After fifty-two years of dealing with Arabs in general and thirty-three of dealing with Palestinians in particular, there are indications that the Israelis may be preparing to go it alone, to cut loose from the problem and let someone else worry about it. In a story by Deborah Sontag (NY Times News Service) datelined 20 October from Jerusalem, it was reported that Prime Minister Barak had instructed Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh to complete studies of contingency plans for complete separation from the Palestinians. The Israeli government also decided on a “timeout” from the next round of peace talks scheduled to begin the week of 23 October.
In its simplest and most drastic form of separation, Israel would simply seal off its borders (probably after some further security adjustments and taking absolute control of Jerusalem’s holy sites) and separate itself physically, economically and psychologically from the Palestinians. In a form similar to that described by Islamic law, the Israelis would simply declare “I divorce thee!” and thereby end the loveless relationship. The action creates by default a Palestinian state, but most certainly not on the terms that Arafat & Company envisioned.
The Palestinians will be furious. They will probably lack territorial contiguity and they may not have the seaport they have been demanding. They will not have triumphed in the way they wanted to, and, most stinging, they may not have any part of Jerusalem save access to the Temple Mount. The new capitol of Israel will be Jerusalem, and they are not about to share part of it as the capitol of their enemies. The Palestinians will most certainly demand that the Israelis be compelled to return to the table and, as a NLRB mediator might say, “bargain in good faith.”
The logistics of such a move are formidable; though divided, Israelis and Palestinians share much of the infrastructure in this tortured land. Water, power, waste disposal and electronic communication systems are held in common in many places. A considerable segment of the Israeli economy is dependent upon having Palestinian labor available. Wages earned through work in Israel accounts for twenty percent of the Palestinian GNP. The future of 200,000 Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza – none of whose lives would be worth a plugged nickel in a Palestinian-controlled state – must be secured by either resettlement or by additional gerrymandering to include them within the final borders of Israel. Such a separation would be wrenching to Israel and savage for the Palestinians, but it could be done.
Would Israel be better off going it alone? In both the short and long term that answer has to be yes, if for no other reason than that things could not get much worse than they are now. The so-called maximum cooperation model that has been the goal of the last 30 years has yielded nothing of significance or endurance. The PLO, despite Arafat’s convoluted assertions to the contrary, still has the destruction of Israel as its guiding principle. Israel has become a fortress and no longer enjoys unquestioned possession of the moral high ground. Israel is increasingly seen as an oppressor while the Palestinians, who have destroyed one Arab nation and tried to undermine others, are increasingly seen as the victims of oppression.
By cutting loose from the Palestinians, Israel instantly deprives them, the other Arab states and their coterie of left-wing apologists in the West of their chief weapon: That the Israelis are occupiers and oppressors bent on destroying the national aspirations of the Palestinians. Now there is sovereign Palestinian territory with Palestinian population governed by the organization recognized the world over as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. There is official recognition and representation at the UN and in every Arab capital, as well as interest sections with most of the big powers. There is an armed force, sort of, that can protect the territory, and there is money – assuming Arafat has not squandered all of the millions the oil sheiks have supplied – even if there is not a currency. And not a Zionist stooge to be seen anywhere. Do you have a Palestinian state? Looks like a no-brainer to me. Now, what do we call you? Why, the Arab Republic of Palestine sounds just dandy…
How should the US react to such a move by Israel? Hopefully, we are smart enough to accept reality and move on to other things. There are now separate states for Jews and Palestinians, with each more or less in control of its own destiny; besides, there is no known way to unscramble an egg. Having once again been blind-sided, Clinton will have the Secretary of State call in the Israeli ambassador for a thorough reaming and then State will issue a “view with great interest” statement (translation: we have no idea what’s happening). There will be the phone calls between various capitols to determine who are the players and what are the new rules.
Decoupling of the Palestinian issue solves a number of problems. First it allows Israel greater freedom of action without dragging us along. Second, it reduces Arab leverage on us to put pressure on Israel. Third, it now places the chief burden for maintaining peace squarely back on the Palestinians and their supporters; they have always said that statehood was the price of peace. Fourth, we can be seen as pro-Israel without also being anti-Palestinian.
Do we recognize the nascent Palestinian state? Yes, and that recognition should not be conditioned upon their recognition of Israel. The other Arab states would be offended if we did not recognize it, and Israel, in its de facto creation of a Palestinian state, implicitly assumes that other nations will recognize it. It will simply be one more Arab nation among twenty that will have to suffer the disadvantage of going through some other third party or us in order to deal with Israel.
The Palestinians are not going to like the way they became a state. Arafat’s Plan “A” called for a long and exhausting negotiation with Israel wherein they would get territory, a seaport, removal of Israeli settlements, recognition as a “player” and some sort of public validation of the struggle. Then would come the procession of Arab heads of state to buss Arafat, the honor guards posting the national colors and, best of all, the symbolic raising of the Palestinian flag over a capitol in East Jerusalem. Instead, there is no “liberation” of Palestine, no great negotiation, not even any notification – just a casual act of no more importance than throwing a bone to a stray dog that has been hanging around the neighborhood. They are going to be mad as hell when they see how they have been short-sheeted.
What do we do when they and the other Arab states inevitably demand that we make the Israelis come back to the table again? We remind them that the Palestinians are a nation now, a status they sought for thirty years, and are in charge of their own destiny. We remind them that there are duties and problems associated with that status, and that real nations conduct their own diplomacy.
Once the Palestinians realize that there is no royal road to nationhood and that they are ultimately going to have to deal with directly with Israel, then and only then will it be possible for real peace to break out in the Middle East.