Erasing the Palestinian Future

(Image: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf New)

By Jeremy Salt

An insidious process is underway to consign the ‘Palestine problem’ to history once and for all.

Before getting into this let’s make one thing clear.  There never was a ‘Palestine problem’ until the Zionists came along.  There was only a problem in Palestine.  It was a ‘Zionist problem’, later an ‘Israel problem’ from the start and that is what it remains. With British help the Zionists created this problem but, in this exceptional version of the law, crime apparently is to be allowed to pay forever.

Justice is neither done or even seen to be done but is trampled all over, out in the open, year after year.  The theft is consecrated, the thief rewarded and, thus encouraged, remains free to commit more crimes.

This has been the story of Palestine for the past seven decades.  Now with all ‘peace processes’ exhausted, by Israel, it is again the Palestinians who are told they have to pay, by finally letting go of their long struggle.

No surprise that this view, broadly, should be espoused by the Zionist commentator Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian under the heading ‘The talking is over, the occupation goes on. Will be there ever be peace in the Middle East?’  After a week crisscrossing Israel and the territories taken in 1967 – commonly called the ‘occupied territories’ when in fact it is the whole of Palestine that Israel has occupied – Freedland is told by Palestinians and Zionists alike that the ‘peace process’ is dead.  ‘I’m afraid Oslo looks more like a period piece, a nostalgic reminder of a time when peace between these two people appeared to be just within reach.’ Really, Mr Freedland? You weren’t looking closely enough.

In fact, it was clear within two years of the Oslo accord being signed in 1993 that the so-called peace process was dead, was a farce, an instrument being used by Israel to consolidate its hold on the territories taken in 1967. Mr Freedland breaks his article with a link to an article in the New Yorker by Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi entitled ‘The end of this road: the decline of the Palestine National Movement.’  Both experienced analysts within the framework of Israeli-Palestinian-US ‘peace’ negotiations, their findings basically end in the same conclusions as Jonathan Freedland’s, that the Palestinian national movement has expired and that the Palestinians need to adapt to ‘new global realities’, shorthand for giving up.

For Freedland ‘things have surely never been more comfortable for Israel.’  The leading Sunni states of the Middle East see Iran as a greater threat and the occupation of the territories taken in 1967 not only continues but seems sustainable.  No surprise that Freedland should quote the discredited Tony Blair’s view that the Sunni states, already enjoying close if furtive military ties with Israel, could formalize the ‘new dispensation’ through a peace agreement with Israel and put pressure on the Palestinians to join.

For Hussein Agha and Ahmad Khalidi ‘Israel’s willingness to offer an acceptable deal is increasingly open to question.’  One understands the need for delicate phrasing in the New Yorker, a conduit for a lot of Zionist propaganda, but, really, Israel has never been willing to offer an ‘acceptable deal’, other than acceptable to itself, not during the life of Oslo, not before it and not since.

For these authors Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) represents ‘the last slender chance of a negotiated settlement.  They speak of his persistent engagement with the ‘peace process’ and his ‘fulsome dedication to security cooperation with Israel’ which – they are obliged to point out – really adds up to serving as an auxiliary function to the occupation.’  This is clearly not how many Palestinians regard Abbas.  For ‘cooperation’ they would substitute ‘collaboration.’

There is only one word for those who ‘cooperate’ with the enemy, traitor. Vidkun Quisling was hanged for his ‘cooperation’ with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Norway and Marshal Philippe Petain would have been hanged by the French government for his ‘cooperation’ with the Germans in the Second World War but for his advanced age and his outstanding military record in 1914-18. Abbas controls the West Bank on behalf of the state of Israel, the enemy of Palestine and the Palestinians. He ‘cooperated’ with Israel and the US in trying to destroy the elected Palestinian government in Gaza. He has ‘cooperated’ with Israel at every level without getting anything back for the Palestinian people, as opposed to what he has been given for himself or as funding for his notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority. So, is Israel the enemy of Palestine and the Palestinians or not? Against such a background, is this harsh word ‘traitor’ out of place when being applied to Mahmud Abbas?

With the Palestinian Authority controlling the Palestinians on behalf of Israel, their situation has steadily worsened as Israel’s has steadily improved. Yet, according to Agha and Khalidi, Abbas may be ‘the last Palestinian leader with the moral authority and political legitimacy to speak and act on behalf of the entire nation on vital existential issues such as a final agreement with Israel.’ The theme of ‘the last’ is taken up by Grant Rumley and Amir Thibon in a just published book, The Last Palestinian. The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.

