The Pitfalls of a U.S.-Israel Vision of a Palestinian State

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VOL. 35


No. 2
P. 56
The Pitfalls of a U.S.-Israel Vision of a Palestinian State

The Palestinian issue cannot be separated from the global context, in this case an ‎American hegemony in a unipolar world. Since the arrival of George W. Bush in the ‎White House, and especially since the events of 9/11, American decision making has ‎been dominated by the so-called “neoconservatives,” who urge the use of power to build ‎an empire. This is a theme that has been dealt with to the point of saturation, so I don’t ‎want to delve into it more than necessary, but a few words must be said about an aspect ‎of the new American world view that I believe to be the most important one affecting ‎Palestinians today: the confused and confusing idea that the war against terrorism, ‎America’s “commitment" to exporting democracy, and the war on certain Arab regimes ‎‎(meaning the attempts to topple them) are one and the same. Sorting out these elements is ‎very important to understanding the things being done in the Middle East by the ‎American administration and its allies.‎

The War on Terror, Regime Change, and the Export of Democracy

The line being put forward by the U.S. administration is that the end of the cold ‎war has allowed it to put its "commitment to democracy" at the center of its foreign ‎policy. The bipolar equilibrium, which in fact resulted in regional stability, had ‎previously tied its hands, causing it to define its position toward any regime according to ‎whether it is “for us or against us" rather than according to whether it is or is not ‎democratic. So the new world order has meant, among other things, that the U.S. was ‎now able to begin its export of democracy—democracy having become, it would appear, ‎a commodity requiring marketing campaigns, good public relations, and the search for ‎appropriate export agents (who in their turn would like to be exclusive agents).‎ ‎

With the war on terror and preoccupation with the threat of terrorism, the ‎democracy-for-export venture has become confused with the separate notion that ‎dictatorial regimes produce terrorism. This makes it a matter of U.S. national security to ‎impose democracy on dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. There is, of course, no ‎evidence that dictatorships produce more terrorism than democracies: the fact that over ‎the last decade there have been far more terrorist actions in democratic India than in ‎China, where there have been practically none, is a case in point. However much one may ‎prefer democracy, the level of terrorist incidents has not declined in countries where ‎democratic reforms have been initiated.‎ ‎

It is now obvious that the Bush administration did not give much thought to the ‎difficulties that might be encountered in the attempt to build democracies without ‎democrats, without organized liberal democratic forces or without a large middle class ‎committed to society as a whole and willing to throw itself into nation building. But in ‎any case, the entire venture of exporting democracy to certain Middle Eastern states has ‎turned out to be just a pretext to fill the argumentative void that followed the discovery of ‎the U.S. administration’s lies concerning the war in Iraq. What is really at stake is the ‎attempt to take down postcolonial regimes built on armies and military security ‎apparatuses in order to build new (friendly) entities while stripping them of the Arab ‎identity that once conferred on them legitimacy. For one aspect of American policy ‎seems to be de-Arabization, the breaking down of identity into confessions or sects (and ‎in so doing exacerbating sectarian conflicts) and confusing sectarian divisions with ‎pluralism—that is, trying to sell the Middle East the idea that pluralism is actually ‎sectarian pluralism, not political pluralism. (A good example is present day Iraq, where ‎the word “Arab” almost never appears in American communiqués, having been almost ‎entirely replaced by “Shiites” and “Sunnis.”) The face of this exported democracy is not ‎the face of democracy—it is an imperial face. The horrific manifestations of the ‎American “struggle against terrorism” and “struggle for democracy”—the use of ‎phosphoric bombs in western Iraq, the expanded use of torture in Iraqi prisons and in ‎secret American prisons beyond the reach of U.S. and international law—have made ‎people in the Middle East extremely cynical about American claims to respect universal ‎principles of justice and legality.

