Should America and the West support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza?
The answer to that question depends mainly on the answer to another question: Will the establishment of a Palestinian state help or hinder American interests?
There are many ways to describe American interests in strategic, tactical, historical, moral or economic terms: opposing dictatorship, supporting democracy, supporting free markets etc. However, the best short-hand guide is offered by history. Throughout the twentieth century and now at the beginning of the twenty-first, America’s role in the world parallels the role of Great Britain in an earlier era: a global-trading power interested primarily in stability for the sake of business.
Does establishing a Palestinian state help or hinder regional stability and global stability? If history is any guide, the prospects are not optimistic.
Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization has had three near-state experiences: Jordan, 1969-70; Lebanon, 1976-82; and Gaza/West Bank 1994-2002. In each of the cases, countries adjacent to the PLO base-state felt waves of instability, resulting in war. Nevertheless, some American policy makers believe that backing a Palestinian state gives America increased clout in the Arab world, including access to Arab oil. The Arab states want a Palestinian state, and opposing this desire puts America at odds with the powerful Arab world. Further, it is argued that respecting the right of self-determination requires America and the West to push for a Palestinian Arab state.
Let us look at these arguments:
ARAB STATES AND A PALESTINIAN STATE
The question of a Palestinian state is a classic example of how in the Arab political community there is often a wide gulf between a public pronouncement and the real political position.
From the time of the United Nations partition of the British Mandatory territory of Palestine, the Arab world has spoken boldly about Palestinian rights—such as self-determination—but has acted in quite a different manner. The Arab armies that invaded Israel/Palestine did so at the behest of Arab leaders who had no intention of building a Palestinian national state, but only in furthering their own stature and enlarging their own territorial holdings.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (later Jordan) absorbed Palestinian territory—Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and parts of Jerusalem. Transjordan changed its name, but did not offer Palestinian Arabs their own state during the transition. There is no question that the Hashemite family, despite its public statements, views another Arab state as a destabilizing element. By furthering such a state, America and its Western allies would actually be undermining Jordan, one of the most benign Arab states.
Egypt, which for years pretended to be the protector of the Palestinians, actually penned the Palestinian refugees inside horrible refugee camps. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul-Nasser exploited the refugees and the Palestinian Question (Arabic: Al-Qadiyya Al-Felastiniyya) to promote his own career as a pan-Arab leader. The hapless Palestinians inside the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip were not even offered Egyptian citizenship.
Abdul-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, made a Middle Eastern peace possible by moving away from the pan-Arab approach of Abdul-Nasser. While Sadat publicly called for Palestinian statehood, he was willing to accept “Palestinian autonomy.” The current Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak, has moved back in the direction of Abdul-Nasser, again using the Palestinian card as a source for legitimization of Egypt as the leader of the Arab world. But there are signs that forces unleashed inside the Palestinian Authority threaten Egypt as well as Israel—such as Intifada rioting and Islamic fanaticism.
Syria, which also absorbed Palestinian refugees after 1948, has consistently opposed an independent Palestinian state. The ruling Ba’ath Party of Syria regards Palestine as part of Greater Syria (Ar.: Al-Souriyya Al-Kubra). Syria has occasionally supported the PLO as a pawn in power struggles with and inside its neighbors (e.g. Jordan, 1970) but it has also directly attacked the PLO on many occasions and has even tried to assassinate PLO leader Arafat (e.g in northern Lebanon, 1983).
Saudi Arabia, which has sent much financial aid to the PLO, seems to do so as a form of “protection racket”—buying insurance against Palestinian-fomented insurgency. The Saudi-led Arab oil embargo of 1973 had little to do with Arab political demands and everything to do with enlarging oil revenues. Indeed, of the huge oil revenues netted by the Saudi princes, only a microscopic speck ends up in the hands of the average Palestinian. Documents captured in 2001 by the Israeli Police in Orient House (a PLO forward base in Jerusalem), as well as by the Israeli Army in 2002 at Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, show that much Saudi aid has been siphoned off by the corrupt Palestinian leadership rather than going to fix sewage in Gaza or hospitals in the West Bank.