In whose eyes, we have to wonder, does Abu Mazen have moral authority and political legitimacy? Not in the eyes that count, which are Palestinian, not even in his West Bank fiefdom, where in a recent poll close to 70 percent have called on him to step down. Not even in Israel’s eyes does Abbas have such attributes. A hammer or a screwdriver doesn’t have ‘moral authority’ and for the Israelis, that is all Abbas is, a tool. Israel used him in the same way it used up Arafat, whom it transformed from terrorist to peacemaker and back to terrorist when he dug his heels in over Jerusalem. Then, without any doubt about who was behind this, Sharon had him murdered.

Abbas still has his uses, as a prop to be wheeled on stage whenever the ‘peace process’ is being discussed internationally but otherwise he is a spent force, treated with contempt and regularly abused by Israeli politicians and accused of the corruption that has served them so well in the purchase of his services.

After Abu Mazen, in the view of Agha and Khalidi, there will be ‘no legitimate Palestinian leadership and coherent national movement for a long time to come.’ This is another grotesque statement. Is this serious comment or satire, or just typical genuflection to mainstream US ‘liberal’ opinion? As already pointed out, Abbas is not a legitimate leader in the eyes of his people. The national movement has lacked coherence for a long time, a goal Israel has worked hard to achieve, but to present Abbas as its last great hope is grotesque. What he represented was the subversion of the Palestinian national movement from the inside.

The authors refer to the decline of Fatah. In their view, without armed struggle Fatah was left with ‘no clear ideology, no specific discourse, no distinctive experience or character.’ This is a distortion of the historical record. The PLO leadership, dominated by Fatah, eschewed armed struggle in the early 1970s because it could not be continued within the parameters of the diplomatic settlement it now sought. Diplomacy was its ‘specific’ discourse. It gradually tempered its ideology to allow for a two-state settlement with the Zionists. This was the minimalist ‘just peace’ that should have been lying at the end of the road but was not.

Whose fault was this, the PLO’s or Israel’s and its American backer? Who made all the concessions but the Palestinians and who was it who derailed diplomacy but Israel, the US and an ‘international community’ that refused to live by its own professed standards of law and justice? The ‘distinctive experience’ is what Palestinians have learned from putting down weapons in favor of diplomacy. It has been a bitter lesson, and one that the post-Abbas leadership will be taking into account when offered a fresh round of ‘negotiations’ that on the basis of all past experience will be designed to lead them even further into the wilderness.

There are many elements in this narrative. Arafat’s personality is one of them. He needed to be at the center of things, especially after the retreat to Tunis. Psychologically, while a flexible and effective negotiator within the sphere of Palestinian politics, he turned out to be ineffective when dealing with Israel and the US. The wheeling and dealing that served him well in the Palestinian arena did not work at Camp David. He made one ‘concession’ after another, as he knew he had to do if the talks were to continue, which raises an obvious point: as these ‘concessions’ gave some kind of Palestinian imprint to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, instead of ending it, what was the point of these ‘negotiations’ in the first place?

In fact, the asymmetries were too great for these to be regarded as ‘negotiations’ rather than typical of any colonial situation, past or present, with terms being dictated by the stronger party to the weaker. This is not to say that Arafat had a poor hand. Moral authority and the rights of the Palestinians in international law were powerful cards but Arafat played them badly. He laid one trump card on the table after another without getting anything but morsels in return. This went on from the time he recognized the state of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO and not the right of the Palestinians to have a state of their own.

In the 1960s the Palestinians aspired to one secular state for everyone, Muslims, Jews and Christians. Now it is Israel that wants a one state solution, if not the one the Palestinians envisaged. The goal is what the leaders of the Zionist movement wanted in the 1890s, a Jewish state over all of Palestine and Israel’s central existential dilemma now is the same as it was then. The early Zionists wanted the land but not the people and knew that the Palestinians would not peacefully submit to the fate being designed for them: their land would have to be taken by force so they hid their designs while waiting for their opportunity to take it.

In the wars of conquest and territorial aggrandizement in 1948 and 1967 Palestine was ethnically cleansed of close to a million of its people. The first war tipped the demographic balance in their favor but the second swung the pendulum back in the opposite direction. Soon there will again be more Palestinians than Jewish Israelis between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river.

As the Palestinians as a people are not going to disappear, as Agha and Khalidi have to acknowledge, despite their gloomy predictions for the Palestinian political future, what is going to happen to them? As they will again become the majority in historic Palestine, where is the logic in expecting the majority to pick up whatever crumbs might be thrown their way by the minority, as Agha and Khalidi are suggesting? Their solution is nothing less than a repetition of the colonial past. The native must do what he is told and accept what he is given.

