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Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?

Mahmoud Abbas; drawing by John Springs

Arafat and the movement he embodied dreaded normalcy. To settle into the humdrum of everyday life would, they felt, threaten their existential struggle. If Israel could get Palestinians to manage their own affairs, provide security, and ensure their people’s welfare, why would it or anyone else bother to address deeper Palestinian demands? For the national movement’s founders, unsettledness—the constant experience of an open, bleeding wound—was paramount for reaching a resolution.

Although, like Arafat, Fayyad values steadfastness, he has a very different notion in mind. For Arafat, it meant staying put. In dealing with Israel, his pace was unhurried, his patience seemingly infinite. For Fayyad, it means incessant activity—planting a tree, building a road, inaugurating a building. What matters to him is what he can directly and concretely affect. Nor does he have much interest in grand diplomacy, at least not right now. That he will gladly leave to Abbas—ostensibly because it is not within the PA’s purview, although the loud if often unspoken implication is that it is all a huge waste of time.

Can Fayyad’s approach work? Many Israelis think so and many Palestinians think not, which has them both equally worried. Israeli praise for Fayyad often barely conceals apprehension. Israelis don’t so much mind what he is doing; in many ways, it is reminiscent of Netanyahu’s much-vaunted “economic peace.” But they mind where it might lead. Having accomplished what he could under conditions of occupation, and having secured unstinting Western support, he will, many Israelis imagine, then turn to his foreign backers for help in achieving Israel’s withdrawal on less than favorable terms.

Some Palestinians suspect the strategy could lead to a state of their own but they are not so sure that would be a good thing. Like the idea of declaring a state or having it recognized, building one on the parts of the West Bank the Palestinians already control carries risks. By normalizing the situation on the West Bank, it could enable the perpetuation of the status quo at low cost and with diminished international attention.

Fayyad hopes that the world will not stop halfway, and that Palestinian accomplishments will provide the momentum for a forceful international effort to resolve all remaining issues. But history is not in the habit of rewarding good behavior; it is a struggle, not a beauty contest. If Palestinians have a state or its equivalent and are celebrated worldwide, if West Bankers can enjoy the fruits of greater self- governance and economic prosperity, then any international drive for tackling the core issues might well fizzle. The priority, at that point, would be to consolidate what has been achieved rather than jeopardize it by reopening more thorny subjects. A profound emotional conflict between two national movements could be transformed into a tedious, manageable interstate border dispute. The greater danger to the Palestinian cause, according to this view, is not the absence of a state. It is the premature creation of one.


Palestinians face the threat of being stripped of the ability to promote their cause and of the attributes of an independent national movement. They are warned by the US against embarrassing Israel in public forums. The stability of Palestinian rule in the West Bank rests in part on Israeli security forces. Palestinians seem to have subcontracted decision-making to Arab nations. They have become dependent on Western donors’ financial largesse and accountable to their judgment. Captive to foreign benefactors, more responsive to external stimulus than domestic pressure, the Palestine Liberation Organization—the Palestinians’ governing political body—risks making choices at odds with popular Palestinian aspirations. An eventual decision to sign a peace agreement could suffer if Palestinians suspect that such a deal has been reached under external duress rather than through the exercise of free choice.

Half a century after its birth, the modern Palestinian national movement is being drained of politics. Its main source of energy has become primarily financial, which is why access to funds and management of their flow is so vital. Arafat was as adamant about controlling finances as he was about controlling weapons and most other things, but money for him was a means of promoting his particular political vision. He sought assistance from many in order to be beholden to none. Today, Palestinians must be sensitive to the political requirements of their respective donors lest the financial stream dry up. Appearances aside, the fortunes and fate of Fatah, Fayyad’s endeavors in the West Bank, and Hamas’s in Gaza chiefly ride on who has the money and what or whom it can buy. With few exceptions, the concern is not with politics. It is with whether the next check will arrive on time. Politics has become subservient to finance.

Palestinians who seem to have scant confidence in themselves have put their hopes in the US instead—an investment that reflects excessive faith in Washington and insufficient knowledge of history. There is no precedent for a successful start-to-finish American effort to bring about peace in the Middle East. All such endeavors that came to something initially were rooted in local dynamics that the US could influence but did not produce. Nor are there notable examples of the US forcing an Israeli government to take sustained action that it believes to be fundamentally at odds with its core interests.

US mediation has also inevitably blurred the two sides’ vision, distorted the nature of their bilateral dealings, and—intentionally or not—enabled the status quo to be perpetuated. However vehemently they may deny it, Palestinians secretly latch on to the belief that the US will someday save them; Israelis cling to the notion that the US will forever protect them. Too often, both display greater interest in gaining America’s support than in persuading each other.

