Do the Palestinians want a state? This question sounds like a provocative one. Isn’t it patently clear that the Palestinian national movement aspires to realize its goals by establishing a Palestinian state? Isn’t it patently clear that the ethos of political sovereignty has guided the dreams and struggles of the Palestinian people for ages?
Well, no. It’s not patently clear.
More and more Mideast affairs researchers are today willing to respond to the question about whether the Palestinians want a state with a “no.”Some of them offer a hesitant “no,” while others offer a resounding “no.”
In a June 11 New York Review of Books article, written by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, they two prominent experts argue the following: “Unlike Zionism, for whom statehood was the central objective, the Palestinian fight was primarily about other matters…Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine…A small fraction of Palestinians, mainly members of the Palestinian Authority's elite, saw the point of building state institutions, had an interest in doing so, and went to work. For the majority, this kind of project could not have strayed further from their original political concerns…”
The two experts sum up by arguing that the notion of a Palestinian state is perceived as a foreign import, and as a convenient outlet for foreign elements who interfere with the Palestinian people’s independent wishes. They point to the “transformation of the concept of Palestinian statehood from among the more revolutionary to the more conservative.” Moreover, Agha and Malley argue that in the past, when Yasser Arafat seemingly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state and even threatened to declare its establishment, he did not adopt an unequivocal stance and did not make his intentions clear. Since Arafat’s death, the notion of statehood lost the remaining popular support it enjoyed.
The message conveyed in the article is greatly commensurate with the argument presented in the new book published by Benny Morris, the leading historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The book, titled One State, Two States (Yale University Press, 2009,) details the notion of “two states for two people” starting with the early stages of Zionism and until today. The conclusion is as follows: The Palestinians never adopted the notion of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state existing alongside Israel, regardless of its borders; similarly, the Palestinians have rejected the notion of a joint bi-national state.
After analyzing the official documents of Fatah, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as statements made by Palestinian leaders, Professor Morris concludes that from the very beginning, the Palestinian national movement views Palestine as an Arab and Muslim state in its entirety.
Arafat was the only prominent Palesitnian leader who appeared to modify his original position and aspire for the “two-state solution.” In his letter to Yitzhak Rabin dated September 9, 1993, Chairman Arafat recognized the State of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. However, argues Morris, those were empty words, written solely for the pupose of signing the Oslo Accords.
In practice, Arafat’s position on the issue of Palestine’s partition remained vague and kept on oscillating, while he rejected any pratcital partition deal, including the format proposed by former President Clinton at Camp David. This could be interpreted (and this is indeed how Prof. Morris interprets it) as the Palestinians reluctance to realize their soviereignty in any acceptable form. By now, this has been complemented by Hamas’ complete rejection of Israel and of a Jewish presence in Palestine.
The article written by Agha and Malley, associated with the Left, and Morris’ book, on the Right, convey deep pessimism. The Palestinians will not agree to either divide or share the country. They continue to cling to the revolutionary dream of “national liberation,” and until this unrealistic liberation materializes, they prefer to exist as a national rather than political entity; one that has no obligations and is always seen as a victim, in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world.
We, who live here within a troublesome reality absent of solutions, can only hope that the learned experts are wrong.