The Palestine Issue: Two Opposing Views

In the eyes of the Arab people—Palestinians and non-Palestinians, democrats and ‎nondemocrats—the Palestine issue is the Arab world’s open colonial wound. It ‎epitomizes both the subjugation and dismemberment of the Arab world by colonial ‎interests and the hypocrisy of the West on such issues as international law, human rights, ‎the right to self-determination, and so on. This is the Arab view.‎

For those who dominate American policy on the Middle East, however, the ‎Palestine issue, like that of terrorism, is a product of the cold war and the bipolar system; ‎Palestinian legitimate resistance to occupation since 1948 (not just 1967) is dismissed as ‎terrorism and violence. The Palestinian issue is also seen as a product or indeed a creation ‎of the Arab regimes; for these people, the refugee problem is the result not of Israel’s ‎ethnic cleansing but of the Arab states’ going to war against the newly created state of ‎Israel on 15 May 1948, after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had already been ‎driven out or fled. And if the Palestine question is seen as growing out of the Arab ‎regimes, then it follows that if there is “regime change” in certain Arab states, or if the ‎regimes are blackmailed or pushed or forced to submit to U.S. dictates—in other words, ‎if the issue is removed from the hands of the Arab regimes that manipulate it for their ‎own ends—then the Palestinian issue will be dismantled, moderated, toned down, or at ‎least not as central as it used to be. It is in this context that the U.S. continues to try to get ‎more and more Arab states to recognize Israel in the absence of a just solution to the ‎Palestine question. The Palestine issue was certainly not entirely foreign to U.S. action in ‎Iraq or to its pressures on Syria. This is how the current administration’s policymakers ‎think, and it is also, in my opinion, very much the way people like former Israeli prime ‎minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current prime minister Ariel Sharon think. The ‎symbolic importance of Palestine as the last colonial issue in the world is very much ‎underestimated by the neocons and their colleagues (if not mentors), the Israeli right. ‎

The new focus on Palestinian statehood, as the term is understood in the road ‎map, fits very much within this framework. A Palestinian state is now seen as the ‎solution to the entire issue, superceding and erasing the “final status” issues of Oslo. ‎There is no longer any talk about the need for justice or even fairness (“fairness” being a ‎better word for relative justice) for the Palestinians by stopping the occupation, ‎withdrawing to the 4 June 1967 borders, dismantling the colonial settlements project, or ‎compensating the refugees for their long histories of dispossession and exile and ‎diaspora. Under the new thinking, the refugee issue becomes one of statelessness: since ‎the Palestinian refugees are a stateless people; the problem is not occupation, lack of self-‎determination, the proliferation of settlements, Jerusalem, dispossession, or refugees, but ‎simply a problem of statelessness. By turning the Palestinian issue into one of statehood, ‎Palestine has finally been cut down to its “proper size,” so to speak. (It is worth ‎mentioning that this is the same logic that drove Sharon to claim that there already was a ‎Palestinian state, and it is called Jordan. More recently he became convinced of the need ‎for a Palestinian state to help Israel separate itself from Gaza and the densely populated ‎areas of the West Bank.)‎

The Implications of Statehood

Let us examine the assumption that if you give the Palestinians a state, all the ‎problems will be solved together in a package deal. It is very important to understand the ‎implications of this assumption, because many friends and supporters of the ‎Palestinians—and even some Palestinians—appear unwittingly to have fallen into the ‎trap and are now focused on burning questions such as how the Palestinians can get their ‎state, when it might be realized, what its economic prospects will be, what kind of ‎governance it will have, and so on. It is as if the ultimate goal of the Palestinian struggle ‎for the last hundred years has been to have a state.‎

It is important to remember that the goal of the Palestinians originally was not ‎statehood at all, but liberation and justice. Indeed, at least up until the 1960s, “statehood” ‎in the diverse geographical areas of the Arab world was not seen by most Arabs as ‎something positive, but as a means of integrating the colonial project into the region: the ‎creation of more and more Arab states in the first half of the twentieth century was not at ‎all a genuine Arab democratic effort, but a colonial enterprise. The Arabs themselves ‎wanted fewer, larger states—ideally one great Arab state, at least in the mashriq, as had ‎been promised by the colonial powers during World War I. But of course, once the state ‎system in the Arab world was consecrated and fully consolidated, the Palestinians, too, ‎came to express their yearning for liberation in the form of self-determination and ‎statehood. However, it must be stressed that their aspiration was for a state as an ‎expression of justice, not for a state as an alternative to justice.‎

