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Jerusalem Viewpoints


No. 540     1 Adar 5766 / 1 March 2006

Is Palestinian Statehood Still a Valid Option?

Zalman Shoval

  • The cornerstone of Hamas' program, its very raison-d'etre, is the destruction of Israel, replacing it with an Islamist, fundamentalist, intolerant state reaching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and beyond. The dominant theme of all their statements includes no territorial compromise - no peace even if Israel were to hand over all the territories and eastern Jerusalem; at most, some sort of temporary armistice (hudna).

  • The world attaches much too great an importance to the question of whether Hamas will recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel doesn't need approval from the likes of Hamas - rather it's the other way around: Should Israel recognize, under present circumstances, the Palestinians' right to a state?

  • The fact that Hamas and its future government refuse to take upon themselves the most fundamental obligations under the "roadmap," let alone previous agreements such as Oslo, Paris, Wye, and Sharm E-Sheik, and to do away with the "right of return," dictates a reevaluation of Palestinian statehood as an American and Israeli goal.

  • An often-cited argument for Palestinian statehood is that it would solve the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all. Yet it should be clear to anyone that the future Palestinian state won't be able, economically and demographically, to absorb more than about 10-15 percent of the total refugee population, and the refugee issue will continue to be a ticking time-bomb endangering the stability of the whole Middle East.

  • Putin's invitation to Hamas to visit the Kremlin is part of the former Soviet, as well as the present Russian, government's policy to counterbalance America's dominance in the world by establishing a political base for itself in the Arab and Islamic worlds - thus Iran, thus Hamas.



A Vision of Two States in Peaceful Coexistence?

Ever since President Bush's June 2002 speech about his "vision" of Palestinian-Israeli peace, we were told that Palestinian statehood would bring about the separation desired by most Israelis, with both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, living henceforth in peaceful and democratic coexistence - and at the same time also conclusively eliminating the demographic specter, i.e., the Jews becoming a minority in their own country within two generations.

This prognosis, in the view of some, by the way, is misleading - not only because these demographic assumptions may be challenged, but also because the peril of an eventual Arab majority in the Jewish state doesn't really arise in practical terms unless Israel were to annex all of the "territories" - a scenario few people in Israel would accept at this time.

Be this as it may, it is claimed that giving the Palestinians a state is really an Israeli interest, or as Henry Kissinger put it in a recent article: "an Israeli strategic requirement." But it isn't and never was. At best, Palestinian statehood can be seen as perhaps an inevitable development, faute de mieux, under present circumstances.

There was always the possibility, even before the Hamas victory, that such an entity - contrary to President Bush's "vision" of a "viable, democratic Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel" - would in fact turn out to be just another autocratic, fundamentalist Arab state, promoting terror and nurturing irredentist dreams toward Israel and Jordan. Also, taking into account its territorial and economic limitations, the Palestinian state's future viability would have been open to question.


Statehood No Solution to the Refugee Problem

Another often-cited argument for Palestinian statehood is that it would solve the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all; as the Jewish question was resolved by the establishment of Israel - Jews, including refugees from the Holocaust, being able to find a home there - so a Palestinian state would be the solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. Even if we ignore the probably unintended equation between Holocaust survivors and Palestinian refugees - who were deliberately and cynically, for political and self-centered reasons, left for three generations by Arab governments and successive Palestinian leaderships, often abetted by the UN, to languish in ramshackle camps - it should be clear to anyone that the future Palestinian state won't be able, economically and demographically, to absorb more than about 10-15 percent of the total refugee population.

In other words, unless the problem will be solved the way other refugee problems have been solved around the world, namely, by permanently settling and integrating them in the Arab countries of which they have been part, albeit mostly without basic rights, for almost 60 years, the Arab refugee issue will continue to be a ticking time-bomb endangering the stability of the whole Middle East. President Bush's April 14, 2004, letter to Prime Minister Sharon to the effect that the Palestinian so-called "right of return" should be limited to an independent Palestinian state was a small but important step in the right direction, though it probably was a mistake on the part of Israel not to insist, as part of its adherence to the Quartet's "roadmap," that canceling the "right of return" must be an irretrievable precondition to Palestinian statehood.


The Hamas Election Victory Undermines Bush's Vision of a Palestinian State

The sweeping Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections should give Israel an opportunity to reopen such questions. First, it must be understood that all the premises for Palestinian statehood laid down, among others, by President Bush in his June 24, 2002, statement, i.e., "democratic," "firmly rejecting terror," "living in peace side by side with Israel," etc., no longer exist.

Palestinian statehood, according to the "roadmap" which was designed to implement Bush's statement, is contingent on the Palestinians' destroying their terrorist infrastructure (i.e., dissolving the terror organizations, of which Hamas is, of course, an integral part; its plan to reconstitute its own organization as the future Palestinian army in practice means that it intends to legitimize terrorism), handing over illegal arms, putting an end to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incitement, etc.

In fact, the cornerstone of Hamas' program, its very raison-d'etre, is the destruction of Israel, replacing it with an Islamist, fundamentalist, intolerant state reaching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and beyond. The dominant theme of all their statements goes as follows: no territorial compromise - no peace even if Israel were to hand over all the territories and eastern Jerusalem; at most, some sort of temporary armistice (hudna) at the end of which "we may perhaps consider the possibility of eliminating the clause calling for Israel's destruction."

