Against the background of Barack Obama’s attempt to defend the idea of “two states for two peoples” in Israel/Palestine, consider a recent talk given by the Palestinian Sufian Abu-Zayda. Abu-Zayda is fifty years old. He was born in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, the largest of the Palestinian camps, and he is considered the Palestinian spokesman most fluent in Hebrew, which he learned during the fourteen years that he spent in an Israeli prison on charges of participating in terrorist activities. After his release in 1993, he was one of the senior Fatah leaders in Gaza and was appointed to various positions in the Palestinian government. Among other activities he has been active in the Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative, in which moderates from both sides argue that it is possible to find a just two-state solution.
It was quite surprising, therefore, that Abu-Zayda, in his talk to an Israeli audience, announced that he had changed his mind. Like other Palestinians who spoke to the Israeli media over the last months, he was responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University—itself a response of sorts to President Obama’s June 2009 speech at the University of Cairo. With some drama, Netanyahu had agreed that a Palestinian state should be established in territory of the Land of Israel to the west of the Jordan River. This was a significant change for Netanyahu, whose roots are in the nationalist movement that has given up its earlier slogan—“There are two banks to the Jordan, this one is ours, and so is that one”—but that still demands Israeli rule in the “Greater” Land of Israel west of the Jordan. Commentators talked of a “fissure” on the Israeli Right; it was widely believed that as long as Ben Zion Netanyahu is still alive, his son wouldn’t dare rebel against the nationalist traditions of the family.
But what might have seemed unbelievable a short time ago has become a reality. Netanyahu, at the head of the nationalist, right-wing government with members like Benny Begin (son of Menachem Begin) who have consistently rejected all concessions, has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state.
In his talk at Tel Aviv University, Abu-Zayda responded to what the prime minister had said: “Many thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu. After twenty years of the peace process [since the Madrid Conference in 1991], and after the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO [in the Oslo Accords], he finally agrees to a Palestinian state.” There was irony in his voice as he continued, “Do you think you are doing us a favor when you agree to two states? No favor at all. From my side, from the Palestinians’ side—let there be one state, not two…. I was introduced to you as Sufian Abu-Zayda from the Jabalya camp, but I’m not from Jabalya. I might have been born there, but my family had been exiled in 1948 from a village named “Breer,” where Kibbutz Bror Hayill now stands, near the Gaza border. If there will be one state, I’ll be happy to rent or buy a house near the kibbutz and live there.” And then Abu-Zayda said in a loud voice, “You are doing yourselves a favor by establishing two states, not us.”
He isn’t alone in his opinion. One can sense a great change among Palestinians—a new lack of trust in the possibility of a Palestinian state. In Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron, people are talking and writing about this. It is interesting that the shift is taking place at the very time when the whole world is united in pressing Israel to help the Palestinians create a state of their own. The Obama administration, the European Union, Russia, those Arab states that still maintain their initiative of almost a decade ago (to establish peace with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal to the 1967 border)—all of them seek a two-state solution. Even Netanyahu’s Israel is ready for it. So who thinks that it’s no longer a useful idea? The Palestinians—but not all of them, of course.
The most prominent Palestinian figure of the past two years, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is one of the few who not only say that they want to establish a state but are actually working energetically to make it happen. Fayyad is close to sixty and was born and brought up in Tulkarm. He studied and worked for many years in the United States, served as a high-ranking official in the International Monetary Fund, and entered politics about ten years ago. He established his reputation among the Palestinians when, serving as minister of finance and prime minister, he reorganized finance and administration in the Palestinian government. At the head of a new political party, he ran for office in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006. But in those elections Hamas won big, while Fayyad’s small party elected only two representatives.
