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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 1996

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The Future of Palestine

By Curtis F. Jones


Historical precedent offers five possible outcomes to territorial disputes such as that which has long raged in the historical geographic entity called Palestine: genocide, expulsion, partition, cantons, or assimilation. (Note that for the purposes of this paper, I define the Palestine of today to be the region comprising the current state of Israel and the two areas called the West Bank and Gaza.)

Genocide

We can deal quickly with this possibility. There is good reason to dismiss genocide as a likely option by either side in the Palestinian dispute, this despite Israel's military capability to carry it out, and despite evidence that some of Israel's more hawkish commanders have been involved in localized massacres of Arab Palestinians, notably at Dayr Yasin near Jerusalem in April 1948 and in the assault of the Lebanese Phalangists on the Sabra and Sahtila refugee camps near Beirut in September 1982. It is inconceivable that a state that emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust could engage in the wholesale slaughter of another people.

Expulsion

There are 20th century precedents for mass expulsion. The Turks practiced it against the Anatolian Greeks in the 1920s through a combination of military action and diplomacy (the Treaty of Lausanne). "Ethnic cleansing," that dread phrase, is a contemporary manifestation in the former Yugoslavia. In Palestine -- as I define it -- over the past fifty years Israeli military action, psychological intimidation, and economic pressures have driven out hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Nevertheless, three million Arabs remain, along with four million Jews. As a democracy and a ward of the United States, Israel is unlikely to find the opportunity to rid itself of the remaining Arabs -- least of all the 800,000 who hold Israeli citizenship.

Partition

The third of the possible outcomes, partition, has been implemented for better or worse in South Asia, the Korean peninsula, Cyprus, and elsewhere, but in my view it has only slim prospects in Palestine, despite the efforts that have been made in that direction. Having rejected this option when it was first proposed, by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947, the Arab Palestinian leadership accepted it too late -- after the state of Israel had successfully established itself on 7,500 square miles of the territory and eventually had imposed military control over the balance of 2,250 square miles on the West Bank and 140 square miles in the Gaza Strip. The recently established Palestine Authority, the product of the Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization see below), envisions eventual Israeli recognition of a bifurcated Arab Palestinian state comprising the two occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in a shared east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed unilaterally in June 1967. In any foreseeable circumstances, however, this formula now seems unrealistic. Awkward for the Arabs, it would be unacceptable for the Israelis, who are dedicated to retaining full control of an undivided Jerusalem and of the vital aquifers and strategic positions in both Arab portions of Palestine. The political unification of these territories with the Kingdom of Jordan would be equally unacceptable to Israel.

In December 1987, the West Bank and Gaza exploded in insurrection -- the intifadah. The resultant military threat to Israel was insignificant, but the political effect of young Jewish soldiers gunning down rioting Arab teenagers was troublesome abroad and corrosive at home. Under these pressures, Israel retreated from its refusal to deal with the PLO. In December 1992, the Israeli government went behind the ineffectual series of U. S.-sponsored meetings with supposedly independent Palestinians and availed itself of the good offices of Norway to establish secret contact in Oslo with PLO representatives. Increasingly marginalized by age, impoverishment, and isolation (PLO headquarters was located 1,100 miles from Palestine, in Tunis), Chairman Yasir Arafat was receptive. The Israeli contact helped to shore up Arafat's Authority, which was under challenge from emerging leaders in the occupied territories.

Eager to share in the credit for the negotiations, no matter how little deserved, the Clinton administration moved rapidly to coopt the Oslo process. In September 1993, President Clinton presided over "Oslo I," the signing of a declaration of principles by a reluctant Rabin and a revived Arafat.

Both parties derived immediate benefits. The intifadah subsided. An organization of Arafat's political rivals, the Unified National Leadership of the Palestinian Uprising, disbanded nine months after the initial Israeli-PLO contact in Oslo. The Israeli military evacuated the West Bank city of Jericho and the two-thirds of the Gaza Strip not owned by Jews. Arafat made a ceremonial return to Gaza on July 1, 1994. Western nations promised long-term funding for the newly created Palestinian Authority.

Two years later, still pursuing the policy of partition, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat were ready to sign "Oslo II," and the lure of U. S. financial aid brought them to Washington in late September 1995 for the ceremony. Israel contracted to evacuate most towns and villages in the West Bank. Even the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli religious fundamentalist in November 1995 did not interrupt the Oslo process. Palestinian elections in January 1996 confirmed Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Later in 1996, the Oslo initiative has suffered two serious reverses. In February and March, bloody suicide bombings in Israel by Arab fundamentalists led Shimon Peres, Rabin's successor, to close the frontier to passage of the day laborers on whose income many West Bank and most Gaza families depend. At the end of May, following the Likud party's narrow electoral victory over Labor, the Israeli government installed a new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had run on a platform critical of the Oslo process. As of this writing (mid-August 1996), Israel had not withdrawn its troops from Hebron, the last town scheduled for evacuation under Oslo II, and Netanyahu had not met with Arafat. On the brighter side, new foreign minister David Levy conferred with Arafat, Netanyahu moderated his earlier anti-partition rhetoric, and Israel relaxed its border controls.

