The statistics are clear and frightening: Every time the standard of living in the Palestinian parts of the West Bank reaches a new zenith, an Intifada breaks out and turns back the wheel. This was the case in 1987, this is what happened in 2000, and this may be happen now.
The similarities are worrisome. Again, just like 22 years ago and nine years ago, the Palestinian economy is completing a period of impressive growth. Again, just like on the eve of the two previous Intifadas, the media provide extensive and gleeful coverage of the economic miracle in Nablus, Ramallah, and Jericho.
New stores are opening up, the coffee shops are packed, and unemployment is down. And again, Israel’s public opinion tends to believe that the Palestinian problem has been resolved given the current reality. What else can the Palestinians aspire for when they have advanced autonomy and when their standard of living skyrockets?
As a reminder, at the end of a hot August in 2000, tens of thousands of Israelis hit furniture stores at the outskirts of Qalqiliya. Meanwhile, other Israelis waited in long lines for direct buses from southern Tel Aviv to the casino in Jericho. According to data provided by the International Monetary Fund, the per capita income in Palestinian Authority areas during the years 1995-2000 rose by 8-10% per year.
Yet despite this amazing economic peace, one marginal and provocative spark was enough to stimulate the Intifada and the wave of terror, which brought the Palestinian standard of leaving back a generation and pulverized the Israeli economy. The casino in Jericho is still there, deserted, as a living testament to the failure of the previous attempt to bring economic normalization ahead of a diplomatic agreement.
The capitalistic belief in the ability of (partial) economic prosperity to subdue national aspirations, as unclear and undefined as those may be, should have been shattered into pieces nine years ago. Yet as it turns out, this did not happen.
Shopping versus protesting
Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Barak today share the view that the Palestinians already have an extensive political autonomy, and also security autonomy. This enables them to realize, in practice, most of their national aspirations and desire for sovereignty. This is an “almost state” that includes a legislature, courts, police, army, democratic elections, and civilian institutions.
Moreover, the Palestinian government can be granted representation in international economic institutions if it really wants this. Israel will not oppose it, just as it won’t oppose other hallmarks of independence and sovereignty.
Based on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view, which wholly contradicts the views of his predecessors Sharon and Olmert, negotiations for a final-status agreement are only being maintained because of diplomatic persistence. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been resolved and settled for the most part, and the issues still pending can certainly wait for future generations. Now, Israel must help the Palestinians in developing a free market economy and encouraging foreign investment. This is our mission in the region and there is no other one. The economic normalization, known as “economic peace,” will provide a response to anything.
This may be so, but it more like won’t. The economic normalization threatens the revolutionary and radical elements within Palestinian society, and they swore not to allow this normalization to take root. It’s perceived by them as indirect reconciliation with the occupation. A national liberation movement, and certainly a national-religious one, withers away when the masses go out to shop rather than to demonstrate.
The reinforcement of a Palestinian middle class, which may fall in love with a routine life, reject the ongoing struggle, and enjoy its proximity to the large Israeli market is anathema in the view of the militant leadership, and not only there. The tensions between economic and personal progress and a diplomatic and national dead-end tear Palestinian society apart.
The next Intifada, should it break out, may focus on Temple Mount, yet its logic will not really be related to religious feelings. Just like in previous times, its origin will be the volatile cocktail of a diplomatic dead-end coupled with an economic tie. As it turns out, the two don’t go well together.