The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
The official Arab-Israeli conflict has ended. Over the past several months, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sudan, and Morocco have normalized relations with Israel. Oman may be on its way to doing so, and Saudi Arabia has taken unprecedented steps in that direction. Other Arab governments maintain important, albeit discreet, ties with Israel, and further moves toward normalization appear to be only a matter of time. Egypt and Jordan have been at peace with Israel for decades.
The one-time pan-Arab call for a united front against Israel “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf” has given way to normalization across that same expanse. The pace and extent of that shift have undermined the common Arab position reflected in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Rather than insisting on “land for peace” and offering normalized ties only in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, Arab governments have given precedence to self-interest: for Morocco, U.S. recognition of its control over Western Sahara; for Sudan, the removal of U.S. sanctions; for the UAE, access to advanced U.S. arms.
But if the state-to-state conflict has come to an end, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has not. Redefining “peace” to conform to the needs of Arab governments does not do away with the Palestinians or resolve Israel’s Palestinian problem. Thirteen million Palestinians are spread across the Holy Land and in exile. Nearly seven million of them reside in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. They are going nowhere.
History does not support the contention that Israel’s peace with the Arabs will inevitably open the door to peace with the Palestinians, compelling them to submit to Israeli terms under the pressure of new realities and isolation. The current Palestinian national movement emerged precisely from the sense of defeat, solitude, and abandonment by Arab governments that followed 1948. Dire as Palestinian circumstances may be now, there are no signs of surrender.
For Israel, the wave of normalization means that there is little incentive to make peace with the Palestinians. That will likely result in consolidation of the status quo in the short term. But a new landscape is in the making, shaped by unprecedented Arab dealings with Israel, seething Palestinian frustration, and a drift to the right in Israel, all of which could eventually bring a new dynamic to the seemingly frozen situation. Bereft of effective Arab strategic depth—that is, the willingness of Arab states to lend their backing to the Palestinian cause—the Palestinians must now think hard about how to reorder their struggle, how to address what has brought them to this point, and how to change it.
The Palestinians have been here before. Around ten years after the nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) of 1948, a distraught group of Palestinians disillusioned with the Arab states’ lack of seriousness in rallying to their cause decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was born, and it was taken over by Yasir Arafat in 1969. What started with isolated armed operations helped forge the modern Palestinian national movement. The PLO succeeded in bringing Palestinians together, asserting a separate Palestinian political identity, forcing its cause onto the international agenda, and returning some Palestinians to self-rule. But it failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to establish an independent and sovereign state, or to develop good governance for Palestinians. The time has come for a new beginning.
The Palestinian leadership at first responded to the recent Arab normalizations with Israel with public anger and charges that the Arab states had stabbed the Palestinians in the back. But that initial criticism has abated. It was bound to be hard to sustain, since the PLO, as the representative of the Palestinian people, itself recognized Israel in 1988 and embarked on a “peace process” with it three decades ago. The Palestinian leadership has also maintained security coordination with Israel, undercutting its ability to object when others establish security relationships of their own. Nor can the Palestinians simultaneously insist that their plight is the central Arab cause and that they have the sole right to address it as they see fit. By regularly invoking their national interests and their “independence of will,” as repeatedly articulated in their political statements, the Palestinians have left themselves with no defense against those who claim the right to answer to their own sovereign will and forge their own path.
In short, Palestinian diplomacy has failed massively. It takes exceptional talent to transform an almost complete consensus among Arabs and Muslims on the future of Palestine and Jerusalem into just another matter on a packed Arab agenda.
Partly as a consequence, the PLO has lost all credibility as a decision-making or representative body. Its founding principles and its 1968 charter are of a bygone era, and they have been violated and traduced by the Palestinians’ own official practice. The PLO’s political program, based on the two-state solution, stands on pillars denounced and decried by its own founding document, which rejects the principle of the partition of Palestine on political and moral grounds. The charter has not been formally revised or updated since 1996. Its ethos lingers in its suspended articles, disconnected from practical politics.
The PLO was originally established as a forum for factional representation, but the factions it represents no longer mirror the political forces in Palestinian society. The PLO’s quota system, which allocates seats to various Palestinian factions according to their purported size, is an archaic and distorted means of power sharing and decision-making. Many of the factions, such as those formerly sponsored by Arab regimes, are now defunct, but they still keep their seats. Hamas, the effective ruler of Gaza, and other Islamist factions are not represented. The PLO may seek to respond to a strong popular desire for unity, but its language, comportment, and direction are very much of the past. A new Palestinian beginning cannot start with the same faces, beliefs, and mechanisms that have led to today’s dead end.
