At the heart of the Washington think tank establishment, the idea of Israeli security as a counterbalance to the settlements issue has finally achieved some long overdue traction. For Liberals, the settlements have always been the main culprit preventing a successful culmination to the so-called two-state solution. For this reason, large chunks of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have in recent years become estranged from Israel. But the two-state solution was never originally an Israeli idea. It was a PLO idea. And it was firmly, yet somewhat covertly, linked to the idea of ‘phased struggle’.
After the events of “Black September”, when the PLO failed to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy, a federation plan was proposed to loosely link the West Bank to the Hashemite Kingdom. Under the control of the king, this loose federation was an open challenge to the political ascendency of both the PLO and its vast body of support on the West Bank. The struggle for Palestine has always been a three-way affair between the Hashemites, the Palestinians and the Jews of Israel. The control over the future of the West Bank, between Jordan and the PLO, was the tiny seed which gave birth to not only Oslo, but also an entire industry of “peacemaking” books, publications and careers. Great chunks of the Washington establishment (especially on the left) have devoted decades to promoting the idea of the two-state solution.
At the time that the king of Jordan proposed his federation plan (1972), the PLO was considered exclusively to be a terrorist/liberation organization. From the moment of their inception, the PLO leaders had made their goals crystal clear. Palestine was to be liberated in total. The only map that counted for the PLO, previous to Jordan’s federation plan, was the map of the original Mandate for Palestine (stretching from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean Sea). The federation plan dramatically changed the PLO’s calculus. After their defeat in Black September, the PLO needed a new strategy to remain relevant. With the king of Jordan’s new federation initiative, the prospect of a return to the West Bank by Jordanian authorities would mean a complete diplomatic defeat for Arafat and his confederates. In the very shadow of their military debacle in Jordan, the PLO knew that a Hashemite return to the West Bank spelled total disaster.
Arafat’s new strategy had international, regional and local planks. On the international level, he needed to convince the Washington establishment that nothing could be done without him. In doing this, he first secured the support of the Soviet Union and also, through the offices of UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, an eventual hearing before that body’s General Assembly. On the regional level, Arafat worked with individual leaders as well as the Arab League. On this level, his tireless efforts succeeded with the Rabat Conference’s decision to name the PLO as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Locally, this designation changed everything. From that moment on, the idea that the monarchy in Jordan could ever again control the West Bank — without a firm Palestinian commitment to allow the king back — was gone. But how was the PLO ever to achieve a foothold on the West Bank? It had no military option. And as a terrorist/liberation organization, it had very little connection to the West.
Enter the ‘phased plan’. Under this strategic scheme, liberation would come in stages. First, the West Bank would somehow be liberated and used as a base for the eventual defeat of both Israel and Jordan. This strategy would take decades to achieve, but at least it possessed a hint of realism. Certainly it had its contradictions. But it also (at the time) offered the Palestinian people a vague sense of hope. The key questions (which to this day are still unanswered) are what to do about the 1948 refugees and, most importantly, how to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank without a strong commitment to formally (under a strict internationally sanctioned treaty) end the conflict. Also, to achieve the ‘phased plan’ Arafat needed to recognize the Jewish State of Israel and compromise completely in order to adjust the West Bank to meet Israel’s legitimate security needs. How could this possibly get done and keep the ‘phased plan’ viable?
In 1988, after years of isolation in Tunis, Arafat still hadn’t answered any of these questions. Yet he claimed, before Western liberal audiences, that he finally adhered to the security stipulations inherent in UN Resolution 242. Within five years, on the White House lawn in 1993, the wily Palestinian leader shook the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and agreed fully to both 242 and therefore Israel’s right to exist within a new eastern border security framework. The old security border was only nine miles wide and indefensible. In other words, Israel was poised to give up some of the land (if not most of it) in exchange for a new security paradigm. That was the essence of the two-state solution, land for security. However, not everyone in Israel bought into the deal. Hanging over Oslo for the last twenty-one years (even with Arafat’s reassuring words) has been the PLO’s “phased plan”. On the Israeli center and right, the settlements project has become a kind of insurance policy against a naïve Europe or innocent US administration (Obama is perhaps an example) to weaken the security element of the deal. On the Israeli left, the first settlements were built exclusively in essential security zones on the Golan Heights and in the Jordan River Valley. But now, after two decades and three extensive diplomatic negotiations — 2000, 2008 and 2013-2014 — the Palestinian side has continued to remain mute on the idea of Israeli security on the Jordan River.
There can be only one explanation for the failure of the Palestinian side to even offer a map or an alternative during the twenty years of Oslo two-state negotiations; the Palestinians are committed to ‘phased struggle’. Without a complete return of all the West Bank, the phased plan makes no sense. Every cab driver on the West Bank understands that the two-state solution was merely a cover for the future liberation of all the territories. Only on the far left and in Washington were Arafat and Abbas taken seriously. Now, of course, the Palestinian people have grown cynical about Oslo’s failure to deliver. That is, to deliver the Jewish state within a security framework that Hamas, the Jordanian Brotherhood, ISIS and/or Iran could eventually use to drive Israel into the sea.
But maybe, just maybe, the Washington establishment is starting to wake up. Writing in the bible of the liberal Democratic Party, the New York Times, esteemed insider Dennis Ross had these choice words to say on January 4, 2015: “It is time to stop giving the Palestinians a pass” (on Israel’s security). “Peace requires accountability on both sides. It’s fair to ask the Israelis to accept the basic elements that make peace possible — 1967 lines as well as land swaps and settlement building limited to the blocks. But isn’t it time to demand the equivalent of the Palestinians on two states for two peoples, and on Israeli security? Isn’t it time to ask the Palestinians to respond to proposals and accept resolutions that address Israeli needs and not just their own?”
The problem is that it is long past time. The old Arafat ploy, that demilitarization meant that Israel not fear Palestinian control of the Jordan River Valley, was never accepted by anyone in Jerusalem’s security establishment. After all this time, one can only assume that Hamas, the Jordanian Brotherhood and the PLO don’t want peace. They want liberation, and they are willing to wait a very long time in order to get it. If the West (Europe and the US) really desires peace, the question of Palestinian ‘phased struggle’ must be addressed in all its variations. UN 242 can be the only basis on which negotiations can ever be successful. The future of the territories can only be decided through direct negotiations. Israel’s security interests are firmly planted in international law. The only way to proceed is to deny the Palestinians the long game by assuring all parties concerned that the final outcome of any negotiation can never advantage the Arab and Islamic world from a military perspective. In reality, Israel is the only Jewish state in the world. Jewish history is filled with centuries of diaspora and oppression, and Israel is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Muslims in fifty-two sovereign nation-states. Is it any wonder that the Palestinians are willing to play the long game of ‘phased struggle’?
It is time for the left to wake up to reality. The so-called two-state solution is a lot like the moon; the other side of it has always been hidden. Washington needs to examine the PLO’s ‘phased struggle’ strategy before making any more claims that its “peace process” is “the only game in town”. Perhaps a whole new paradigm might be in order.