There is no doubt that Fayyad, supported by Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), is attempting to create a new reality in the West Bank. Last summer, he publicized a plan to establish Palestinian institutions that will serve as a framework for an independent state within two years—a plan that doesn’t depend on negotiations with Israel. Every day he travels throughout the West Bank, meeting with community leaders in cities and villages. With the aid of funds from donor states, he tries to solve local problems: roads, factories, electricity, schools, water, public health. His success has been limited for the simple reason that without progress on the political front, there is no possibility of establishing a serious infrastructure for a Palestinian state. For example, in keeping with the Oslo Accords, Israel continues to rule over 60 percent of the West Bank—“Area C.” This includes all the settlements, the main roads, and the whole of the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert. In these areas, the settlers and the Israeli Defense Force have almost complete control, and within Area C are “reserved tracts” through which Israel regulates the water supply and the flow of traffic on the roads. Without control over these lands, the Palestinian Authority cannot construct a physical infrastructure (for example, the national airport that Fayyad wants to establish in the Jordan Valley). In fact, there is no possibility of establishing Palestinian control, and Fayyad knows this. In consultation with Abu Mazen, he arranged a series of demonstrations and protests against the separation barrier; against the provocations of the settlers, whose produce the Palestinians ban and burn; against the strengthening of the Israeli hold on East Jerusalem (which the Palestinians refer to as the Judaization of Jerusalem); and against the continuing expansion of the settlements.
Fayyad, who is not a member of Fatah, the nationalist party, comes across as the exceptional figure who believes in the establishment of a state. At the same time, among the Palestinian public there is a growing lack of belief. One of the witticisms most favored by journalists is that the Israelis want to carry on an interminable set of negotiations without reaching an agreement, and the Palestinians want an agreement without engaging in negotiations.
On both sides, the accepted assumption is that although everyone wants a two-state solution, the actual situation is pushing everyone toward a one-state solution. This is a solution that no one wants, but that’s what is happening. In the background is the most important political development of the past few years—the decline of the Palestinian nationalist movement.
From its beginnings at the start of the twentieth century, the Palestinian movement has had one clear goal: to free itself from foreign occupation, first from the British and then from the Israelis. The demand to create a Palestinian state does not appear in the national covenant that the PLO proclaimed in the 1960s. And in the short period in which most Palestinians lived under Arab rule (from 1948 to 1967), they did not work for the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza.
It was after the 1967 War that the demand for a state was formulated and the Palestinian national movement reached its peak strength. Yasser Arafat and his comrades from the Fatah movement took over the PLO, which had been founded by the attorney Ahmad Shuqayri with the support of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. In Arafat’s renewed PLO, all the ideological tendencies found a home: nationalists, religious believers, socialists, Marxists, communists, Pan-Arabists, and conservatives—as well as groups operating under the sponsorship of the “revolutionary” regimes of Syria and Iraq. There were even groups sponsored by King Hussein of Jordan, who was suspicious of all Palestinian nationalists and who in the end fought against them in the “Black September” of 1970, which ended with the flight of the PLO leadership to Beirut. Even from there, it continued to shape the Palestinian struggle as a unified national cause.
Those glory days are long gone. Since the failure of the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the bloody clashes in 2000 (the “al-Aqsa Intifada”), the Palestinian public has been split and fragmented—and so has the PLO. In Gaza, Hamas, a movement tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, rules. Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has made nationalism secondary to Islamic religious identity. Hamas was never part of the PLO, and it does not see itself obligated to keep agreements with Israel or to subscribe to the ideology of Palestinian nationalism. Because of the failure of the PLO and Fatah to create a Palestinian state and because of the widespread sense that their leadership is corrupt, Hamas has gained strength on the West Bank.
In the past, thousands of young Arab citizens of Israel supported the PLO. One example is the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who left Israel to work with the PLO. But for the past few years the aspiration of many has been in the opposite direction. Some Palestinians who defined themselves as PLO loyalists have returned, or asked to return, and become regular Israeli citizens. One of them, Sabri Jiryis, editor of Palestinian journals and the head of the PLO archive, has come back to his birthplace, the village of Fasuta in the Galilee. After the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, researchers asked Israeli Arabs if they would like to live under Palestinian national rule. Those polled lived in “the triangle,” the Arab areas of Israel closest to the West Bank border. The response of the majority of those polled (approximately 80 percent) was always negative. In the past few years, this majority has grown. In one of the last polls, 96 percent of the villagers of Wadi Ara said that they were not willing to accept any arrangement in which the Palestinian Authority would rule their area.