It is clear that if Israel were to accept the hudna proposal, the result would be the creation of a concert of terrorist states and organizations in our immediate neighborhood. The world, including the U.S. and even some Israelis, attach much too great an importance to the question of whether Hamas will recognize Israel's right to exist. (By the way, no Arab party, including Abbas' Fatah, has yet done so.) Israel doesn't need approval from the likes of Hamas - rather it's the other way around: Should Israel recognize, under present circumstances, the Palestinians' right to a state?

As the liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote on Feb. 1, 2006: "In due course we will be told that what Hamas has been insisting on for years - the utter destruction of Israel - is not really a serious goal. Hamas should not be taken literally, and anyway it will be forced to moderate both its platform and its policies by the reality of governing....As for its truculent anti-Semitism...it too will be dismissed as without consequence." And he concludes: "From here on (the leaders of Hamas) will lie about their ultimate aim and smilingly assure us that what they have always said they no longer mean....All over the world, people will believe them and urge the U.S. and Israel to do the same."1 The fact that Hamas and its future government refuse to take upon themselves the most fundamental obligations under the "roadmap," let alone previous agreements such as Oslo, Paris, Wye, and Sharm E-Sheik, and to do away with the "right of return," dictates a reevaluation of Palestinian statehood as an American and Israeli goal.


America Ignored Israeli Warnings on Hamas Election Participation

Unfortunately, our American friends made a bad mistake not listening to Israeli warnings about Hamas participating in the recent Palestinian elections and the probability that it would emerge victorious. They preferred to listen to Abbas who assured them that he would "deal with Hamas after the elections" - though he himself had done nothing to control that organization's activities when he had the chance to do it. Washington is so imbued with the conviction that democratic elections will remove all the obstacles from the path of freedom and peace everywhere that it sometimes loses sight not only of realities in certain parts of the world but also of history; after all, Adolf Hitler was also elected in fully democratic elections.

Democracy isn't only a process of electing a government but also depends on the nature of the players involved, and just as the Nazis made no secret of their ultimate aims, neither does Hamas. Since it's too late now to say "we told you so," what is much more important is to clarify to the Free World that the Hamas victory is not just an Israeli problem but one which might also affect some of the West's supposedly staunchest allies, including Egypt and Jordan.

Nor is the artificial distinction between radical Islam and a supposedly moderate one well grounded, especially in the Arab world. As Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland has pointed out: "The reality shown by Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections is this: If fully free elections were held today in the rest of the Arab world, Islamist parties would win in most states....The notion, popular in Washington over the past few years, that American programs and efforts can help build a third alternative to both current governments and Islamists is simply a delusion."2


Russia Breaks Ranks

The fact that Russia has already broken ranks should surprise no one. Moscow pontificating about the precepts of democracy must bring a wry smile to our lips; but more to the point, Mr. Putin inviting a Hamas delegation to the Kremlin is part of the former Soviet, as well as the present Russian, government's policy to counterbalance America's dominance in the world by establishing a political base for itself in the Arab and Islamic worlds - thus Iran, thus Hamas. The immediate outcome of Russia's action will be to make the international Quartet, of which it is a member, even more irrelevant than before.


Israel Still Holds Most of the Cards

Israel should not be discouraged by those developments. It still holds most of the cards. First of all, Hamas, in spite of its bombs and bombastics, does not at present represent a real military threat to Israel and it is not implausible that this will have to be put to a test at some future point - sooner rather than later. Nor does a Hamas government stand much of a chance to endure if it will be diplomatically, politically, and financially isolated by Israel and the rest of the Free World.

Admittedly, that's a big "if" - not only because of Moscow's negative step, but also in light of a possible change of heart by the UN and some of the Europeans, who more than anyone else should have learned a lesson from their own history. One also hears the argument that the Palestinian people should not be made to suffer because of Hamas' aims, or as Jimmy Carter put it: "Don't punish the Palestinians." But just like the Germans who had handed power to the Nazi party, fully knowing its aims, so the Palestinians may have to pay the price for giving Hamas victory in the recent elections, knowing full well for whom they were voting.

In any case, considerations of this kind didn't prevent the British Navy in both world wars from imposing a tight blockade on Germany's shores in order to "starve" the Germans into submission. Still, Israel and the U.S. have decided not to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the Palestinian territories. This requires a word of caution, as experience has shown that Hamas has been adept at diverting funds intended for supposedly humanitarian purposes to the replenishment of its terrorist activities. All this will require a major diplomatic effort on behalf of Israel including making it clear that it holds the keys to Palestinian statehood.


Is Palestinian Statehood the Only Outcome?

In a recent address at the Jerusalem Center, Prof. Shlomo Avineri made the point that there are many conflicts in the world that the international community is uncertain how to solve: Kosovo, Bosnia, and Cyprus are recent examples that he raises. So why should the entire international community be so certain that Palestinian statehood is the inevitable outcome of any Arab-Israeli peace process, especially if it is a far more difficult conflict to resolve than any of the European conflicts named above?

Prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, for example, the Palestinian interest in negotiations was represented by a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and subsequent bilateral talks in Washington. Whether Jordan might be interested in resuming federal links with the Palestinians after the failure of their self-governing exercise remains to be seen. But with the rise of Hamas, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state should no longer be taken for granted. Alternative solutions must be considered, given the magnitude of the Palestinian failure to live up to the Oslo Accords, the "Roadmap for Peace," and Bush's 2002 statements.

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Notes

1. Richard Cohen, "Don't Be Fooled by Hamas," Washington Post, February 1, 2006; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/31/AR2006013101068.html
2. Shibley Telhami, "In the Mideast, the Third Way Is a Myth," Washington Post, February 17, 2006; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/16/AR2006021601576.html

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Zalman Shoval, a member of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel's Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the Camp David conference. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post.


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