The unstated assumption in Freedland’s writings and the Agha-Khalidi argument is Israel’s power to dictate terms. Yet power is a fickle substance and it is unlikely that Israel will always be able to dictate terms either by force or through diplomacy. Militarily, it has been in steady decline ever since 1967. It has not fought a real war since 1973: most of its ‘wars’ have been onslaughts against largely defenseless civilian populations, in Lebanon and Gaza. Its enemies are catching up. Hezbollah is far stronger now than in 2006, when it humiliated Israel’s ground troops. The Syrian army is battle-hardened after seven years of war and Iran has an army of more than half a million. As sheer numbers can be meaningless, Iran and Hezbollah have been working on ways to reduce Israel’s domination of the air. Even if Israel maintains its edge in the next war it seems likely to take casualties unprecedented in its history.

An Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, once remarked that the Palestinians have lost no opportunity to lose an opportunity, a dictum that should, in fact, be applied to Israel. It has wasted every opportunity it has had to reach a real peace with the Palestinians and beyond them the Arab world and the greater Muslim world. Instead of showing generosity and magnanimity, it has used its military and diplomatic power to drive the Palestinians further into the ground in the hope of burying them forever. Unwilling to trade land and ideology for peace, it is prepared to destroy anyone who gets in its way, the list currently topped by Iran.

Israel still has its ‘unbreakable bond’ with a US, a country that has sunk into its own period of decline, with fractures at home matched by failure and policy confusion abroad. Of course, between two countries, there is no such things as an ‘unbreakable bond.’  Bonds of this nature are always contingent. Sentiment in the foreign policy of any country is a delusion when it comes to hard national interests.

There is already a growing awareness among Americans of the enormous cost of the relationship with Israel. It is not just the billions of dollars the US has been shelling out since 1948 but the damage done to US foreign policy, especially through wars fought basically in Israel’s interests.

The Israel lobby and the perception of its domestic influence among politicians has poisoned US foreign policy. Would the US have such problems with Iran but for Israel? Iran is conservative and religious, like the US, has lots of oil and is the back door to Central Asia. Under Rafsanjani and Khatami it held out the hand of friendship to the US, offering trade and investment inducements, only to have its face slapped, for one reason only, Israel’s control of US policy in the Middle East.

All the wars the US has launched in the Middle East have been powered by Israel and now Israel wants another one, on Iran, on Syria, on Hezbollah, on one or all of them. So, while the Freeland-Agha-Khalidi case is angled against the Palestinians, what lies in the future for an Israel that is not interested in any peace worthy of the name? On top of this there is the spying on the US, the theft of nuclear material, the sale of US military technology to China and the attack on the USS Liberty back in 1967. For just about every reason this is a ‘special relationship’ the US can well do without.

Insofar as the Arab world is concerned, Israel is clutching at straws when it talks of new openings and opportunities. The ‘peace’ treaties with Egypt and Jordan remain dead in the water, as devoid now of popular support as they were on the day they were signed. Behind closed doors Israel schemes with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are now at each other’s throats over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and is relationship with Iran. Their public abuse of each other is unprecedented. Humiliated by its failure to win the war it launched on one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen, Saudi Arabia suffered a second humiliation when it threatened Qatar and had to rapidly back off when Turkey moved into the picture.  These issues have thrown the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into crisis.

Overall, the missing element in the views expressed by Agha, Khalidi and Freedland is the need for Israel to look harder at the uncertainties of its own future. Its default positions are war over peace and an apartheid state over democracy. Both are untenable in today’s world.

Diplomatically, around the world, Israel has few ‘friends’, as equally unreliable a concept in foreign relations as an ‘unbreakable bond.’ Militarily, the balance of power in the Middle East is steadily shifting against it. Its entire security/insecurity situation since 1948 has been constructed around never losing a war, which seems unlikely, given the infinity of ‘never’, raising the possibility that the day will come when it will have to use its nuclear weapons to win a war. ‘Win’ and ‘victory’ will be meaningless in such a situation but it will be too late then to decide that coexistence was a better option than no existence, after all, and definitely a waste of time looking back in regret at the long history of lost opportunities.

– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to

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1 Comment

  1. …and then along comes Russia and China with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)…makes one wonder if Israel would change its ‘sponsor’ if the BRI continues progressing as it is.

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