For Israel, the wave of normalization means that there is little incentive to make peace with the Palestinians.
The PLO’s one-time virtue was that it gave the Palestinians a voice, an address, and a forum for a genuine national debate. As the PLO’s stature grew, it subsumed its divisions under a nominal national rubric, with factions papering over their differences for the sake of agreement on broader objectives. The organization’s leadership was frequently criticized, but its legitimacy was never questioned or challenged. Yet the PLO has not adjusted its form and mission to meet the goal of statehood. In both construction and function, it is beyond reform. The Palestinians need new tools of representation and political action that reflect present realities and future prospects. That could require a new constitutive assembly, with a mission, charter, and political program that speaks to all Palestinians and eschews the stale language of the old PLO, a discourse imbued with the spirit of the mid-twentieth century but with no currency in the twenty-first.
Since it was established by the 1993 Oslo agreements between Israel and the PLO to govern Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has become the true political center of gravity, with the PLO retaining a zombie form—a higher decision-making body in theory, but marginalized in practice. Blurring the line between the PA and the PLO and allowing the PA to take over most of the PLO’s functions are actions that have impaired both. The PA should be relegated to a purely administrative role, freed from the shackles of high politics to manage Palestinians’ lives under its control and safeguard their welfare and security. A successor organization to the PLO should serve as the representative and political address of the Palestinians, free from the chores of civil duties and with a mandate to speak and act on behalf of Palestinians everywhere. That was the model envisioned by the Oslo agreements but never practiced. Tension between a new PA and a new PLO is to be expected, but the benefits of clear lines of responsibility justify the challenge.
Another weakness of the Oslo process was that it sidelined the Palestinians who live in the diaspora; for them, even the unlikely prospect of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza does not offer real redress, since it addresses neither their current security and welfare nor their future aspirations. A new Palestinian beginning cannot be based solely on the tunnel vision of a Ramallah-centered worldview. A political program should offer a clear space and voice for those outside the West Bank and Gaza by ensuring their fair representation in Palestinian institutions and by building a new national agenda that recognizes their predicament and reflects their needs. If efforts to end the conflict are to be serious, they have to include the bulk of Palestinians.
True “independence of will” must begin with a clear position on what is attainable as well as desirable—a revision of Palestinian priorities and goals that goes beyond old slogans. To move forward, a substantial recalibration of Palestinian aspirations is essential. The dream of self-determination via statehood that would compensate for the pain of exile and occupation is distant. The Palestinians cannot remain hostage to the absence of a state, living in permanent limbo while awaiting a salvation that is visibly retreating and may never arrive.
The national movement has understandably given precedence to collective interests, but as a result, basic individual rights—the freedom to think, speak, work, live, move, and prosper—have been relegated to the margins. Palestinian leaders must give much greater consideration to such issues, particularly because the PA’s record has hardly offered a seductive model of good government, better life, or greater freedom. Hamas’s rule in Gaza (Hamas wrested control after violent confrontations with the PA in June 2007) has had even less appeal, bringing further suffering and impoverishment to, and a continuous corrosion of the quality of daily life for, the more than two million Gazans. Palestinians in much of the near diaspora, such as those living in Lebanon and Syria, face increasingly harsh conditions, as well. Whatever Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, the Palestinian leadership must bear its own share of responsibility for its people’s safety and welfare.
Defining a new direction will be difficult. “Armed struggle,” upheld in the PLO’s 1968 charter as the “sole means of liberation,” has long been eschewed in favor of diplomacy, and the limitations of force have become increasingly apparent even to Hamas. The PLO laments that nearly three decades of endless negotiations have led nowhere, yet its only recourse has been to seek a return to negotiations in the vain hope that this time it may be different—that some new framework and the passage of time will yield the achievement of previously unachievable goals. This hope has proved elusive, as each credible “peace” formula ends up being a regression, offering less to the Palestinians than the one before.
Since the Palestinians agreed to accept a state on just part of their national soil, the tragedy of Palestinian negotiations has been the total indistinguishability of the Palestinians’ talking points and their real positions: there is no daylight between what Palestinian representatives say in public and what they demand at the negotiating table. By contrast, their Israeli counterparts never reveal their real positions, and they align their talking points with changing circumstances. By failing to do the same, the Palestinians have put themselves in a position in which nothing but agreement to all their terms could be acceptable, which has opened them up to charges of inflexibility and intransigence. They appear to be unbending, since every new proposal they issue is nearly the same as the last. Having made their most significant concessions before a final deal, they have little left to give in talks. The Palestinians thus find themselves in a trap from which there is no escape, which makes true negotiations impossible; they are prisoners of their own discourse, reasserting the same points to no end.