Since Israel has pursued its underground war with the Arab Palestinian fundamentalists, notably in the instance of the assassination of the reputed terrorist and a leader of Hamas, Yahya Ayyash, at the beginning of this year, future Israeli courses of action are difficult to predict with any degree of confidence. (Hamas is a leading Islamic fundamentalist faction in Arab Palestine with a substantial but indeterminate following.) Meanwhile, the mainstream of Arab sentiment in Palestine has rallied behind Arafat. Although his concessions to Israel were considered massive, and his leadership style is autocratic and at the same time capricious, past Israeli treatment of its Arab subjects has been so harsh that even Arafat and the Oslo process looked good. Some towns have been evacuated by Israeli troops; some Palestinian prisoners have been released.

Cantons

So far, however, Arafat's constituency has been buoyed up by hopes of eventual statehood. Given the toughness of the Israeli negotiating position -- hard under Rabin and Peres, draconian under Netanyahu -- and the intricately abstruse language of the two Oslo agreements, these factors, I believe, are much more likely to lead to the outcome most Israelis seem to prefer: the establishment of cantons.

Heir to an ancient if not necessarily honorable history, canton systems have taken a variety of forms: ghettos for European Jews, reservations for Native Americans, Bantustans for South African blacks. But the end product has always been the same -- the unwelcome segment of population is stripped of power and contained under the control of others.

Israeli troops still stand on the borders of Palestine -- the Palestine in the larger sense that I use in this commentary -- and they dominate the new web of highways that links the Arab communities. Israel retains control of the West Bank's all-important water supply, a veto over the Palestinian Authority's decisions, and the power to abrogate Oslo I and II at will. Even if the accords endure, they likely will serve as not much more than a façade for the continuation of expanded Israeli control, especially through the proliferation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

As always is the case, the political outcome will be conditioned by economics. Twenty-eight years of Israeli rule have stymied the development of Arab industry and agriculture in the territories. The election of a Palestinian Legislative Council this past January generated some repatriation of Arab savings and a flurry of construction in Gaza, but Arabs in both Gaza and the West Bank are largely dependent on the bounty of outsiders. The sustenance provided by the Palestine refugee program of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was always a pittance. Oslo-generated funds are only trickling in. Cut off from oil-state subsidies because of Arafat's support for Iraq during the Gulf War, allowed to import and export only via Israel and with Israeli permission, the Arab inhabitants of the territories depend for markets, essential commodities, and jobs on a state that would like to get rid of them. Before the intifadah, over 100,000 Arabs in the occupied territories commuted to day jobs in Israel. After the Arab extremist suicide bombings in February 1996, Israel closed the borders altogether for several months and brought in temporary workers from southeastern Europe and East Asia, as it has on previous occasions over the years. At present, the borders are opened again for up to 32,000 workers a day, but Arab Palestinians are still living with massive unemployment.

Assimilation

These circumstances are a clear recipe for continued violence and eventual anarchy. By process of elimination, therefore, we come to the fifth and, in my opinion, best feasible outcome -- assimilation. Israel wants to keep the territories. It also seeks a leadership role in the Middle East. As the state that is technologically the most advanced and politically the most democratic, it is admirably qualified to play that role, provided it can demonstrate the ability to deal with its neighbors on equal terms. The Israeli-Arab Palestinian relationship is the acid test. If Israel's leaders cannot overcome the particularist "bunker" mentality of Zionism, the century-old movement that led to the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine, then the conflict will drag on for more dreary decades.

The United States as an abettor of Israel's creation and an agent of its survival is, it happens, the best historical example in statehood form of the proposition that language, religion, race, and community are incidental variations of the human condition. No matter how many caveats or reservations are associated with the concept, America's "melting pot" has worked. For the past thirty years, however, U. S. Middle East policy has sacrificed the principles of the nation's own heritage to political opportunism. If Washington is really serious about promoting long-term peace in the region, and I assume that it is, the United States will encourage the gradual incorporation of Palestine's Arabs into the Israeli-dominated economy and polity. It will seek by political and economic means to foster assimilation. A narrow interpretation of Zionist policy has been tried by Israel and has been found lacking.

Middle Eastern affairs occupied Curt Jones during virtually all of his 29-year career as a U. S. Foreign Service officer.



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