The Mirage of Palestinian Statehood

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ghada Hashem Talhami

D.K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, emerita, Lake Forest College

Secretary of State John Kerry recently asserted to Congress that he believes “the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time: a year, a year and a half to two years — or it’s over.” Palestinians feel that statehood is a mirage.

This is not for lack of effort on the part of the United States, but rather the result of historic myopia afflicting American policy-makers over the years. Ever since the creation of Israel in 1948, sporadic efforts to contain its territorial ambitions were never accompanied by a comprehensive plan to address the other facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States can no longer blame its blind support for Israel on the Cold War, since great power competition in the Middle East has largely ended. Yet, every American president has tried, usually in his lame-duck years, to inscribe his legacy with a lasting Middle East peace settlement. This major failing deserves a serious investigation since Israel has now signaled its determination to enforce its nuclear hegemony in the region unilaterally if need be, but preferably with the help of the United States.

Several blind spots continue to obstruct a clear vision of this dispute: Lack of appreciation for the Palestinians’ strong national identity, positive predisposition towards Israel, and inconsistent support for international principles. John Foster Dulles, for instance, after engineering Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and Sinai in 1956, persisted in denying the centrality of Palestinian refugees to the Palestine question. He believed that sooner or later they would be assimilated in the countries of their residency, overlooking their strong attachment to their land and their troubled existence in hostile countries. President Johnson, perhaps distracted by the dilemmas of the Viet Nam War and ill-advised by several prominent friends of the Israeli state, deliberately ended Kennedy’s efforts to curtail Israel’s nuclear program. He also failed to react to Israel’s imposition of a military occupation regime over the West Bank and Gaza, clear Israeli steps toward the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and the initiation of a vigorous settlement policy.

The Nixon-Kissinger team famously re-equipped the Israeli air force after its initial defeat in the 1973 October War, demonstrating that there were no limitations on this alliance and in the process jeopardizing our access to cheap sources of Saudi oil. Even Carter’s successful Camp David negotiations, culminating in the first treaty between an Arab state and Israel, offered the Palestinians only a limited and close-ended autonomy. The same treaty also contributed to the delegitimizing of President Sadat’s government, since he justified his peace with the enemy by predicting that Egypt would replace Israel as the number one U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Clinton’s peace-making efforts were also skewed in favor of the Israelis. A cursory reading of his memoirs explains why Israel continued to take the American alliance for granted, moving very little beyond the asymmetrical Oslo Peace settlement of 1993. If the Palestinians believed there was any gain to be made out of laying down their arms and renouncing the armed struggle in the hope of achieving their state, they were sorely disappointed. Very little American effort was made to force the Israelis to yield on the issues of settlements, refugees, or Jerusalem.

Clinton made two efforts to reach a peace settlement: the Wye River Talks and the Camp David II conference. During both, he was convinced that Ehud Barak was brilliant and courageous while Arafat was devious and unlettered in the art of negotiation. Yet, Barak, as most Israelis know, has a history of assassinating PLO figures living in exile and is hardly a peace-maker himself. Somehow, Clinton never conceded the Arabs’ right to control the Noble Sanctuary or all of Arab Jerusalem, expecting them to compromise while they had nothing to give to the occupying Israelis.

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, ignored the impact of the settlements and was the first president to refer to them in a letter to Prime Minister Sharon as ‘population centers.’ As to the Palestinian refugees, he would only concede their right to be settled in a future Palestinian state, but not to return to their own homes and towns. Is there any wonder that Israel does not feel the need to give anything back as long as it continues to negotiate, usually under American pressure, sending its Palestinian partners away empty-handed? Henry Siegman, noted expert on this conflict, aptly called this strategy ‘the peace scam.’

Clearly, Israel will not yield anything, even after facing two intifadas, mounting two aerial wars on Gaza, and sending its military twice into Lebanon. It continues with its flagrant dismissal of the requirements of international law by authorizing more settlements, particularly in the suburbs of Arab Jerusalem. If it is currently flirting with the possibility of another intifada, there is no telling what negative results this will generate for the United States. And if the United States is not asked by Israel for military assistance, how long can the U.S. be expected to bear the heavy burden of financial assistance in order to maintain Israel’s superiority of arms?

It is quite clear to students of this conflict that the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) sought recognition at the UN after being indirectly encouraged by the United States to build state institutions as much as possible within its small territory. This was the premise underlying the extensive institution-building efforts of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Thus, when the United States stood against the international consensus at the UN when the latter granted the PNA observer status, the U.S. not only subverted Resolution 181, which called for the creation of a Palestinian and a Jewish state in 1948 and for which it voted, it also sent a dangerous signal to generations of young Palestinians and Arabs, to wit, peaceful efforts do not pay. Supporting the creation of a Palestinian state is not an option for the United States anymore, it is an urgent necessity.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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