Yet it was this last that became the policy of Bush and Sharon: a state instead of ‎justice, a state instead of a solution, a state as a dis-solution of the Palestine question, as a ‎way of dissolving it. Under the Oslo agreement, the Palestinian issue was put forward as ‎being composed of four main elements: (a) refugees, which was the main Palestinian ‎issue before 1967; (b) Jerusalem, which is both an issue of occupation and the symbolic ‎national and religious issue; (c) borders, which represents the issue of sovereignty; and ‎‎(d) settlements, which is, again, the issue of occupation and colonialism. These are the ‎four main elements around which the Palestinian issue was conceptualized and presented ‎at that time, the four being called the issues of “final status” that needed to be solved. The ‎Oslo accord did not pretend to solve them; the claim was that it provided a transitional ‎period of confidence and trust building that would prepare the ground for their solution.

Without doubt, there were many Israelis—and certainly Sharon was among ‎them—who believed from the outset that these “final status” issues could never be ‎solved. Israel could not ask the Palestinians to give up Jerusalem, their right of return, or ‎their demand that Israel withdraw to the 4 June 1967 borders or dismantle the ‎settlements. It could not demand these things of the Palestinians, yet at the same time it ‎was unwilling to yield on any of these points. The “autonomy” or “interim period” ‎provided under Oslo was in fact a way out that allowed Israel to avoid facing this ‎impasse. The “interim period” was an internal Israeli compromise between, on the one ‎hand, Israel’s unwillingness to solve these four issues in a way that would be even ‎minimally acceptable to the Palestinians and, on the other, its reluctance legally to annex ‎the occupied territories and have to choose between being a binational state or an ‎apartheid state. Israel’s endless delays in implementing the transitional issues and its ‎insistence at Camp David of the impossible-to-accept “end-of-claims” clause are ‎expressions of this Israeli dilemma. The outbreak of the second intifada was a ‎manifestation of the impasse faced in the Oslo process.

When Sharon and Bush began advocating a Palestinian state, they were talking in ‎the language of final status. In Oslo there is no mention of a Palestinian state, but only of ‎the four final status issues. Of course, if those issues were solved—if Israel gave up East ‎Jerusalem, withdrew to the 4 June 1967 borders, dismantled settlements, and recognized ‎the right of return—the logical result would be a Palestinian state, a free Palestinian state. ‎But the logic of Bush and Sharon is to give the Palestinians a Palestinian state instead of ‎resolving the final status issues.‎

Almost certainly, the envisaged “state” would not be the “final status” but a ‎‎“transitional” state with “provisional borders” that would not be finalized for twenty or ‎thirty years. This is so Palestinians won’t have to sign away Jerusalem and give in to ‎reduced borders, so that nobody will be called a traitor. But whatever the state’s format, ‎the Bush-Sharon logic is that with a Palestinian state, the four final status issues will ‎automatically dissolve or vanish, in one way or another. Take, for example, the issue of ‎refugees. If a Palestinian “state” were created without recognition of the right of return, ‎the refugees would be citizens of the Palestinian state, though living abroad. Instead of ‎refugees, they would become expatriates. They would be guests, foreign nationals; their ‎having Palestinian passports would solve the problem of citizenship in the host countries. ‎In Lebanon, they would no longer be a demographic threat to the country’s confessional ‎balance because they would have a nationality and a passport. Not being given the right ‎of return, their own problem would remain as acute as before, but the problem of others ‎would be solved with the magic words “statehood” and “passport.” Thus, the refugee ‎issue will become one of expatriates—the Palestinians have their state and theoretically ‎they can “go back” to their state if they like.‎