Actions speak louder than words. During the three principal Israeli-Palestinian clashes (1982 War in Lebanon, 1987-89 Intifada and the current Palestinian-Israeli War of Attrition), the Arab world has largely sat on the sidelines.
In short, the four immediate Arab neighbors of a potential Palestine have not spent any real efforts to build a Palestinian Arab state, and they are not likely to expend political capital on this matter in the future. More distant Arab states such as Libya and Iraq have been more forthright in their support of the PLO and a Palestinian state, but they are not likely to give up their weapons of mass destruction or terrorist intentions in exchange for American support for a Palestinian state.
ISRAEL AND A PALESTINIAN STATE
Israel is America’s most valuable and most stable ally in the Middle East, and it is directly threatened by the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state. American presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush have seen a special tie to Israel based on three major themes:
*–and Strategic ties.
A Jewish State that rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust was seen as a moral imperative by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (who visited the death camps). Truman overruled the narrow perspective of his own Department of State and recognized Israel because of this moral imperative and because of the democratic values of the new state—the only “Third World” state that came into being after World War II that has had an uninterrupted democratic existence.
Subsequently, American presidents came to respect Israel for its battlefield mettle and strategic value (even Eisenhower, whose administration approved military aid to Israel in the late part of his second term). John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan saw Israel as a prime strategic asset in the global battle against Communism. They correctly saw Israel as a tremendous intelligence asset and as a bastion of democratic stability inside the roiling Mediterranean basin. The American Bicentennial saw this element symbolically demonstrated by the fantastically successful Israel rescue operation to free plane passengers hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, by Arab hijackers.
There have been many such bold Israeli actions over the years, although not all have become public. Indeed, there were often cases when American presidents scolded Israel for her military boldness—only to admit later that she was right. The bold Israeli demolition of Iraq’s nuclear option (then) in 1981 is a prime example.
Some of the “pro-Arab voices” in the Department of State grew strong again with the fall of Communism. They claimed that Israel’s value as a strategic asset had diminished, if not disappeared entirely. This short-sighted view should have been shelved after the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, at the behest of Islamic terrorists. The specter of Pan-Islamic and Pan-Arab terror has reared its head on many other occasions over the last 12 years, even though there were many Western policy makers who preferred not to pay attention.
Less than a year after the major attacks on the United States in September 2001, there are voices who minimize this threat and who simultaneously speak of “leashing” Israel. These voices should not be heeded. The strategic value of Israel to the West—and to America in particular—is greater than ever before, and the moral and historical ties between Israel and the U.S. are as strong as ever. But establishing a Palestinian Arab state endangers Israel, America’s top ally in the region.
HOW PALESTINE THREATENS ISRAEL
Opponents of a Palestinian state argued for years that it would become a terrorist base operating against Israel. Terrorists operating from inside the Gaza Strip or West Bank could easily reach Israeli cities, they said. They further argued that such a state would become an outpost for Communist or other extreme movements (such as Islamic radicalism). Opponents of a Palestinian state said that Israel’s own Arab population would be radicalized and turned against its own government and the Jewish majority.
This is only a short list of the threats, but all of the items on the list have already been realized.
Proponents of a Palestinian state argued that such a state could be demilitarized and democratic, but it has not worked out that way. In fact, the current Palestinian leadership has set back the movement toward “Palestinian Civil Society” by many years.
It is not within the scope of this article to address detailed political solutions. However, it will have succeeded if it has convinced the reader that establishing a Palestinian Arab state under present circumstances is worse than a dead-end street. It is an open invitation to disaster.
Michael Widlanski, Senior Analyst for The Media Line Ltd., is former Middle East Bureau Chief for the Cox Newspapers and a former reporter for The New York Times. Mr. Widlanski teaches at the Rothberg School of Hebrew University.