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How Palestinians Can Finally Achieve Independence

By Jeffrey Goldberg
November 26, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Jeffrey Goldberg.
Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg.

The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech last week that his group remained committed to a policy of indiscriminate murder. He gave this policy a different name, of course. “Resistance,” he said, “is the shortest way to liberate Palestine.”

So, how’s resistance working out for you so far, Mr. Prime Minister?

The Palestinian liberation movement is one of the world’s least successful post-World War II national liberation movements. At the time of the United Nations partition of Palestine, in 1947, the world body had 57 members. Today, the UN has 193 member states. Palestine is not among them.

Blame for this sad fact can be apportioned widely: Arab nations rejected the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, and instead invaded the nascent state of Israel -- and then lost to it on the battlefield. Egypt and Jordan occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between 1948 and 1967 but did nothing to bring about an independent Palestine. The Arab world at large, though possessing the oil- derived resources to free the Palestinians from material misery, sequesters them in refugee camps in order to perpetuate the conflict. Israel has occasionally shown an interest in freeing Gaza and the West Bank, which came into its possession in 1967, but has more often focused on keeping a permanent hold on the West Bank, colonizing it in destructive, and self-destructive, ways.

Not Blameless

To blame everyone but the Palestinians for their current condition, however, is to treat them as a people without independent agency. Palestinian leaders have made a series of terrible decisions that have brought their people nothing. Terrorism -- the Palestine Liberation Organization will be remembered for its great innovations in the field of terror -- brought the Palestinians attention, but no state. Demonization of Israel brought the Palestinians great emotional satisfaction, but not a state.

Today, the two main (and warring) Palestinian parties are implementing strategies that are similarly flawed. Hamas, as its prime minister says, is committed to “resistance.” This means waging an endless war of attrition against Israeli civilians and advancing a religiously inspired, hate-filled, maximalist argument for the slaughter of all Israeli Jews, in both the West Bank and in Israel proper. (If you doubt this description of Hamas’s agenda, please read the group’s covenant. Suffice it to say that the covenant is frankly annihilationist, arguing that God himself demands the killing of the perfidious Jews. Hamas could always change, but it would have to repudiate its very essence.)

This strategy might actually work if Hamas got ahold of three or four nuclear weapons, or if the Jews of Israel would simply acquiesce to their own massacre. Hamas’s arms supplier, Iran, is working toward nuclear-weapons capability, though it doesn’t seem likely that officials in Tehran would turn over control of a nuclear weapon to their friends in Gaza. It also seems unlikely that the Jews will agree to be slaughtered.

Hamas believes that its war of attrition -- the latest round of which ended last week -- will eventually wear Israel down, causing its Jews to abandon their country before the final, God-endorsed massacre. This is not a realistic expectation.

The current strategy of the more moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, is less bloodthirsty but is also grounded in unreality. Part of this strategy is to continue to argue against the legitimacy of the Jewish state -- against the idea that Israel is the historic home of the Jewish people. This argument, aside from ignoring archaeology and history, has failed to convince Jews that they are not who they believe themselves to be. (Many Israelis have also advanced the argument that the Palestinians are not who they say they are. This, too, has failed.)

Not Unrecognized

The second prong of this strategy is to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza from the UN General Assembly, the world body that 65 years ago offered the Palestinians a state. On Nov. 29, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is scheduled to make this appeal in New York, and he is almost certain to gain some level of heightened recognition for the Palestinians.

This is very nice, and it will make Abbas, at least, feel very good before his imminent retirement. But it won’t move the Palestinians any closer to statehood. The only country that can grant the Palestinians statehood in Gaza and the West Bank is Israel. Israeli leaders are opposed to Abbas’s gambit, and Israel’s Western allies will protect it from the fallout of whatever happens at the UN.

There is, however, a strategy the Palestinians could implement immediately that would help move them toward independence: They could give up their dream of independence.

It’s a very simple idea. When Abbas goes before the UN, he shouldn’t ask for recognition of an independent state. Instead, he should say the following: “Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza 45 years ago, and shows no interest in letting go of the West Bank, in particular. We, the Palestinian people, recognize two things: The first is that we are not strong enough to push the Israelis out. Armed resistance is a path to nowhere. The second is that the occupation is permanent. The Israelis are here to stay. So we are giving up our demand for independence. Instead, we are simply asking for the vote. Israel rules our lives. We should be allowed to help pick Israel’s rulers.”

Reaction would be seismic and instantaneous. The demand for voting rights would resonate with people around the world, in particular with American Jews, who pride themselves on support for both Israel and for civil rights at home. Such a demand would also force Israel into an untenable position; if it accedes to such a demand, it would very quickly cease to be the world’s only Jewish-majority state, and instead become the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. If it were to refuse this demand, Israel would very quickly be painted by former friends as an apartheid state.

Israel’s response, then, can be reasonably predicted: Israeli leaders eager to prevent their country from becoming a pariah would move to negotiate the independence, with security caveats, of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, and later in Gaza, as well. Israel would simply have no choice.

This won’t happen, of course. Israeli intransigence has always had a friend in Palestinian shortsightedness.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on the need for a Palestinian victory at the UN and on an emerging fiscal-cliff compromise; Noah Feldman on Egypt’s power struggle; Edward Glaeser on how New York can protect itself; William Pesek on Japan’s next prime minister; Ramesh Ponnuru on Republicans’ misguided plans for candidates; Tim Judah on Yugoslavia’s lesson for separatist movements.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

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