January February 2007Leading Posts

Possible Solutions to the Palestine Question

Art Shostak

It is easier to know what to avoid than what to do when wresting with the Palestine Question (defined here not as a territorial war, but as our need to help Palestinians swiftly improve their life chances). For one, it is pointless to look for an easy or swift resolution, as the problem courses very deep: Al Jazeera’s editor, for example,  focuses on humiliation: ‘It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab.’ (Sheikh) Second, blame goes to all. Third, no good purpose is served by dwelling on the costs of colonial exploitation or wrangling endlessly about ancient land claims. This has one miss fleeting opportunities in the immediate present.
What we should be seeking are solutions at once plausible and pragmatic. To get there from here is to first clarify the scene. Then, weigh the leading options. And finally, opt for an option possibly beyond the leaders, and make a case for its implementation.
1) The current scene in the Middle East appears well represented in an unsparing article by Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, in the November-December, 2006, issue of Foreign Affairs. He eschews nebulous diplo-blah-blah, and puts it spot-on: ‘Visions of a new, Europe-like region ‘ peaceful, prosperous, democratic ‘ will not be realized. Much more likely is emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself, the US, and the World.’Looking through a glass darkly, Haass expects that ‘militiazation’ will continue, private armies will emerge, and terrorism will grow in sophistication. ‘Democracy belongs in the distant future, if at all.’ Arab regimes are likely to remain authoritarian, and become more religiously intolerant (and anti-American). Despots will remain propped up by the price of oil: It is far more likely to exceed $100 than fall below $40; Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other large producers will benefit disproportionately.’

Where Palestine is concerned, ‘anything resembling a viable peace process is unlikely for the foreseeable future ‘ the US has lost much of its standing as a credible and honest broker.’ Instead, a new emerging Iran-Israel rivalry appears critical. Iran is likely to seek to remake the entire area in its image, and it has the potential to accomplish this.

Israel will vigorously oppose the effort (especially as Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, has said Israel will be wiped away). ‘Militant groups backed by Tehran seem to be gaining strength all around Israel, bringing Iranian footsteps closer to Israeli ears from inside the Gaza Strip to just across the border in Lebanon.’ (Simpson, A-1) Accordingly, Israel will become Iran’s only significant rival, as for a while, at least, it is the only state in the Middle East with a nuclear arsenal.

2) Given this bleak, if also persuasive assessment of current and prospective developments, the urgency of achieving peace for Palestine would seem greater than ever. Four leading policy options beckon, discussed below in order of their likely implementation. The first policy choice involves an ongoing redefinition of relations between the Palestine Authority and Israel. The second, a step back into willful isolation. The third, a highly risky reframing of the entire matter. And the fourth, an implausible merger of the parties. (There is a fifth option, best considered later)

The first policy option refines the status quo. Today’s undeclared civil war in Gaza and the West Bank could soon have weary Palestinians chose ‘ with lingering ambivalence ‘ between a more moderate Fatah and the more militant Islamists of Hamas. Should the support Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now giving PA President Mahmoud Abbas (freeing up use of embargoed funds, possible release of a large number of prisoners, etc.) have the desired effect, Fatah would soon (honestly) win at the polls. New pro-peace developments could follow, in response to ‘the kind of nonviolence and patient negotiation that the stubborn Mr. Abbas counsels so forlornly.’ (Erlanger)

The problems with this scenario are obvious: Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which favor Israel’s destruction, will do everything possible to undermine an Israel-Palestinian accord, as will Iran’s Islamic Jihad. Israel, in turn, will not tolerate a resumption of urban suicide attacks and rocket damage deep inside the country (as
from long-range missiles smuggled into Lebanon). Accordingly, powerful parties on both sides may yet conclude ‘their aspirations are not amenable to compromise.’ (Schwarz, 32)

Which brings us to a second peace-seeking possibility, one soundly criticized recently by former president Jimmy Carter : Namely, a greater-than-ever divide between the mutually antagonistic sides. (Carter) The separation barrier that now partitions the land, along with strict required passes, is given credit for helping to reduce suicide attacks. A long-standing Israeli belief grows stronger: As the Palestinians lack a functioning government, and as anarchy reins in Gaza, ‘Palestinian dysfunction is now the main limiting factor on any progress in the peace process.’ (Zakaria)

Palestine can have peace-of-a-sort, that is, the cessation of unpredictable Israeli military incursions and air bombings, though at the price of almost complete exclusion from its neighbors’ lives (including being barred from valued jobs in Israel, and from commerce, medical care, schooling, etc.). Avigdor Lieberman, the new deputy prime minister, goes so far as to advocate stripping one million Palestinians living in Israel of citizenship and urging them to leave. (Abunimah)

The problems with this scenario are obvious: The Middle East is too small for any such elaborate divide. Borders are porous, and the inter-dependency of the disputants goes back too many centuries to have them soon achieve any meaningful isolation from one another. The scenario has no winners, only losers.

