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Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?

Charles Dharapak/AP Images
Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands at the White House during 
statements on the resumption of negotiations for Middle East peace, September 1, 2010

In this setting, temptation has grown to increase international pressure on Israel and heighten its discomfort. If it is delegitimization Israelis fear, then it must be delegitimization that will make them budge. Faced with the prospect of isolation, Israel might be persuaded to end its occupation. But pressure is a double-edged sword requiring skillful handling, especially when exercised on a people convinced by the calamities of their own history of the inveterate hostility of much of the outside world. Those who wield it often only confirm in Israeli eyes how unreliable their avowed friendship was in the first place. One should not be surprised if the Israeli people, their sense of vulnerability enhanced, opt to hunker down rather than reach out.

Waiting for different leaders is unlikely to yield a more promising outcome. A less right-leaning Israeli government might emit the appropriate sounds yet it will find it hard to deliver the appropriate outcome. The large array of forces today represented in the coalition, embittered and betrayed, could pose a far more formidable obstacle to a peace deal once they were out of power. Signed by the left, an agreement would likely mobilize the right in opposition; signed by the right, it almost certainly would co-opt the left in support.

Like Netanyahu, Abbas too is becoming disenchanted. Even at the worst of times—when Israelis and Palestinians were caught in the throes of violence; when he was excluded from the active leadership; when more militant groups gained the upper hand—he kept faith. This time is different. His life’s project, he feels, is slipping away. But he is the lone surviving leader from an era when the Palestinian movement was credible. He is the last Palestinian, for some time to come, with the history, authority, and legitimacy to sign a deal on behalf of all Palestinians that could end the conflict.

There may be potential successors, though none with the legitimacy required to straddle geographic and political divides. Some will focus on state-building, others might seek to revert to resistance; most will be adrift. Hamas waits in the wings; the diaspora is beginning to stir; East Jerusalemites and Palestinian citizens of Israel are more active. So far, however, none of these groups has the means to match its ambitions. The national movement might reassemble but it will take time. In the interim, it is likely to express itself in numerous disparate parts.

For seventeen years, the peace process has been fueled by illusions. Bilateral negotiations have cultivated the pretense that Israelis and Palestinians are equal parties when they are not. US involvement has fed Palestinian delusions and shielded Israel. The international community’s treatment of the PA as a quasi state has not brought Palestinians closer to statehood. It has deceived Palestinians about what to expect from the world and corrupted their politics. Throwing money at the Palestinians has not ended the occupation but made it more palatable: it has reduced Israeli costs and created a Palestinian culture of dependency, diverting Palestinian energy from addressing their predicament to financing it. The illusions helped perpetuate the status quo.

This probably is not what the world had in mind when Obama took office. It certainly is not what the Palestinians believed history had in store. But it won’t get any better anytime soon.

January 12, 2011


The New York Review blog (www.nybooks.com/nyrblog) has posted a series of excerpts, introduced by David Shulman, from the new book Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010, which brings together over one hundred soldier accounts of their experiences, many of them brutal, serving in the West Bank and Gaza. Compiled by the Israeli group of former soldiers Breaking the Silence, the book has just been published in Hebrew and in English in Jerusalem. A review by Mr. Shulman of Occupation of the Territories and of What Is a Palestinian State Worth? by Sari Nusseibeh will appear in the coming issue of The New York Review.

—The Editors

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