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What future for the Palestinians?


Richard Falk, TFF Associate

January 2, 2007

Of all issues that have long been on the global agenda, none has fared worse over the decades, than the struggle of the Palestinians to achieve political independence and to protect their rights under international law. It has long been time to ask why?

It is not enough to point out that Israel has enjoyed the support of the United States in denying self-determination to the Palestinians. Or that Palestinian leadership has missed opportunities to liberate its peoples by often seeming to adopt poor negotiating tactics. Or to suggest that the Palestinian cause has not received effective support from neighboring Arab countries or the collective energies of the Islamic world. Or to ask why the Palestinian cause, which has long been endorsed by the United Nations, has not produced a global social movement comparable in effectiveness to the anti-apartheid campaign that contributed strongly to the collapse of the South African racist regime in the early 1990s with virtually no accompanying bloodshed.

These are each important issues that bear directly on a dimension of the conflict, but somehow do not convincingly enable an understanding of this tragic failure of what passes as global governance to overcome the collective agony of the Palestinian people over a period of time approaching sixty years.


Perhaps some insight can be gained by looking more closely at why the anti-apartheid campaign succeeded to the surprise, bordering on amazement, of most observers at the time within and without South Africa. Several of the most informed observers did think that apartheid might eventually lose out in South Africa, but if it did, such an outcome could only come about as a result of a long, costly, and exhausting armed struggle. What was not considered even as a possibility was what actually transpired: the totally unexpected flexibility of the ruling white leadership combined with the tactical brilliance and exceptional moral/political leadership on the part of Nelson Mandela. It was this combination that produced a chain of circumstances leading rapidly to the emergence of a constitutional multi-racial democracy in South Africa that despite many problems has moved forward impressively as a free and developing society.

Of course, these conditions that produced a political miracle in South Africa cannot be reproduced in the Israel-Palestine context. There is no Mandela, the geopolitics is different, leadership is defiicient, and recent developments seem to reinforce pessimists who argue that no solution is forthcoming.

But just maybe, as with South Africa, informed observers are missing some mildly encouraging developments that might create still invisible opportunities to move finally toward a resolution that brings peace and security to both peoples. There is some indication for the first time ever of serious questioning within the United States of its role in sustaining the conflict.

Some months ago two prominent American professors, John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, wrote a widely publicized critique of the extent to which ‘the Jewish lobby’ in the United States exerted influence on American foreign policy to the detriment of national interests. And now more recently, former president, Jimmy Carter, a revered political figure, published a book with the provocative title “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” that insists that unless Israel offers the Palestinians a just peace that results in a truly sovereign state, a system of ‘apartheid’ will emerge in which an Israeli minority rule and abuses a Palestinian majority in the area covered by historic Palestine.

As could have been predicted, both of these occurrences has produced a partisan backlash orchestrated by pro-Israeli extremist voices in the United States that has been given lots of media attention, but without being able to stop a gathering momentum in American society to examine finally, and possibly even challenge, the one-sided character of Washington’s involvement.

This is not likely to influence the approach taken by Congress or the White House in the immediate future, but it may create a healthier atmosphere of controversy, allowing a much needed debate.


This prospect is further heightened by the recent report of the semi-official Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, which argues strongly that the United States needs a new approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict if it is to find a way to end the Iraq War in a manner that does not lead to a wider regional disaster from an American perspective. There are many reasons to challenge the approach of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, which seem mainly aimed at finding common ground between Republicans and Democrats, and is unlikely to dislodge the Bush presidency from maintaining its failed Iraq policy, likely even worsening the situation by raising the stakes.

At the same time, its call for a different approach to Israel-Palestine is almost certain to contribute to the national mood calling for a rethinking of how to use American influence in a more constructive fashion.


The other mildly positive development is a parallel movement of opinion in Israel. There has been a revival of the Israel peace movement in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, which reinforced a message that should have been received long ago, that there is no military solution for Israel’s quest for security. Beyond this, the resilience of Hezbollah demonstrated more than showing that crushing the Palestinians is not an option. It also discredited the Sharon/Olmert unilateralist alternative to a negotiated peace, based on Israel on its own defining the borders of the two political communities, keeping most of its settlements on the West Bank, constructing the security wall on Palestinian territory, ignoring the plight of Palestinian refugees, and establishing Jerusalem as its capital, will not lead to peace or security.

Only a negotiated outcome that acknowledges Palestinian rights under international law and gives the Palestinians a viable state of their own has any hope of bringing peace.