Accordingly, a third policy option takes the form of a preemptive move. Able to anticipate everything spelled out above, especially its threat to Middle East oil access, the EU, and/or NATO and/or the UN might employ a large well-armed ‘peace-keeping’ force (Saudi, Egyptian, and Iraqi leaders would presumably first assent). NATO and/ or UN ‘blue helmet’ troops (bolstered by EU funds and do-gooders)  would arrive to negotiate and supervise a new partition of the land.

The problems with this scenario are obvious: As the mess in Iraq makes clear, any occupying force almost immediately becomes unwelcome, and becomes itself the target for violence. Second, neither the EU nor the UN has any inclination to get bogged down in the Middle East. And third, it is most likely to result only first in a hudna (tactical truce), and inevitably later in catastrophe.

Finally, there is the option of creating a single bi-national state to combine both Israel and Palestine. Based on the principle of one person, one vote, it would presumably model for the world the ability of once-antagonistic peoples learning to accommodate one another for the larger good.

The problems with this scenario are obvious: Israelis know full well Yasir Arafat’s adage that the Palestinians’ best weapon is the womb. They fear that in very few decades the high population-growth rate of new Arab citizens would swamp Jewish interests, and Israelis would find themselves a besieged minority in their former homeland ‘ a scenario that evokes ‘Never Again!’ images of the Holocaust.

3) If the status quo is untenable, as are also four leading options (reframed rivalries, intensified separation, outsider intervention, and a One State Solution), what is there left’ Contrary to those who ruefully note that history shows many problems have no solution, the Palestine Challenge might be alleviated, if not resolved, by a multi- party approach.

Americans must help pave the way by reducing reliance on Arab oil fields. Only when the price of a barrel slides significantly down will Arab governments be forced to modernize their countries, and thereby reduce the power of Islamic fanatics within and outside their borders. Moderate Islamist will thereby gain the ear of the Street, and fresh pro-peace thinking may gain supporters.

Second, European countries must rapidly grant significant economic opportunity to their young Muslims, who, ‘if granted economic opportunities by their host societies could create a model of tolerant, prosperous Islam that reverberates across the globe.’ (Beinart, 126)

While all of this is occurring, Israel must sensitively, but firmly withdraw over 200,000 citizens from their 40-year old settlements in the occupied West Bank. This time, unlike Gaza in 2005, it should be done in cooperation with a stable and responsible Palestinian government (one that has extreme terrorist groups under fierce control). Israel must also give up East Jerusalem, and predominantly Arab areas within its pre-1967 borders.

Only in this way can a contiguous, sound, and viable Palestine finally emerge, one strong in law and order’ and equal to negotiating a financial compensation-for-land scheme, rather than a land grab, for 700,000 displaced Palestinians and their 5 million or so descendants.

Naturally, concessions must be agreed to beforehand that will permit a continued Israeli presence in a very few West Bank enclaves, along with guarantees of personal safety, etc. In return, Israel must step up any and all aid both in and outside its borders to Palestinian schooling, employment, and institutional infrastructure. For ‘in few places in the world do conditions more demand that two people develop a symbiotic relationship ” (Schwartz, 32)

Wishful thinking’ No, as many moderates quietly, if also persistently, support such a course of action (outstanding here is Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni). It will take almost impossible to-ask bravery and life-risking actions of the area’s many moderates ‘ Palestinian, Israeli, and others – to finally help renew the entire Middle East. For as journalist Tom Friedman has advised President Bush, ‘whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can’t want it more than they do.’


Abunimah, Ali. ‘ ‘ And a Palestinian One.’ Wall Street Journal,
December 26, 2006. p. A-12.

Beinart, Peter. ‘Backfire.’ The Atlantic Monthly, March 2005. Pp.
121-126. (review of The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, by
Giles Kelep).

Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2006.

Erlanger, Steven. ‘In Abbas, Western Hopes Hang on Thin Reed.’ New
York Times, December 19, 2006. P. A-8.

Friedman, Thomas L. ‘Mideast Rules to Live By.’ New York Times,
December 20, 2006. p. A-29.

Haass, Richard. ‘The New Middle East.’ Foreign Affairs, 85:6,
November-December 2006. Pp. 2-11.

Schwartz, Benjamin. ‘Will Israel Live to 100” The Atlantic
Monthly, May 2005. Pp. 29-32.

Sheikh, Ahmed. As quoted in Friedman, op. cit..

Simpson, Cam. ‘Israeli Citizens Struggle Amid Iran’s Nuclear
Vow. ‘ Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2006. Pp. A-1, 6.

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘The Things That Have Not Changed.’ Newsweek,
January 16, 2006. p. 37.

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