There has been a lot of great writing about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The best primer may very well be Ben Birnbaum’s article (“Here’s What John Kerry’s Peace Settlement Will Look Like (Probably)”) for the New Republic. Put simply, Birnbaum’s piece lays out the facts. However, beyond the facts, there are other important things to consider:
Perhaps there is hope for the Kerry-brokered talks. To start, only 3.6% of West Bank Palestinians were born before the Nakba of 1948, and only a tiny subset of that group can even remember it. The past, in the symbolic form of the keys to homes lost in the war, has slowly been slipping through the hands of the Palestinian public. It is impossible be precise, but it is likely that over 70% of West Bank Palestinians were not witnesses to the 1967 conquest of that territory either. The fabled front door key the Palestinians held on to for their previous homes in Israel proper—the key that Palestinian refugees hung around their necks—may be a relic of no real import to the vast majority of Palestinians today. This demographic reality could have a profound effect on the progress of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Palestinian population is very young and fast-growing. This has alarmed Israelis and given rise to the “demographic time bomb” theory of the occupation—that eventually the Israeli occupation will go on so long that the growing Palestinian population will vastly outnumber the Jewish population of Israel, rendering Israel a de facto non-Jewish state. Yet the fact that most of the Palestinian population is relatively young can be seen as an opportunity for Israel. The life these Palestinians lead in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Jenin is the only life they know. Unlike their parents or grandparents, Jaffa, Haifa and the western hills of Jerusalem are unknown to them. In the age of the separation barrier, only a small number of Palestinians go to work in Israel. Most Palestinians have no geographic reality of the Jewish state. The longing for their past lands cannot be as acute or poignant as it was to the generation actually displaced from their houses in the cities or landholdings in the rural areas.
Since the Nakba, the Palestinian goal has always been the complete recapture of all of historic Palestine—until the Oslo Accords. For all the faults of that agreement, it did forever change the tone among PLO/Fatah officials and many Palestinians. Since then and until today, these Palestinians differentiate between 1948 Palestine (“from the river to the sea”) and 1967 Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), focusing more on the Palestinian claim to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. This is in stark contrast to Hamas in Gaza, whose stated goal is resistance in order to recapture all of Palestine. Abbas and Fatah do not make this case in diplomatic forums. If they did, peace talks would last less than a minute (or indeed would not convene at all). What has been offered and dithered about in past negotiations are the boundaries of a West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestine.
The young of Palestine’s West Bank have broken a centuries-old rural and traditional way of life. Today there is greater cultural, economic and worldly expectation and thus more discontinuity with previous generations than at any time in Palestinian history. The software developers and the medical and engineering students are not living the same lives as even those Palestinians just a generation older than them. They are making a life for themselves as citizens of a modern world. Even in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the desire for a connection to the internet world is strong.
It is these young people—the future of the Palestinian people—for whom Abbas is trying to negotiate. The truly displaced Palestinians are mostly gone. The Palestinians have also seen real Middle East-style defiance and determination on the part of the Jews in Israel. In spite of at least four wars and decades of horrific terror and international vilification, the Jews are still there; there are more of them and they are prosperous. With the complete collapse of Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya there is not even much of a military threat. The only people that can save the Palestinians are the Palestinians. Hamas and Hezbollah have been weakened by regional developments. Hamas, with the closing of the smuggling tunnels, may soon need food relief. Hezbollah is isolated and racked by divisions of their own making. These facts, while not published in the Palestinian press, are known and subtly understood in the region.
The corollary of all of this is that it may make negotiations more productive.
Additionally, as every Palestinian knows, in a tradition going back to the Babylonians, the Romans and then the Turks, every act of rebellion has been followed by loss of land and freedom greater than before. The separation wall is only the latest manifestation of this trend. Violent resistance means sure defeat and more setbacks.
The old Arab onlookers who composed the bellicose resistance front, such as Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Assad are gone or otherwise engaged. There really is no firebrand Arab leader who can single-handedly rouse the Arab world against the Palestinian leader who dares to make a deal with Israel. Former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s explanation to Israeli and Western diplomats that “they will kill me” if he were to make peace with Israel may not hold much water anymore.
Young Palestinians have only known failure: the failure to secure the past lands lost, the failure to unite themselves into a whole nation, the failure to get out from under a humiliating and stifling occupation and the failure of the Arab and Muslim countries to mount one successful endeavor to help them. This is the unspoken mindset that demands change in the Palestinian cause and strategy. More of the same will only condemn another generation of Palestinians to a stunted, incomplete future.
On the negative side of the talks is that any concessions on the part of the Israelis that are of real sacrifice and strategic value will only increase Palestinian demands for more. The built-up Palestinian frustrations outlined above could come gushing out in a torrent of demands that cannot be met. That is a real possibility. Hopefully, as in all negotiations, half a loaf will be better than none and compromise will shine a light into the darkness of the Palestinians’ current reality.