by Edward Mast
September 5 2011
With the Palestinian Authority preparing to ask for recognition by the United Nations this month, the issue of statehood for Palestine has come back into the news. There is serious disagreement about whether the UN initiative, even if successful, will be a step forward or backward for Palestinian rights. Nonetheless, the UN initiative — along with the furious resistance by the Israeli and US governments — brings up larger questions about the whole pursuit of Palestinian statehood. With or without success at the UN, what kind of state might actually be looming on the horizon for Palestinians? Will it mean independence and sovereignty, or merely a new challenge to the struggle for rights?
Benjamin Netanyahu’s May 24 speech to Congress described with remarkable clarity – and with the apparent approval of Congress — Israel’s vision for a Palestinian state. No 1967 borders. No shared Jerusalem. No right of self-defense for demilitarized Palestinians. Borders to be determined by Israel and controlled by Israel, including the Jordan Valley and the border with Jordan. All significant settlements “as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance” incorporated into Israel. And even, astonishingly, some settlements still “beyond Israel’s borders”, which seems to mean that some Israeli settlements will still be inside the Palestinian areas.
Netanyahu referred to this arrangement as a Palestinian state, but clearly the intention is a fake state: the illusion of statehood without independence.
This would not be the first attempt to force Palestinians to accept a fake state. At Camp David II in 2000, Ehud Barak offered Palestinians glorified reservations on a never-quite-specified amount of West Bank land. With Bill Clinton’s help, Barak’s offer was publicized as an offer of genuine statehood, and the Palestinian refusal was framed as a rejection of peace. In 2005, Ariel Sharon removed settlers and redeployed soldiers from the Gaza Strip, though maintaining full Israeli control over the area. Again, this was publicized as an offer of statehood to Palestinians, rather than a strategic move to consolidate Israel’s hold on the West Bank. Palestinian resistance was again framed as refusal of peace.
In both cases, many people accepted Israel’s US-supported fabrications, and an Israeli-declared fake state for Palestinians in the West Bank would have the same disastrous effect on public opinion in Israel and the US. The twenty-nine standing ovations that our Congress gave Netanyahu’s speech demonstrate that this fake state for Palestinians is a serious possibility and a serious danger.
WHY IT MIGHT HAPPEN
Some hardcore Zionists still cling to the dream of a Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and continue to hope that oppression, expulsion, and outright decimation will sooner or later reduce Palestinians to a negligible and manageable remnant. But Palestinians are becoming larger and louder rather than smaller and quieter. Furthermore, Israel has always depended on the good will of the international community in general and the US in particular, and many international supporters are growing impatient with Israel’s increasingly blatant and brutal measures to discipline and purge Palestinians. As a result, some realist Zionists are concluding that the hardcore dream might jeopardize the Jewish supremacist state inside what is now Israel.
Ariel Sharon became one of these realist Zionists, along with his lieutenant and successor Ehud Olmert. They mapped a way forward: rather than wait until Israel can claim all the land, instead take action now to claim most of the land, and press the unwanted people into disempowered surrounded reservations, nominally under their own control while actually controlled by Israel. This was the tactic of the “Gaza disengagement”, and some Zionist realists are clamoring for some version of this to happen in the West Bank. The Wall would be the western border of the new fake state, and the Jordan Valley — purged of Palestinians — would be the eastern border. Major settlements would be annexed into Israel, settlement roadways would become permanent, and West Bank Palestinians would have a mockery of self-administration on three or more disconnected bantustans. As Netanyahu himself said in an interview in 2001 that wasn’t meant to be recorded, “you give away two percent and you stop [Israel’s] withdrawal.”
HOW IT MIGHT HAPPEN
Ironically, one of the major obstacles to this fake state plan is neither the Palestinian resistance nor the Israeli peace movement, but rather the extremist movement in Israel that refuses to give up any land to Palestinians. The cutting edge of that extremist movement consists of about 30,000 Jewish settlers inside those potential Palestinian reservation areas. These settlers are a tiny fraction of the half-million Jewish settlers in the West Bank. They are the most religiously and ideologically driven, and while they have some support, they are unpopular with the Israeli public. Nonetheless, that Israeli public dislikes the spectacle of Jewish soldiers dragging Jewish settlers out of Jewish homes, and no Israeli government wants to risk alienating the powerful extremist political bloc by appearing to give away those scattered chunks of the West Bank as they appeared to give away Gaza – even though in both cases control remains with Israel.
Emergency conditions could remove that obstacle. An attack by Israel on Iran or directly on the West Bank or Gaza might stimulate resistance from Palestinians, allowing Israel to remove those extremist Israeli settlers by declaring that it was for their own safety. The Israeli regime, as an “emergency measure”, could declare the borders of the existing Palestinian enclaves as the borders of the new fake state; checkpoints and troops could be redeployed to those borders; and instead of one Gaza, there would be several more Gazas in the West Bank: open air prisons, with borders, water, airspace, and even electricity controlled by Israel.
