Needed – a transformative Palestinian leader

US President Donald Trump has expressed confidence about his ability to help reach the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. However, if “ultimate deal” means a durable end-of-conflict agreement, the emergence of new Palestinian leader is going to be essential.  This is not because Mahmoud Abbas, the long-serving President of the Palestinian Authority, is 82 years old.  Rather, it is because of his long-standing embrace of a Palestinian narrative, replete with historical falsehoods,  that rejects the legitimacy of Israel.  Thus, it was no surprise that in 2008 he chose not to accept Ehud Olmert’s generous offer of a two-state agreement.  Speeches by Abbas at UN and EU forums have regularly been filled with harsh, anti-Israel invective, and the Palestinian Authority that he heads has strongly pushed the recent Orwellian UNESCO resolutions against Israel.

Abbas is the product of 100 years of Palestinian irredentist rejection of the national rights of Jews in Israel.  The Palestinian narrative fosters a culture of violence, honors murderers of Jews, and nurtures a sense of victimhood that blames others for their own failings.  Palestinian educational curricula, media, and clerics emphasize the messages that Jews have no historical roots in Israel and Jerusalem, that Israel is a colonial entity bound to disappear, much as the Crusader kingdom did nearly a millennium ago,  and that all of the land “between the river and the sea” is Palestine.

This narrative is totally inimical to a peaceful two-state solution.  Either it assures repeated rejection of an agreement or, if Palestinians do accept an agreement, such a narrative will encourage them to devote resources and efforts to undermining or attacking Israel when opportune, despite the agreement.

Unfortunately, judging from repeated Palestinian public opinion polls, the constant reinforcement of this narrative has been highly successful:  Most rank and file Palestinians reject the legitimacy of Israel within any borders.  Daniel Polisar, an Israeli political scientist with excellent credentials, has performed an important service in the last two years by publishing two articles in Mosiac that carefully review Palestinian public opinion as recorded in numerous surveys undertaken by reputable Palestinian and U.S.-based researchers.  His results show the extent of Palestinian rejectionism.   Following are some examples:

*  A 2015 poll asked Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: “Do you think that Jews have some rights to the land along with Palestinians?”  More than 80 percent asserted that ‘This is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it.'”

*  A 2014 poll asked what was the main Palestinian goal over five years.  Ten percent supported a “one-state solution”;  27% favored a “two-state solution”;  and  60% chose “to work towards reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea.”

*  On 16 different occasions Palestinians were asked, assuming there were a Palestinian state, whether they would accept adoption of a “school curriculum in the Palestinian state that recognizes Israel and teaches school children not to demand return of all of Palestine to the Palestinians.”  An overwhelming majority, 88% on average, answered “no.”

In his second article Polisar focused on whether the Palestinian public favors a two-state agreement, a widely held presumption  He found, in 14 of 16 separate surveys,  more opposition than support for a package of provisions more generous than the Israeli government has offered.  There was also opposition to various individual provisions (such as a demilitarized Palestinian state, Israel maintaining warning stations for 15 years, and East Jerusalem serving as the capital of the Palestinian state) commonly assumed by many Western diplomats to be part of such a solution. These results suggest that the argument that a durable solution could be reached if only Israel would agree to X, Y and Z  is simplistic and erroneous.

A poll of Israeli Jews undertaken by Mina Tzemach for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs was published in March 2017. Israeli security control of the West Bank was found to be of great importance to respondents.  This is understandable because Israel’s heartland would be highly vulnerable to attacks were there a Palestinian state in much of Judea and Samaria.  Responses to the various survey questions showed that the maximum offer that Israelis would support falls well short of the minimum that Palestinians would support, as indicated by Polisar’s analysis.  This lack of overlap bodes ill for cheery optimism that a deal is possible.

For a variety of reasons, including awareness of Palestinian public opinion, Israelis are deeply skeptical about Palestinian intentions.  Consider the responses to the following Mina Tzemach question: “Do you believe or not believe that an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines would bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians?”  Even though a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines is well beyond what any Israeli government would offer, more than 79% of the respondents did not believe that this would end the conflict, with only 12% responding in the affirmative.

How can this warranted Israeli skepticism be overcome?

What is needed is the emergence of a Palestinian leader who will work to fundamentally reform Palestinian culture, beliefs, and educational strategy.  A successful social/educational transformation will, of course, take time.  The new Palestinian ethos would have to include acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jews and acknowledge the historical roots of the Jewish people in Israel and Jerusalem.   While some people have argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is just his own deal-breaker, Mina Tzemach’s survey found that 71% of Jewish Israelis think that the establishment of a Palestinian state “should be conditioned on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.”  Palestinians  need to embrace partition as a long-run goal and not just an interim stage.  Neither the current Palestinian leadership nor the general Palestinian population, as shown by the survey results, appear at all ready to do so at present.

Historically, constructive, transformative leaders have emerged from time to time: Peter the Great, Otto von Bismarck, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, David Ben-Gurion, and Nelson Mandela, to name a few.  Do any of the Palestinians often touted as a possible successor to Mahmoud Abbas (such as Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, or any of the Hamas strongmen) have what it would take to bring about such a transformation?   Judging by their public records, it seems highly unlikely, even if the ascension to power can sometimes lead to unexpected changes of priorities.

In the event, the Palestinian leader is Abbas.  Despite Trump’s self-confidence, it seems clear that if any deal is reached as a result of renewed negotiations it will be an interim rather than an end-of-conflict agreement.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.
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