This rich and comprehensive story of the Palestinians by Baruch Kimmerling of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Joel Migdal of the University of Washington expands on their 1993 book, Palestinians, The Making of a People, with new chapters on the Israeli-Palestinians and the Oslo peace process and its collapse. An ambitious synthesis of history, political analysis, sociology and economics, it succeeds in bringing together in very readable prose the long and still incomplete Palestinian quest for unity and freedom in a state of their own.
Kimmerling and Migdal are part of the new era of historians whose work penetrates the thick layers of nationalistic myth and propaganda that have obscured understanding of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The authors are sympathetic but not partisan toward the Palestinians, and their judgments are balanced and dispassionate. Their analysis of what went right and what went wrong with the Oslo process, which has become the subject of much partisan debate, is fresh and compelling.
The authors deplore the self-serving, idealized mythologies and mutual denial of both Israelis and Palestinians about their respective histories and their denigration of each other’s legitimate claims. For example, they reject the popular notion that the Palestinians are simply a product of the confrontation of the Arab peoples of Palestine with Zionism. They argue that a sense of Palestinian identity and political self-consciousness first emerged with the bloody revolt of the Arabs of Palestine in 1834 against Ibrahim Pasha’s short-lived and onerous Egyptian occupation, which was ultimately turned back by the Ottomans. Ottoman co-optation of the notables and landowners whom they deputized as officials blurred a common identity. But growing trade that created interdependence between city and village, urbanization, education, the Young Turk rebellion in 1908, and the growth of an Arab press accelerated “Palestinism.” Of course, Jewish immigration, the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration greatly accelerated a sense of common identity.
Kimmerling and Migdal credit the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39 for deepening Palestinian anticolonialism and anti-Zionism and finally creating a “nation,” but at great cost. The harsh British crackdown largely destroyed Palestinian political institutions that were rapidly developing in the 1930s and shattered Palestinian society and its leadership, rendering it totally vulnerable in the war of 1948. The authors believe that it was the successful British military and political assaults against the Palestinians that defeated the 1936-39 revolt, not the Palestinians’ political immaturity and the alleged skill of the Zionists, that led to the rout of the Palestinians in 1948.
The authors also believe that it was the 1936 revolt that turned the British against their Zionist protégé in favor of a binational state. The British feared a wider Arab revolt, and this concern, even more than Jewish terrorism in the 1940s, led them to abandon Zionism and their mandate in Palestine. The Palestinian revolt had other important effects. It led the Jews to build a capable 15,000-person protoarmy that was ready for the 1948 war. It also prompted the British to use brutal policies of house demolitions and other collective punishments and Draconian security measures that Israeli forces later adopted against the Palestinians and continue to use today.
Alongside the theme in The Palestinian People that Palestinian identity and nationalism are deeply rooted, the book also documents the constant and unresolved struggle of the Palestinians for unity and consensus. The obstacles to unity have been severe. Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli rulers sought constantly to “divide and conquer” the Palestinians. Class, family and regional divisions, which helped defeat the Palestinian uprising of the late 1930s and left them without effective leadership in the 1940s, still linger. Palestinians have also had to contend with tensions between Palestinian nationalism, Pan-Arabism and Nasserism, and with the competing ambitions of Arab governments. Muslim-Christian frictions and centrifugal forces among Palestinians who remained after the wars of 1948 and 1967 and a far-flung and ideologically diverse diaspora of refugees and emigres have also been challenges. Internecine rivalries weakened the first intifada. And there are deep divisions in the current uprising between secular and Islamist Palestinians, Arafat and his former exile colleagues on the one hand and the local leadership in the occupied territories on the other, and within the dominant Fatah group.
Palestinian unity has also been crippled by the lack of effective leadership. Kimmerling and Migdal criticize Haj Amin Husseini, the Palestinian leader in the thirties and forties, especially, for his failure to unify the Palestinians and his ineffective leadership, which contributed to their dispossession in 1948. The authors are also critical, but less so, of Yasser Arafat. They point out his flawed leadership, governance and diplomacy after his return from Tunis in 1994. But they acknowledge his lack of leverage and Israel’s contribution to the breakdown of the peace process and avoid the demonization of Arafat that is so popular in Israel and the United States.
Political immaturity and factionalism are common among subject peoples, but the deck has also been stacked to an unusual degree against the Palestinians. The British worked hard to sow disunity and defeat Palestinian aspirations during the Mandate, and the Israelis have done likewise during their occupation to thwart Palestinian political development. Nevertheless, Kimmerling and Migdal point out that there were times during the Mandate and Israel’s post-1967 occupation during which Palestinians made real progress toward building unity and civil society, only to be set back. But they acknowledge that the burdens of disunity and poor leadership still hang heavily over the Palestinians.
Describing Palestinian political evolution after 1967, Kimmerling and Migdal credit Palestinian terrorism with inspiring their liberation struggle and winning international attention. At the same time, they point out that terrorism created a bloodthirsty stereotype for the Palestinians and the PLO that is still used to challenge their legitimacy. Terrorism and political violence have been common features of other national liberation movements, including the Zionist struggle. Whatever the judgment of history will be about the impact of terrorism on the Palestinian national movement, it seems crystal clear that the reemergence of terrorism in the form of suicide bombing atrocities in the Al Aqsa intifada has been devastating to the Palestinians’ image and quest for a state of their own.