STATEHOOD AT THE UN
There is wide agreement that the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN, even if successful, will be unlikely to change anything for Palestinians on the ground, any more than did the unilateral declarations of Palestinian independence made in 1988 or threatened in 1999. The initiative was not developed by the Palestinian people as a whole, but by the discredited and all-but-defunct Palestinian Authority. As a result, many Palestinians do not support the initiative. The initiative does not contain any provisions for the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, and some analysts and legal opinions suggest that, if successful, the initiative could further disempower and marginalize those millions of Palestinian refugees. Other analysts argue that a UN-recognized Palestinian Authority would be more effectively empowered to represent and advocate for those refugees.
Regardless of these varying opinions, the initiative has provoked Israel and the US government into openly opposing any Palestinian state that is not imposed by Israel. Even with a US veto in the Security Council, a positive vote in the General Assembly might highlight the international consensus that Israel is illegally occupying Palestinian land. If Israel fears, with some reason, that UN-recognized Palestinian statehood would jeopardize Israel’s claim to the West Bank water aquifers and Jordan Valley farmland, then Israel might take emergency action and unilaterally declare borders and annex those settlements, aquifers and the Jordan Valley.
The US could then pressure the Palestinian Authority with backroom ultimatums: accept the plan and have US aid and support, or reject and have US embargo and enmity. Even if Israel takes no such emergency action, and even if the UN initiative were to succeed, Israel and the US would be likely to pressure the Palestinian Authority to compromise on the nature of a Palestinian state.
Apartheid South Africa tried a similar plan, but ultimately couldn’t find enough fake leaders to sign on to their fake state bantustan plan for the Black majority. Israel has been more successful at finding such leaders. The grimmest irony of all is that one of Israel’s main allies in implementing the fake state solution might be the Palestinian Authority itself. From its beginnings in 1993, the Palestinan Authority’s mandate has not been to protect the Palestinian people, but rather to protect Israelis from Palestinians, and to manage the occupation as Israel’s sub-contractor. As the recent Wikileaks disclosures revealed, the Palestinian Authority has been willing to go to reprehensible lengths to protect and maintain its illusion of authority. This undermines any confidence the UN recognition might be a genuine step forward, and increases concern that Israel’s fake state solution might be validated by the nominal leadership of Palestinians themselves.
WHAT IT WOULD MEAN
With a Palestinian fake state in place, Israel with US support would declare the Israeli occupation over, even though Israel would still control the lives of all those Palestinians. US media would largely go along, and we would once again hear, as we did after the fake Generous Offer and the fake Gaza Withdrawal, that Palestinians are never satisfied and do not want peace. Any Palestinian resistance would be framed as hate-based rejection of Jewish presence in the region. We would be facing a US public eager to be done with this conflict and even less sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle for justice and equality than before.
Declaring a fake state for Palestinians would be a powerful and effective move to cripple our movement for Palestinian rights. The powerful Zionist extremists stand in the way with their dream of owning all the land, and though those extremists have disproportionate influence, we cannot count on their self-destructive agenda to prevail forever.
WILL IT HAPPEN?
Israel might make no bold moves, and instead continue the holding pattern of dominating the lives of 5 million Palestinians while manipulating US support and weathering international negative opinion. However, the September UN initiative, for good or ill, is ramping up the stakes. Israel is also manifestly frightened of the mass nonviolent resistance being organized by Palestinians inside and outside of Israel, and a US veto of a Palestinian statehood resolution might escalate that resistance. Right-wing Israeli government members and the powerful settler movement are pushing to solve Israel’s housing crisis by building more Israeli settlements in the West Bank. With the rightward swing in Israeli politics, Zionist realists might see this as their historical moment to impose a final status solution.
Netanyahu announced the plan in detail. If we underestimate the possibility and do nothing but wait and see, we risk finding ourselves once again responding to events rather than shaping them. Israel’s apologists will jump at the chance to insist that Palestinians have gotten what they wanted but are still demanding more. If we wait till a fake state is declared and then protest, we may appear to be confirming that portrayal. Instead of waiting, we need to do whatever we can to clarify the issues for ourselves, to educate our media, our congresspeople and our public in advance, and to change the terms of the debate from focus on statehood to focus on equal rights.
At one level, we need to make it clear that this conflict will not be resolved by a state that is actually a reservation, a bantustan, or a prison. At a more basic level, we need to realize that nominal statehood, under any circumstances, does not necessarily bring independence, self-determination, or even full sovereignty. If statehood is our central demand, we might be forced to support a final status that is unacceptable. If our central demand is for equal rights, then we are in a position to examine all the varieties and compromises of statehood in terms of human rights, civil rights, political rights and economic rights. A proactive framework of equal rights enables us to understand and demonstrate why Palestinians have no reason to accept any kind of partial statehood – or partial rights – that Israelis or anyone else would not accept for themselves.