Extraordinary things are now happening, without much publicity, in another Palestinian community, that of the 300,000 Arabs of East Jerusalem. In the past few years, tens of thousands of them have applied to the Ministry of the Interior for full Israeli citizenship. In 1967, when East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel, its inhabitants were given “temporary resident” status, not citizenship. This resembles the U.S. green card, except that it does not serve as a way-station to full citizenship. Temporary residents have all the rights and obligations of a regular citizen—they pay taxes and receive the benefits of the social welfare system. But they cannot vote in parliamentary elections or carry an Israeli passport.
That they can’t vote for Knesset members has not bothered the Jerusalem Arabs, nor has the lack of a passport—the government gives travelers an Israeli “Laisser-Passer.” The problem, from their vantage point, is that they can lose their temporary resident status if they don’t continue to live in Jerusalem. Indeed, the Interior Ministry has taken away temporary resident cards from thousands of Jerusalem Arabs who moved to areas in the West Bank or who have lived overseas for a few years.
Hence the growing number of requests for full Israeli citizenship. There are many difficulties in the way. The most serious is that such a request is considered as collaboration with the enemy, the conqueror, and therefore a betrayal of Palestinian nationalism. That’s why so few applied in the years after the 1967 War—and most of them were Jerusalem Arabs who married Israeli Arabs. The PLO and the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah have decided to fight the new trend. They sent representatives to the East Jerusalem office of the Interior Ministry and warned those standing on line not to request the citizenship application forms.
Despite the warnings, the number of applicants is growing. A spokesman for the ministry told me that in the last two years, about twelve thousand Palestinians from East Jerusalem have received Israeli citizenship. What is most significant here is that there isn’t any embarrassment about applying for it. A Palestinian journalist told me, “Not only are they not embarrassed, they are proud that they have succeeded in getting Israeli citizenship.” This is the strongest possible example of the low point that Palestinian nationalism has reached—at least in the eyes of the Palestinians of Jerusalem. They now believe that the Israeli (Jewish) presence in the eastern part of the city is so powerful that it cannot be shaken or dislodged. The city won’t be divided, and so they are adapting to a situation that will lead in the end to a single state.
The decline of the Palestinian national movement can be seen in even sharper relief in the center of its power on the West Bank. Since its founding in 1964, the PLO’s three leading bodies have been the National Council, the Central Council, and the Executive Committee. Representation in those bodies was apportioned among the various Palestinian organizations that existed fifty years ago. This proportional representation remains as it was, and it has turned the PLO into an outdated, pathetic, useless institution that barely functions. Its whole purpose is to provide meager salaries to its functionaries. In its councils and committees, Marxist groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has split into factions over the years, are still represented, as are the Democratic Front, the Communist Party, and other ephemeral organizations whose existence has been forgotten and who have almost no public support.
By contrast, the PLO has no representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two movements that together probably have the support of more than a third of the Palestinian public.
Abu Mazen continues to convene the councils of the PLO, but it is hard to find people who take seriously their deliberations and decisions. The Israeli and Arab media report every utterance made by the leaders of Hamas, but pay much less attention to the pronouncements of PLO spokesmen.
Similar observations could be made about the decline of the Fatah movement, the ruling party in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. Fatah was weakened when some of its leaders, like Farouk Kaddoumi, objected to the Oslo Accords and refused to live under the Palestinian autonomy, the “state-in-the-making” that was established in the West Bank and Gaza. When he died in 2004, Arafat left behind a movement that was also dying and a leadership widely thought to be corrupt. At the head of the Fatah movement is the Central Committee, a group of eighteen people whose power resembles that of the Politburo in communist regimes. Only fourteen members were still alive, all over seventy, in August 2009, when a new committee was finally elected.