Barack Obama rekindled Palestinian faith in America and, for a while, sustained it. But disappointment was unavoidable. Netanyahu cannot afford to jeopardize strategically critical ties with Washington and must try to avert prolonged crises. Still, during the past two years, he has learned that he could handle friction with the administration, withstand its pressure, and come out none the weaker. Out of disagreements that Washington hoped would rally Israelis against their prime minister, Netanyahu emerged largely unscathed. Most Israelis don’t like fighting with an American president but, it turns out, many dislike being told what they can and cannot do even more.

The Obama administration learned its lessons too. Grudgingly, it concluded that it was wiser to work with Netanyahu than against him, that there is only limited strategic utility in—and, on the American domestic scene, limited political patience for—repetitive skirmishes with Israel. In a war of attrition with the US, Netanyahu could well prove the more resilient.

In making up with the prime minister, the administration partly addressed its problem and partly compounded it. Netanyahu has become the arbiter of Obama’s pro-Israeli credentials as much as Obama can be the judge of Netanyahu’s pro-peace qualifications. The President’s credibility now partly rests on validation from the very man he someday might want to pressure. The US administration has issued pronouncements—for example, that Israel alone could determine its security requirements—that will render any eventual US peace proposal harder to defend and Israeli objections easier to justify. It also has become more difficult for the President, whose relationship with Netanyahu went from excessively cold to excessively warm, to switch his stance once again without appearing excessively confused or excessively disingenuous.

Palestinians have tended to bemoan periods of strong US–Israeli relations and take satisfaction at the first signs of froideur. But tension between the two countries does not automatically translate into Palestinian gains; more often, it leads to reinvigorated US attempts to repair frayed Israeli ties. Palestinian depression when the relationship between Israel and the US is smooth and jubilation when it is rocky is not a political strategy. It is a pointless exercise.


Without resolving its conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has for the moment taken care of its Palestinian problem. Israel’s anxiety may be growing, but what it worries about no more derives from the Palestinians than what it wants can be provided by them. Its concern arises from being unwanted, from the abiding sense that the Jewish presence in the Middle East is regarded as fleeting. Israelis perceive this in the world’s outraged reaction to the Gaza war of 2008–2009 or to the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla last May; in tensions with Turkey, with whom it had friendly relations until recently; in growing calls to boycott or divest from Israel; in their leaders’ reluctance to travel to Europe for fear of criminal prosecution; in what they have come to call delegitimization. If, in the eyes of many Arabs, Israel acts as if it were above the law, in the eyes of its own Jewish citizens it is treated as if it were perpetually on probation.

The conflict Israelis have come to care about is not with the Palestinians; it is with the rest of the world. The deal that interests Israel is one that would result in a dramatic change in its condition that only non-Palestinian actors can produce. From the US, it seeks wide-ranging security guarantees and assistance; from the Arab world, the granting of collective normalization; from Jordan, a more active role in the West Bank and acknowledgment that it will become Israel’s de facto first line of defense; from Syria, a strategic shift away from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah; from the international community, recognition of Israel’s permanent borders and its right to self-defense. Whether it ever can fully obtain these is open to question; whether it can attain them in the absence of a final agreement with the Palestinians is not, which in part is why Israel is drawn to the negotiating table even as it questions it. Israel might have dealt with its Palestinian problem but has yet to deal with the problems the Palestinian problem has spawned.

It won’t be easy to transform this innate Israeli unease into an impetus to compromise when the cost of that compromise, in many Israeli eyes, is viewed as high. The last, untidy two years have only made matters worse. Coming into office, Netanyahu contemplated some reasons to move forward: he feared US and international pressure, didn’t know how long Palestinian quiet would last without political progress, and believed he might sway Abbas with new ideas. Perhaps, too, history beckoned: the prime minister could be the first to bring normalcy and security to a nation that has lacked both.

That picture has changed. Netanyahu disregarded demands from the US and others without paying a serious price. The West Bank is as stable, the Palestinians as divided, and the Arabs as feckless as ever. From his few meetings, Netanyahu also came to understand that Abbas’s long-held views on a final status deal were not mere negotiating stances but definitive positions from which he will not budge. The lure of history is being countered by the pull of politics: the more time elapses, the greater Netanyahu’s fear of alienating his right-wing coalition partners and the more distant the idea of achieving a groundbreaking peace. Nothing concentrates the mind of a canny politician like electoral arithmetic.

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