As Palestinian officials nervously await the Trump Administration’s peace plan, one fundamental reality shapes their long and bitter contest with Israel. Diplomatically, economically, militarily, Israel has never been stronger than it is today. By contrast, the Palestinian cause has never been in worse shape.
Neither Hamas, which alternates between firing rockets and begging Israel to admit to Gaza the supplies it needs to stay in power, nor the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is compromised by corruption and divided by factionalism, can find a viable policy either to defeat the Israelis or to make peace with them.
One result – as I saw on a recent visit sponsored by the Philos Project, a nonprofit Middle East engagement organisation – is that Palestinians, especially young people, are increasingly giving up on having a state of their own. Instead they favour a “one-state solution” – a single, binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet in meetings with senior Palestinian Authority officials and political observers, it was clear that this is more a cry of despair than a serious political program. A Palestinian return to the policy of rejecting the two-state solution may spur American campus activists to new denunciations of “Israeli apartheid,” but it won’t help the Palestinian cause in the real world.
The argument for one state is straightforward. Israel is de facto in control of the West Bank and to a lesser extent the Gaza Strip; liberal principles say people should have a say in the government that rules them. Some Palestinians claim the situation is comparable to the South African system of “bantustans,” in which white South Africans created artificial “homelands” for the different tribes of black South Africans and used them as alibis to deny blacks citizenship rights in South Africa proper. The West Bank and Gaza are, some Palestinians argue, bantustans for Palestinians. Thus the solution – with no Palestinian statehood in sight – is to give Palestinians full voting and citizenship rights in the state that matters most in the neighbourhood: Israel.
Palestinian frustration with the status quo is eminently understandable, but the South African liberation model doesn’t fit. Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, does not seek to rule over an Arab majority or build a colonial empire in the Middle East.
The “threat” that the Palestinians will give up the quest for a state of their own and petition instead for political rights in the Jewish state is an empty one. The Palestinians are no more able to impose a one-state solution on the Israelis than they are able to colonise the moon.
While calls for a one-state solution are sometimes an effort to delegitimise Israel, they are not only that. A well-connected Palestinian I spoke to in Ramallah explained that the one-state option is popular among younger Palestinians in part because they think the Israeli state is better-governed than the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority – with better administration, less corruption and more responsiveness to public opinion.
They would like some of that good governance for themselves. In other words, the growing desire for citizenship in a binational Israeli state is also partly a vote of no confidence in the mix of weak leadership, stale policies and corruption that has led the Palestinian people to its current plight.
If true, this is a sign that at least some Palestinians are beginning to think in more realistic terms. After all, it is the Palestinian myth of eternal resistance, and the violence and terrorism the myth legitimates, that perpetuates Israel’s occupation. If the Palestinians were ready to end the resistance and instead promote reconciliation and close economic and political links with the Jewish state, there is no limit to the prosperity that the Palestinians could achieve. There are also concessions to Palestinian territorial and political aspirations that no Israeli leader will make under threat, but that many would accept in conditions of true peace.
Palestinians today don’t need a Nelson Mandela who can lead the struggle for equal political rights in one state. They need a Konrad Adenauer: a leader who can accept military defeat and painful territorial losses while building a prosperous future through reconciliation with the victors. As Adenauer’s post-war West Germany showed, it is possible to recover from crushing defeats, but defeat must be accepted before it can be overcome. A new generation, instead of following its elders down the rabbit hole of eternally futile resistance, could instead work toward competent governance, and ultimately reconciliation and renewal.
The Middle East today does not offer much encouragement for optimists, but not everything happening there is bad. Like the Arab states threatened by Iran, some Palestinians may be slowly beginning to realise that everything that makes Israel a formidable foe can also make it a valuable friend. As that important truth sinks in, the hope for a better future, not only for Palestinians but for all the peoples of the Middle East, can only grow.