There have been no new settlements in 15 years or in general—there might be small exceptions—but the territorial expanse of settlements has not increased. Eraket said this after Israel announced it would finish 3000 apartments being built now and then freeze construction. His words do not correspond with reality, now more than ever.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded with logic: "Getting into final status negotiations will allow us to bring an end to settlement activity." True, but indeed there is an even better answer: Getting a Palestinian state would end the “occupation” and remove all the settlements on Palestinian territory.

Yet that was a decision the Palestinians could have made in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as well as throughout this almost completed decade.

Note the Western thinking—if you want a concession you must compromise to get it—with the Middle Eastern approach—give us what we want or we’ll hold our breath till we turn blue.

Instead, Erakat proposes that the Palestinians "refocus their attention on the one-state solution where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live as equals." No doubt this means “equals” in an Islamic and Arab state, with the Israelis turning over all they’ve created and earned for 60 years to a dictatorship of those who have spent their time in trying to kill them rather than by engaging in productive labor.

This would never happen, of course, unless Israel was either militarily defeated, collapsed from within, was destroyed by international action, or some mixture of the above.

But in fact the Fatah leadership, with a few exceptions, never accepted the two-state solution.

A Western observer would respond that these things are not going to happen and therefore the Palestinian leadership could not possibly believe such nonsense. Well, they do believe it—or at least they partly believe it and know that this is the only permissible public stance in Palestinian society. This view is the basis for their political behavior, a factor viewable on a daily basis and one that they understand completely.

To recall how little progress Palestinians have made in thinking about this issue, remember that what they are talking about now was a program first proposed in 1968 and adapted by the PLO in 1974. After 35 years, they are still in the same place. As for the word “refocus,” Erakat is well aware that this has always been the focus.

A few years ago, Erakat was addressing a visiting Western delegation and told them that the Palestinian program was nonsense and could never succeed. After basically denouncing the real mistakes the Palestinians have made, he looked around nervously and said, “I didn’t say any of that.”

In his more recent interview, Erakat said. "This is the moment of truth for us."

Yes, it is always the moment of truth. The problem is that at the moment of truth you always tell lies.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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