The PLO has also repeatedly sought U.S. intervention, yet repeatedly decried the United States’ bias even as it pleaded for U.S. pressure on Israel. Palestinian leaders chase after the United States without accepting its policies, waiting for U.S. salvation while rejecting all U.S. plans. Counting on European “initiatives,” in the hope that European pressure will alter the U.S. position, has been a waste of valuable diplomatic time and energy. So has repeated anticipation of positive change from a new U.S. administration or a new Israeli government. Whenever one U.S. president fails to match their expectations, the Palestinians shut down and wait in the hope that the next one will be friendlier. The same applies to Israeli leaders; once a prime minister is tested and found wanting, the wait starts for a successor. The result is a repeated cycle of high hopes and dashed expectations coupled with procrastination and paralysis.
Palestinian leaders promised their people a path to freedom and empowerment. Yet in the last two decades, they developed a culture of dependency rather than resourcefulness, an expectation of external salvation rather than self-reliance. This sapped their will to build and develop their society and stymied their willingness to explore new thinking.
Palestinians of the post-Oslo generation have lacked valid and viable political outlets, torn between parroting worn-out slogans they no longer believe in and waiting for overseas charity to bail them out. National assertion and independence have given way to nagging, complaining, sulking, and a sense of entitlement, with Palestinian leaders frequently looking to outside powers for succor. This deterioration has undermined and corrupted Palestinian politics, deflated popular action, and encouraged political drift. It has also alienated foreign supporters, who have become exasperated with Palestinian conduct. International backing for the PA now stems less from any conviction in its competence than from the belief that the governing body is the best way to preserve relative quiet in the Holy Land.
The PLO’s default position is to appeal to international law, hoping that the international community can or will act on its behalf. That appeal has been one of the more enduring delusions of the Palestinian leadership, ever since the struggle for international recognition replaced the presumption of revolutionary legitimacy and diplomacy took the place of armed struggle. In reality, international law has not been a dependable friend to the Palestinians (from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the UN Partition Plan in 1947 to UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, the cornerstone of the peace process). While it has lent the Palestinians a hand by recognizing their claim to territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war and their right to statehood, and by serving as an increasingly fragile dam against Israeli settlement and annexation policies, international law has made a difference only when the outside forces that purport to uphold it—especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council—are prepared to in fact do so. There is not much evidence that this is the case today, as illustrated by the absorption of Arab East Jerusalem into Israel, U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and now de facto annexation of much of what remains of Palestinian lands. The value of international law is ultimately beholden to the prevailing political environment and the stances of its major sponsors.
The PLO has lost all credibility as a decision-making or representative body.
The Palestinians’ conflict with Israel is not a legal dispute. International law has not helped solve conflicts in Crimea, Cyprus, Kashmir, Kosovo, or Nagorno-Karabakh. It was not international law that compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon, or Gaza; it was a combination of power politics and diplomacy. Yet many Palestinians cling to an uninformed misapprehension of international law’s potency.
The Palestinians have further weakened their own position by taking a misguided approach to negotiations. They have a history of rejecting proposals and then going back to them in less auspicious circumstances, and at greater cost. Palestinian leaders rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan for its iniquitous terms, but then accepted partition on significantly less advantageous terms in 1988. They rejected Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s proposal for Palestinian autonomy in 1977, but then agreed to a more restricted interim authority at Oslo in 1993.
Taking a principled position may be laudable, but subsequent backtracking and the violation of those same principles under duress are bad politics and detrimental to national morale. Instead of accruing credit and strengthening their hand, the Palestinians have squandered current assets with no guarantee of favorable future returns. Current realities may require the Palestinians to go beyond outright rejection and focus on achieving interim gains while exploring new possibilities for advancing their long-term goal of a state of their own. The normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries, for example, might offer opportunities that could be leveraged to Palestinian advantage—such as conditioning Saudi normalization with Israel on Israel’s ending its de facto annexation of the West Bank through its settlement expansions.
Another tactic that has proved ineffective is the Palestinians’ propensity to threaten Israel with actions that they have no intention of pursuing and are raising merely as a bugaboo to pressure Israel to offer some concession; repeated claims that the PA will end security cooperation with Israel, or that it is ready to hand over the keys and return the West Bank to direct Israeli occupation (with all the ensuing material and moral costs), have lost all credibility with Israel and the Palestinian public alike. The threat to resort to a “one-state solution” appears equally vacuous and has the added disadvantage of confirming Israeli concerns about the PLO’s commitment to a two-state solution.