This awakening on the part of more Israelis, coinciding with some change of attitude in the United States, might give rise to a more balanced diplomatic approach and produce an Israeli leadership willing to address the Palestinian challenge in a spirit that is not only more effective, but also more empathetic, than in the past.


Calling attention to these more hopeful tendencies should not obscure the bleak larger picture that currently prevails. Never has the Palestinian plight seemed so grim. Never have Israeli occupation policies led to so much torment for the Palestinians. For the last several years, ever since the breakdown of the Camp David II Clinton/Barak/Arafat peace negotiations and the Second Intifada, Israel has been trying very hard to create a situation in which the Palestinians could be ignored because they had brought on their ordeal by their own self-destructive behavior.

First, Arafat was blamed for refusing to accept the peace proposals put forward in 2000 by Israel, and favored by the United States. Then Arafat was humiliated and place in life-threatening circumstances by Israeli military tactics, confining him to a damaged compound, and denying him access to his people and the media. The Israeli leadership, with Washington’s support, then insisted it had no ‘partner’ in the search for peace, and that it was justified in pursuing a unilateral approach.

Soon thereafter Arafat died, leaving the Palestinians without a unifying symbol for their struggle. Elections in January 2006 resulted in a clear Hamas victory, affirming a more militant approach by the Palestinians. The Israelis countered by insisting that Israel would not recognize ‘terrorists’ or allow Hamas to govern in the Palestinian territories despite their successful participation in democratic elections. The Palestinians were squeezed hard by blocking access to tax revenues and by repeated military strikes, climaxing in an offensive in Gaza following the abduction of an Israeli soldier in a border incident that occurred in June 2006. Palestinians are currently facing severe health, food, and employment crises brought on by these harsh occupation and security policies.

This Israeli policy of challenging the legitimacy of Palestinian leadership has been surprisingly successful despite the vulnerability of their own leadership over the course of the last five years or so. It should be recalled that it was Ariel Sharon's deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on Sepember 28, 2000 at a moment of tension in the aftermath of the Camp David II failure and just prior to Israeli elections that supplied the spark igniting the Second Intifada.

The election of Sharon shortly thereafter raised few eyebrows because it was deemed a free election in a democratic society expressing the will of the Israeli citizenry. And yet Sharon was widely regarded as an unindicted war criminal, having been held indirectly responsible, even by an official Israeli commission of inquiry, for the Falange massacre of several hundred Palestinians living in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, as well as being the architect of both the invasion of Lebanon in that year and a greatly expanded settlements policy in the West Bank.


Surely, Israeli representation was as problematic as Palestinian since 2001, and yet the international community accepted Israeli leadership without even a whimper while punishing Palestinians harshly for their chosen leaders. This contrast reflects the relative power, not relative legitimacy, of the two sides, and illustrates why it is so difficult to get a balanced approach from third parties without even taking account of the pro-Israeli bias that shapes informal and official public opinion in the United States.

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Politically, this dire situation has been aggravated by the Israeli/American efforts to interfere in Palestinian politics, promoting the Fatah leadership of Mamhoud Abbas at the expense of Hamas and the democratic elections, stirring tensions among the Palestinians. This policy, as might have been expected, has given rise to lethal civil strife among the Palestinians, a temporary ‘victory’ for Israel in the sense of diverting attention away from their own role, relieving pressures, and creating a spectacle of Palestinian disunity that reinforces the Israeli claim that there is no basis for diplomacy or for ending the occupation.

The present situation is especially confusing because it exhibits these two contrary movements: in one direction, some welcome tendencies to challenge hard line and one-sided approaches heretofore relied upon by Israel and the United States; in the opposite direction, a disturbing deterioration of the Palestinian reality as a deliberate result of official policies pursued in Tel Aviv and Washington.

What is painfully clear is that the Palestinians remain the world’s most flagrant demonstration of the cruelty of geopolitics. But what is also emerging is that such cruelty is dysfunctional, serving neither the interests of Israel nor the United States, making it plain that there exists a better alternative for both sides. This better alternative would rely on mutual diplomacy and respect for Palestinian rights under international law. It would presuppose that Israel would finally withdraw, as required by Security Council Resolution 242 to its 1967 borders, as well as accept the necessity of dismantling its illegal settlements and unlawful security wall, the internationalization of the city of Jerusalem, and an implementation in some form of a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees.

This is a formidable set of requirements, but unless substantially met, the tragedy will persist, damaging both peoples and ominously approaching points of no return. Former President Carter is correct, a choice between peace and apartheid is in the offing, and will be made in the coming years for better or worse.



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