Journalists in Ramallah estimate that, since 2000, about fifty thousand people have left the West Bank and Gaza. It is worth noting that despite the high birth rate among Palestinians, their number is shrinking in comparison to the great increase in the Israeli and Jordanian populations. This has important economic and social implications. In the past generation, over one million immigrants have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and a million Iraqis have moved to Jordan. In contrast, the West Bank and Gaza are stagnating—economically, socially, and, of course, politically. Among those who have left the West Bank and Gaza are many of the elites. Thousands have left Gaza, among them the leadership of Fatah, who have moved, mostly, to Cairo, Amman, or Ramallah. Most of the tens of thousands who left the West Bank went to Jordan. Among them were many members of Fatah’s Central Committee. As a journalist who visits Ramallah regularly, I can testify that on at least three occasions when I met senior members of Fatah, I found them living in empty houses. Family members—wives, children, and grandchildren—had left to live and work in Amman, where most of the senior members have houses and other property and some of them have businesses. They came back to Palestine immediately after the Oslo Accords with the intention of building the great national project of the Palestinian state. In its stead they got shootings, bombings, closure, and checkpoints. Why stay? The families left for Amman, and the senior party members come to Ramallah only for meetings and to hold down positions in the government, the Fatah movement, and the PLO organizations—from which they receive their salaries and payment for their expenses.
For most Palestinians, life east of the Jordan is not life in exile. They might not call Jordan their homeland, but they certainly wouldn’t call it a foreign country. Almost three million Palestinians live east of the Jordan (four million live in the West Bank and Gaza and over a million in Israel). About two million of the Palestinians in Jordan are registered as descendants of refugees from the 1948 War, but only a minority of them (about 17 percent, according to UN records) live in refugee camps. Some Jordanian camps have become villages and neighborhoods, in a process similar to what happened in the West Bank. But Palestinians have also built the most luxurious residential areas of the Jordanian capital. Anyone who visits neighborhoods like Shemisani or Adbun is impressed by the palatial villas. Most if not all of these belong to wealthy Palestinian families, some of them the children of refugees.
“The cunning of history” combined the Nakba, the catastrophic exile of Palestine’s Arabs in 1948, with the discovery and exploitation of oil in the Persian Gulf (known to Arabs as the Arab Gulf). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost home and homeland in 1948 left Gaza, Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and went to look for jobs in the oil-producing countries. In 1990, the number of Palestinians in these states was estimated to be over a million. About 400,000 of them were concentrated in oil-rich Kuwait. They went there to serve as teachers, technicians, managers, economists, construction contractors, engineers, bankers, and journalists. Arafat, who studied engineering in Egypt, arrived in Kuwait in 1957 to work as a highway construction engineer. It was there that he and his friends founded the Fatah organization. In those same years, Abu Mazen came to Qatar to work as a teacher. The best-known Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani (a member of the Popular Front killed by a car bomb in 1972), wrote a novel, Men in the Sun, about Palestinians whose aspiration was to reach the oil-rich countries—the “America of the Arabs.”
Large numbers of Palestinians, refugees and non-refugees, got rich. But after the first Gulf War, most of them were expelled from Kuwait. The reason for the expulsion was the support given by Arafat and the PLO to Saddam Hussein, who had promised to bomb Israel if he was attacked. But there was another factor behind the expulsion—the entry, on a massive scale, of cheap and efficient workers from Southeast Asia.
One way or another, the great majority of Palestinians who left the oil states in the past two decades went to Amman. They came with money, built the luxury neighborhoods of the city, and made Jordan their home. There are no precise statistics as to the number of Palestinians in Jordan and their percentage in the population. Jordanian sources speak of approximately 50 percent. The Palestinians say that it is at least 70 percent. What is clear is that the Palestinians are the economic and social backbone of the state. They are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, occupy key positions in the kingdom, and since the events of Black September (1970) have never questioned the legitimacy of Hashemite rule. The heroes of the bloody confrontation of those days—Arafat on one side, King Hussein on the other—are no longer with us. Their heirs, Abu Mazen and Abdullah the Second, are to a large extent friends and allies. Both of them are committed to the struggle against Israel’s conquest and settlement of the West Bank.
From the vantage point of the Jordanian regime, the great nightmare is the possibility of riots and war in the West Bank, leading to Israeli annexation, which would send a wave of Palestinian refugees across the Jordan. The two previous inundations shook the stability of the regime in Amman. After 1948, Palestinians killed the first King Abdullah (in July 1951), and Egyptian-Palestinian subversion threatened to bring down Hashemite rule. Similarly, after the 1967 War, the second wave of Palestinian refugees precipitated the battle between Jordan and the PLO in 1970, a crisis, like the previous one, that the Jordanian regime barely survived.