Today’s Palestinian violence tends to obscure the Palestinian evolution in the 1980s away from violence and toward accommodation and peace with Israel. Notwithstanding Israeli political repression in the territories after 1967, this was a period of institution building by the Palestinians there, who grasped the futility of armed struggle earlier than the diaspora PLO. Israel began its occupation with a light hand. But rapid settlement growth, entrenchment of an apartheid legal system, and tough mercantilist policies that blocked Palestinian economic development created growing frustration. Israel’s military rule hardened, and the first intifada erupted in 1987. It was largely non-violent, but the Israeli military handled it badly. The Palestinians gained sympathy in Israel and abroad, and a new sense of confidence, empowerment and political realism at home. The PLO in Tunis, caught by surprise, ultimately gained a degree of control but responded to growing demands from the occupied territories to abandon violence and accept negotiations with Israel. The Madrid conference and the Oslo accords were the result.
In the final section of The Palestinian People, entitled “Abortive Reconciliation,” the authors analyze the plusses and minuses of the Oslo peace process. On the positive side, the Oslo years created majorities in both Israel and Palestine that believed the other side had legitimate claims and that compromise was necessary, and each side renounced violence. For the first time, the conflict was transformed from a zero-sum struggle into a political process that promised peace. Oslo also created at least an implicit Israeli admission that peace would require a Palestinian state. It nourished a vast process of official and unofficial negotiations that deepened mutual understanding and provided plans and templates as points of departure for an eventual peace treaty. Finally, it created the first Palestinian government. The authors describe these conceptual changes as the “building blocks” for an eventual peace. Why then, in spite of these accomplishments, has the process turned to ashes?
First, Israel’s occupation and vastly greater power gave it a much stronger bargaining position. Israeli negotiators used this to “front load” the process to their advantage by securing Palestinian commitments to recognition and ending violence, whereas Palestinian negotiators won no Israeli commitments on the core issues of statehood, settlements, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. For Palestinians, the benefits of peace were “backloaded” and not explicit. Having forsworn violence, they had little negotiating leverage. The Israelis, having won their key requirement of non-violence from the Palestinians, had little incentive to restrain their power advantage, reinforced by continued military occupation in 80 percent of Palestinian territories, or to be forthcoming on the big final-status issues. The costliest result of this huge asymmetry was a rapid growth of settlements that almost doubled the settler populace during the Oslo years.
Kimmerling and Migdal suggest that strong American mediation might have rescued Oslo, but that Washington was reluctant to intervene forcefully until it was too late. Absent such a mechanism, militants on both sides – Islamist terrorists and Israeli settlers – had virtual veto power, and neither Arafat nor Israel’s leaders had the vision to oppose them. A sense of mutual betrayal grew, compounded by very different expectations about the Oslo endgame. While Israel used its coercive powers to tighten its grip on the territories unilaterally, radical Palestinians resumed violence and terror, and Arafat’s response was ambivalent. Thus the structure of Oslo, by depriving Arafat of negotiating leverage, weakened public confidence in his leadership and relegitimized violence as a political weapon in Palestinian public opinion. The authors blame both Barak and Arafat for failing to rise above popular opinion. Both responded weakly to their respective militants and sometimes encouraged them. Both failed to educate their publics about the need for major compromises. And neither understood the need to speak to the other side. Beyond these underlying causes for the collapse of Oslo, the proximate cause at the end was violence, both Palestinian suicide bombings and the IDF’s brutal responses.
Renewed violence has done huge damage. Like the Palestinian massacres of Jews in Hebron during the revolt of the late 1930s, and the massacre of Palestinians by Irgun irregulars in 1948, it has hardened the hearts of Israelis and Palestinians and encouraged the tendency toward mutual demonization. Kimmerling and Migdal worry about a new Palestinian culture of violence and martyrology and another lost generation of young people on both sides. They warn that if Palestinians adopt the fantasy that Israel can be defeated through violence, their bondage will continue.
In their conclusion, the authors acknowledge that Palestinians have built a virtual nation in the face of huge obstacles. Yet they raise questions about the future. Will the Palestinians overcome the crippling divisions that have grown worse in the recent conflict? Can they renew the development of democratic and civil-society institutions, notwithstanding the repressive role of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority? And can they reconcile their persistent differences over the questions of the right of return and “one state or two states” and embrace a more pragmatic national narrative of a Palestinian future that combines peace with Israel and a Palestinian state in only part of their former homeland? The authors’ doubts are well taken but perhaps too dire about lingering Palestinian desires to return to Israel and a two-state solution. Palestinian decisions about their own future will be critical, but the policies of Israel and the United States will be no less important. In the end, the authors emphasize the powerful symbiosis between Israel and Palestine. Both sides must “win” the conflict, or both will lose. Neither can pull back from the current abyss of hatred and despair without “fulfilling some of the most deeply held aspirations of the other.”