Peace with Israel creates an existential problem: Palestinian identity has become defined solely in terms of conflict with Israel; how can the Palestinians give up the conflict without giving up the key to their identity?
As John Kerry and Barack Obama’s Middle East peace initiative goes through its death throes, reams of obituaries are already being written.
Many are concluding that the cause of death was a breach of the terms of the negotiations by one side or another: it was the Palestinians joining UN-affiliated conventions; no, it was the Israeli announcement of new housing in disputed territory; rather, it was Mahmoud Abbas’s “Three No’s”; of course, it was Israel’s suspension of releasing another round of terror prisoners.
But those are all merely symptoms. The larger truth is that peace is not a function of John Kerry finding that elusive magic formulation of compromise acceptable to both sides. No, real peace can be achieved when and only when it is in the interest of the parties to achieve it.
And right now, pessimistic as it may sound, reaching a peace agreement with Israel is not in the interest of the Palestinians. But it is in the interest of the Palestinians to say they want to reach an agreement. Keeping these two principles in mind, one can understand the arc of the peace process, from optimistic beginning to messy flame-out.
First, the Palestinian leadership has too much riding on the existing conflict to risk ruining it all with a peace treaty.
Perks of the Palestinian Authority include fawning foreign leaders, international celebrity status, globetrotting to collect more foreign aid than any people in history, and — best of all for politicians — zero expectation of successful governance: “The Occupation” serves as an all-purpose excuse for everything from failure to stop terror to perennial economic basket-case status.
Billions of dollars in international aid plus rampant graft and corruption have made the leadership wealthy, with Abbas alone having amassed a fortune estimated at $100 million. Much of that aid and that lavish attention would dry up if there were no more conflict with Israel, and the West Bank were just another poor Arab country.
Of course, another disincentive to peace is the not insignificant risk of assassination of any Palestinian leaders who sign a final peace treaty with Israel.
Second, even for the larger Palestinian population, peace with Israel creates an existential problem: Palestinian identity has become defined solely in terms of conflict with Israel; how can the Palestinians give up the conflict without giving up the key to their identity?
The intertwined messages of Palestinian identity run deep. Palestinians see themselves as being in a zero-sum struggle with Zionism (a struggle that pre-dates the creation of the State of Israel). They see Israel as a temporary, illegitimate entity to be overthrown. And unlike other worldwide refugees, Palestinian refugee status is inheritable, an integral part of their identity passed down through generations.
The entire thrust of Palestinian public culture is of victimhood by and struggle against Israel. From textbooks to television, from schools to summer camps, messages of incitement against Israel are drummed into the populace. Terrorists against Israel are lionised; the most brutal and “successful” murderers of Israelis are honoured in the naming of everything from parks and streets to soccer tournaments.
But by absorbing these messages, Palestinians have painted themselves into a corner, creating only a negative identity. They define themselves not by who they are, but by who they are against. Who are the Palestinian role models? Who are their cultural heroes? Are there any who are not somehow connected to violent struggle against Israel? Outside of the context of the battle with Israel, what does being Palestinian mean today?
Abbas reportedly issued three “No’s” in his meeting last month with President Obama: no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; no giving up on the “right of return” of millions of Palestinian descendants of 1948 refugees to Israel; and no final end to the conflict with Israel in any agreement.
Those three “No’s” were no surprise. A “Yes” on any of those issues would give Jewish Israel legitimacy and permanence, and thus would be wholly inconsistent with Palestinian identity. Even though, from a practical standpoint, recognition of a Jewish state of Israel would cost the Palestinians nothing, it would undermine the basic tenets of Palestinianism.
The Palestinians have been offered a state three times since 2000 on virtually all of the disputed territories. They have rejected each offer. They cannot accept a “two states for two peoples” formula without compromising who they are.
That is not to say they will not negotiate. A willingness to talk with Israel is the price to be paid for international aid, legitimacy and pressure against Israel. Besides, talking pays dividends. From the Oslo agreement to the current prisoner releases, the Palestinians have won huge concessions from Israel just by negotiating–without giving up any of their core principles.
Thus, the peace process exists because the Palestinians are willing to make all manner of interim agreements with Israel that give them land or release prisoners. But beyond that point, the process is moribund: in its current form, Palestinianism does not allow for any agreement that permanently ends the conflict in a way that leaves Jewish Israel in place.
The Kerry/Obama initiative thus joins the crowded graveyard of past efforts to simply negotiate away this intractable dispute. RIP.