Even if there is a state only in Gaza and on a mere 40 percent of the West Bank ‎‎(as Mr. Sharon wanted and as Mr. Bush agreed to, as I will explain later), the issues ‎connected with occupation will magically disappear through a change of terminology: the ‎replacement of the word “occupation” by the phrase “dispute between two states.” You ‎will have a Palestinian state and you have Israel. Between them, instead of the issue of ‎occupation, you will have a “territorial dispute.”‎

Do you know how many territorial disputes there are in the world, even between ‎Arab countries? So the urgency, the sting, that the Palestinian national issue had as a ‎colonial issue would be taken away. The Palestinian issue would be “cut down to its ‎proper size,” as Israel sees it, to a trivial territorial dispute between two states that will ‎have to be settled peacefully. States, as we all know, now have the monopoly over ‎violence, and the Palestinian state will be asked to monopolize arms and will be made ‎responsible for preventing any struggle against Israel. With the dispute now simply ‎territorial, there will no more be a national liberation movement of resistance, and any ‎armed struggle will have to be neutralized. Why? Because there is a Palestinian state ‎now, so any resistance would be a challenge not to Israel but to the legitimacy of the ‎Palestinian state. It will thus be the Palestinians’ problem, no longer Israel’s problem. So ‎you see, it is all very interesting.‎

As for the settlements, how will Palestinian “statehood” affect them? The ‎‎“unauthorized” settlements inside the enclaves that will make up the Palestinian state ‎‎(called “illegal outposts” by some members of the international community, ‎notwithstanding the fact that international law calls all Israeli settlements “illegal”) will ‎probably be removed, along with some settlements that are deep inside the 40 percent of ‎West Bank land “set aside” for the Palestinian state. However, the settlements located in ‎the some 60 percent of the West Bank called “Area C” in Oslo accords will be expanded. ‎What there will actually be is an apartheid system masquerading as “two states”—an ‎expanded Israel that will now include large swaths of contiguous West Bank space, ‎where privileged settlers, sovereigns who consider the land historically theirs, have the ‎right to move about freely, and the fragmented cantons where the Palestinians are ‎confined, which is called their “state.”‎

So far, of course, there has not been a Palestinian partner even for the face-saving ‎‎“transitional state” that does not require a Palestinian signature on the dotted line giving ‎up Jerusalem, finalizing borders as Israel maps them, or making the other concessions ‎demanded of them. Arafat, certainly, was not a partner for this kind of state and would ‎not have been, so he had to go—whether or not he passed from the scene naturally is not ‎known, nor in all likelihood will it be known; certainly there will be no international ‎investigation into his death.‎

Be that as it may, it was only after Arafat’s death that Sharon was ready to take ‎the first step in the direction I’m describing, which is the disengagement from Gaza. ‎People confuse the disengagement with genuine withdrawal from Gaza. What Sharon ‎was actually saying was this: “Since I have no partners for this plan for Palestinian ‎statehood in part of the land, I will unilaterally give up the headache called Gaza, and ‎then I will continue unilaterally, according to the pace I set, in the West Bank. I will be ‎able to design the shape of the final status with a free hand, because the whole world, ‎instead of condemning Israel, as they usually do, will be busy praising us for withdrawing ‎from Gaza.” And, it would appear, that is what has happened.‎

The Gaza Solution

Needless to say, Israel did not want Gaza anyway. Its settlement project there did ‎not succeed. Israel wanted to withdraw from Gaza, but there was no Palestinian partner ‎willing to take it as the Palestinian state substituting for everything else. So Israel ‎disengaged unilaterally, which gave it an unprecedented free hand in the West Bank and ‎in the settlements around Jerusalem. Almost overnight, Sharon went from being a ‎persona non grata—including in certain circles in the United States and Europe—to being ‎hailed as a man of peace. ‎