What the Jordanians want is quiet and stability in the West Bank. And they want to see a Palestinian national entity, non-militant and non-revolutionary, which will collaborate with the conservative regime in Amman. This is also the objective of Abu Mazen and his colleagues from the Fatah leadership, most of whom have homes and property in Jordan.
In Bethlehem, in August of 2009, the Fatah general assembly met for the first time in almost twenty years. At this meeting, new leaders were elected. For the Central Committee positions there were twenty-two candidates, fourteen of whom were new figures in the movement. Left on the committee were some of the old-timers, members of Abu Mazen’s faction. But the main change was in the profile of the younger elected members (Khalil Shikaki, the sociologist and researcher from Ramallah, calls them the “young guard,” but the truth is that most of them are over fifty).
Prominent among them are Marwan Barghouti, now imprisoned in Israel after being convicted of organizing terror attacks; Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan, the two heads of the Palestinian Security Services, who spent many years in Israeli jails; and other activists, such as Muhammad Shatiyah, Hussein al-Shaykh, and Muhammad al-Maddani. These younger men were born, grew up, and came to maturity in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli rule. Their background is totally different from those of Abu Mazen and his generation, the Fatah veterans. The veterans grew up in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, or they left the camps of Gaza when they were still children. They studied in the universities of Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut—and traveled on Fatah business all over the world. Most of them have a revolutionary and secular orientation, the result of the support that the Palestinian movement once received from the communist bloc. When they arrived with Arafat at the West Bank and Gaza, they were seen as somewhat “foreign.” The accusation was that they brought with them a culture that was not appropriate to the traditional culture of the territories—nightclubs, parties, large expenditures, and a luxurious lifestyle. These were the legacy of the years when the PLO was flush with funds—especially after Sadat’s “peace initiative” of 1977, when the Arab states, especially Iraq, bought and paid for PLO resistance to the Egyptian initiative.
After many years outside of Palestine, the older activists have a familiarity with, and an attachment to, the Arab world. They are at home in the countries in which they grew up, studied, and lived. This is not true of the recently elected younger guard. Their whole lives have been spent in the homeland, in the cities, villages, and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. They know Tel Aviv and the Israeli reality far better than the reality of Damascus and Cairo. After years in Israeli prisons or at work in Israel, there are those among them who have total mastery of the Hebrew language. They are interviewed regularly in Hebrew in the Israeli media, and they participate in Israeli events. They have Israeli friends, both Jews and Arabs, and they visit these friends at home in West Jerusalem, Herzliya, Haifa, or Nazareth.
They have no family or property in Amman or Cairo, and thus they are more like the Palestinian citizens of Israel than they are like the members of the old guard. It would not be a great exaggeration to assert that the new Palestinian generation in the West Bank (less so in Gaza), who know Israel so well, would prefer to fight for equal rights in a single binational state rather than continue a struggle that seems almost hopeless—to establish an independent state.
This is not a casual suggestion or a guess. In the past few years, Palestinian figures have talked about ending the discouraging struggle to create Palestinian rule in the territories. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, once suggested, with a degree of cynicism, that the Palestinians should demand total annexation so that they could receive the same rights as Israelis in the common homeland. Ali Jirbawi of Beir Zeit University has raised the possibility of a voluntary dismantling of the Palestinian Authority.
In international diplomacy there is a pervasive idea that it is possible and necessary to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that will exist side by side with Israel. Many Israelis and Palestinians want this and believe in it. But the forces working against this possibility are many and powerful. Israeli governments have enabled the settlement of over half a million Jews beyond the 1967 borders. This represents almost 10 percent of the Jews in Israel. About 300,000 of them live in settlements in the West Bank and about 200,000 are in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. There are those among them who will fight with all their strength to prevent an Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But what is no less important is that on the Palestinian side as well a new situation has emerged. National unity has dissolved, the national movement has atrophied and declined, and the idea has become acceptable that if there won’t be two states for two peoples, it is better that there be one state.
Danny Rubinstein, until 2008 a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Haaretz, is an author and specialist on Arab and Palestinian affairs. He teaches at Ben Gurion University and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This article was translated from the Hebrew by Shalom L. Goldman.