Even with the advent of the Biden administration, a serious new push for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians seems unlikely unless the two sides can show that this time it will be different. Unfortunately, the PA and the PLO seem to believe that they can return to the old formula, based on UN resolutions and the 1967 lines as the “terms of reference,” with sponsorship and endorsement by an international conference.
But other actors see other paths forward. One view holds that sidelining the Palestinians and advancing normalization between Israel and Arab states will push the Palestinians to eventually compromise on their demands for fear of being left behind and denied what remains of their diminishing prospects. Another view hopes that the combined weight of the Arab normalizers could allow for the launching of a more credible and robust diplomatic process that involves the Palestinians and provides them with a stronger bargaining hand. A group that includes, along with the Palestinians, the Gulf Arab states, Egypt, and Jordan would evidently enjoy greater sway with both Israel and the United States than the Palestinians do on their own, the thinking goes. The first view assumes that the Palestinians would join burgeoning regional peace efforts out of desperation; the second, that they would join out of the hope for new opportunities.
Both views may contain a grain of truth. Yet any future negotiations would need to take some hitherto overlooked first principles into account. One of the Oslo accords’ most egregious failures was to treat the conflict as a purely bilateral affair that could be solved with a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians alone. The West Bank’s future cannot be determined in isolation from Jordan and Jordanian interests; history, politics, demographics, and geography dictate that the Oslo agenda on security, borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem is as vital a concern for Jordan as for Israel and the Palestinians. Similarly, Egypt was the caretaker administration in Gaza for two decades after 1948, and Gaza’s fate—given its history, location, and population—cannot be determined without Cairo’s consent.
New Egyptian and Jordanian roles can be effective supplements at a time when the Palestinians on their own have been unable to secure their land from further Israeli encroachment. Jordan’s gravitational pull on the West Bank remains strong. West Bankers’ tendency to see Amman as their social, political, and economic metropolis has only grown with the withering of the Palestinian national movement. Egypt’s sway over Gaza has also persisted, as is evident in Cairo’s role as the mediator between Israel and Hamas. Egypt continues to have a strategic and political interest in Gaza, notably as it relates to the security of Sinai.
With Palestinians already a majority in Jordan, significant constituencies there regard attempts to drag Amman into the future of the West Bank as efforts to undermine Hashemite rule. But Jordan has a very limited range of options for dealing with the open sore of an indefinite conflict on its border, which is a threat to its own security and stability. An ever-expanding Israeli presence and chronic Israeli-Palestinian violence will prove more costly if Jordan opts to stay out of efforts to reach a solution. Amman cannot afford to disregard its security responsibilities on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state; it might be more willing to engage if doing so could draw significant moral, political, and financial backing from Arab states normalizing relations with Israel.
Egypt is similarly likely to be reluctant to take on any responsibility for the over two million Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom have Islamist tendencies and a history of activism and resistance. But an open-ended Hamas problem and concerns about security in Sinai may convince Egypt to agree to a role that would allow it more control over events in Gaza. Like Jordan, Egypt cannot shirk its security responsibilities. Cairo has always had a historical interest in the interplay among the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Israel and in retaining a significant presence in the Levant. Gaza will remain a point of access into that sphere, one that Egypt’s aspirations to a regional role do not allow it to ignore.
The Gaza–West Bank divide presents a further impediment to Palestinian aspirations. It has driven a broad transnational movement into the increasingly insular and rival bubbles of Hamas-controlled Gaza and PA-governed Ramallah. The fruitless attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO have consolidated a schism that has become as problematic as the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Without a genuine reconnection between the two regions, the putative Palestinian entity will further shrink, and the prospects of containing Hamas will recede. The schism undermines the legitimacy of the entire Palestinian political system, severely compromising the PLO’s claim to be the sole Palestinian representative. Despite recurrent calls to hold elections and agree on a common national program, neither Hamas nor Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian political forces, has offered a convincing answer as to how to end the rift. And even if elections do take place, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently decreed, they will serve only to legitimize an ailing political system, not to facilitate a genuine transfer of power: neither side is prepared to hand over power to the other, making elections little more than a sham.
Negotiations would also have to contend with the fundamental disconnect between Israeli and Palestinian political language and understandings of crucial issues. Security is a prime example. The Palestinian view of security is narrow, local, and tactical; the Israeli view is broad, regional, and strategic. When the two sides discuss security issues, they talk on different planes; the Palestinians focus on threats to individuals, whereas Israeli concerns relate to powerful states and organizations.
It is plain that the Palestinians need a new approach.
Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, has tried, unsuccessfully, to address the disconnect. He is the last of the Palestinian founding fathers and also the first significant Palestinian national leader in modern history to openly and unreservedly abjure violence and to commit to diplomacy and peaceful means as the sole path to a resolution of the conflict. Despite their faults, the Oslo accords would not have been possible without his determined stewardship; neither would the relative quiet of the past 15 years. His contribution has not been appropriately valued by either Israel or the United States. In return for his transformation of Palestinian discourse and actions, Abu Mazen collected sweet words, empty promises, and financial crumbs. By failing to reach a deal with him, Israel sacrificed long-term strategic gains for short-term tactical considerations.
For now, Abu Mazen’s resolute opposition to violence has been absorbed by the Palestinian majority. Besides Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, no significant Palestinian faction, popular movement, or potential successor espouses “armed struggle” today or calls for its return. Abu Mazen managed, almost unaided and against formidable odds, to expunge what he considered to be a destructive belief from the mainstream Palestinian political lexicon and from mainstream Palestinian conduct. In the absence of an equitable resolution, Abu Mazen’s legacy may yet be questioned and reconsidered by his own people, and its effects may erode over time.
In the process, however, the PA has to many Palestinians come to resemble a subcontractor to Israeli occupation, charged with suppressing militant opposition to Israel in the areas under its control. That image has undermined the PA’s credibility and legitimacy and helped nourish a sense of disillusionment with the state-building exercise. The PA leadership made little attempt to explain the rationale behind agreeing to security coordination with Israel, and it got little in return in the way of reciprocity. That security cooperation has also dulled the Israelis’ sense of urgency and helped sideline Palestinian core concerns by seemingly giving precedence to protecting Israelis as opposed to Palestinians. The upshot is that Israel has tolerated a strategic threat in return for instant individual safety. As long as there are no Israeli casualties as a result of Palestinian action, Israel can forgo addressing the Palestinian need for a long-term solution that will deliver a more stable and sound security structure for both sides.
Even with adjustments to the approach, it is questionable whether a return to negotiations will produce an end to the conflict. Barring some unforeseen radical shift or traumatic event that compels a compromise that can bridge what has so far been unbridgeable, there is little reason to think that future talks will succeed. The most likely result is an extension of the status quo, with uncertain and unexpected consequences: the slow absorption of Palestinians into the Israeli political orbit, intercommunal violence, new cooperative ventures and exchanges across an obliterated Green Line. Any or all of those could redesign the map and consolidate a one-state reality with no separation between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. For some Israelis and Palestinians, this may be a source of comfort; for others, it would be an existential hazard.
The struggle for an independent state has centered on Palestinian sovereignty as the antidote to decades of dispossession and occupation. But the prospects of securing “hard” sovereignty, based on nineteenth-century notions of the nation-state, with full and complete control over land, borders, and resources, are remote. There is nothing to suggest that Israel’s terms will change to accommodate such Palestinian expectations. Harsh as this conclusion may seem, the Palestinians’ choice may be between clinging to the self-defeating chimera of hard sovereignty, thereby compromising any chances of release from their predicament, and adopting softer versions, as in the case of member states of the European Union, that may offer a way out, although at a cost to what they have so far set up as a national prerogative. Under soft sovereignty, border security arrangements would need to be trilateral in both the West Bank (Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian) and Gaza (Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian). The exact terms of such tradeoffs may be navigable, but the precondition is an adjustment in political discourse that has yet to be embraced by the Palestinian political elite.
It is plain that the Palestinians need a new approach—one founded on a reconsidered strategic vision and recalibrated aspirations. The new way forward must consider a new constitutive assembly that will represent and involve more Palestinians, giving voice to those who have been ignored or marginalized, and prioritize Palestinian welfare and security. It must reorder relations between a new PA and a new PLO and resolve the Gaza–West Bank divide. It must develop new ideas of individual and collective rights, encourage free internal debate and dialogue, and espouse a culture of tolerance. It must recognize that salvation comes from within while reexamining relations with the United States, leveraging the Arab normalization processes to Palestinian advantage, and involving Egypt and Jordan in any new talks. It must redefine the Palestinian notion of sovereignty, review Palestinian views of security, and refrain from shirking responsibility or indulging in threats that are not credible.
This moment is reminiscent of the early days of the PLO. The Palestinian scene is ripe for another jolt of self-realization and empowerment, the nature of which is yet to be determined. But as long as the Palestinians are neither pacified nor fairly accommodated, their cause will continue to burn, and the prospects for genuine peace and stability will remain elusive.
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