There is another point of confusion about the Gaza disengagement that needs to ‎be cleared up: Many people believe that the step Sharon took in Gaza was totally ‎unilateral and that it was made without any quid pro quo. In fact, the opposite is true: the ‎step was not unilateral; there was a quid pro quo. The Gaza pullout was the outcome of ‎negotiations, though not between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and the ‎Arab states, but between Israel and the United States. (Sharon refused to negotiate with ‎the Palestinians and apparently concluded that since the Arab regimes are so dependent ‎on and anxious to please America, it was enough to negotiate just with Washington.) In ‎any case, what Sharon got in return for disengagement was Bush’s guarantee—‎formalized in a letter at the same time the disengagement plan was announced in April ‎‎2004—that the United States would understand that Israel could not withdraw to the 1967 ‎borders, that the settlements had permanently altered the demographic situation in ‎Jerusalem, and that the refugees could not be granted the right of return. So, actually, ‎Sharon got exactly what he wanted concerning the nature of the final status, and the state ‎that he and Mr. Bush had in mind—and which seems to be the way it is increasingly ‎being interpreted under the road map—makes no mention of Jerusalem, the right of ‎return, an end of settlements, or withdrawal to the 1967 borders. This was Sharon’s ‎greatest achievement, and it can even be argued that it is more important than the 1917 ‎Balfour Declaration.‎

This is the plan that is going forward now, and there is little reason to expect it to ‎change in its broad outlines. Sharon got rid of the Gaza problem, and Gaza is now strictly ‎a Palestinian problem. This does not mean that Gaza is a closed issue: on the contrary, all ‎the negotiations in the future will be about Gaza because almost nothing is solved there. ‎Israel simply pulled out. The only thing that has been solved, the only positive step, is the ‎dismantling of settlements, which is irreversible. But all the rest—passages, crossing ‎points, the export and import of commodities, movement of the population, airports, ‎seaports, the border passage between Gaza and Egypt—have to be negotiated with Israel ‎in the future. ‎

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Americans now will have to ‎intervene and weigh in on these technical and procedural issues, and we will be speaking ‎about “final status in the Rafah area,” or “solving the issue of the port,” and so on. We ‎will be kept busy negotiating about Gaza, while meaningful negotiations about ‎everything else, including statehood, will be conditioned on the Palestinian Authority’s ‎taking steps against the Palestinian resistance in order to prove that Palestinians are ‎capable of having a state, even in tiny Gaza and the 40 percent of discontinuous West ‎Bank land Israel is willing to concede. In other words, negotiations about the meaningful ‎issues will be conditioned on Palestinian civil war. ‎

So in reality, there is no political process in the global context today. There is no ‎peace process, and I wonder about people who use these categories. Practically speaking, ‎all that we have now are the colonial practices of Israel. This is what must be faced, and ‎the way the world community is doing it is to use symmetrical language—the violence of ‎both sides; the moderates on each side; the radicals in each camp; the political process; ‎and so on. There is no way that one can even begin to understand the situation or deal ‎with it meaningfully when using these categories.‎

What seems to be getting lost is the fact that the main issue is still occupation. ‎The Palestinian forces need to be united in order to face this situation of occupation. They ‎especially need to resist the all too obvious plan of pitting Palestinians against ‎Palestinians. A Palestinian civil war or confrontation undoubtedly feeds into Israel’s ‎agenda and one can only wonder what the United States’s intentions are for the region ‎judging by its actions and policies with regard to Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, not to ‎even mention Iraq. The possibility of a civil war situation in the region is by no means ‎far-fetched. In Palestine, the losers in any such conflict can only be all Palestinians.‎

For the United States, the Palestinian issue is a burden on its Middle East policies. ‎It is recognized as a source of anti-Americanism both on the popular and political levels. ‎Unfortunately, America’s way of dealing with this reality is not to work toward a solution ‎that guarantees some justice for the Palestinians, but to try to get rid of this burden by ‎reducing the issue to its "true dimensions."‎  


Azmi Bishara, a former professor of philosophy at Birzeit University, is a member of ‎the Israeli Knesset and head of the Arab National Democratic Alliance (Tajamu’/Balad). ‎This essay is based on his keynote address, delivered via video, at the annual conference ‎of the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, on 18 November 2005.