In 1973, the great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously said, “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” With great respect, I must disagree. Ambassador Eban, who earned a “triple first” at Cambridge, was the personification of the liberal scholar-statesman. Steeped in the traditions of the European Enlightenment, he interpreted Arab conduct from his own vantage point, from which people naturally take advantage of opportunities that would improve political, social and economic conditions for themselves and their children.
The Arab and Palestinian leadership, however, has never viewed the prospect of improving the lives of Palestinians as an “opportunity” – at least if that improvement might have the side-effect of undermining the Palestinians’ continuing challenge to the Jewish state and the claimed right to “return” to Israel. Not even their own fundamental interests to live normal lives have trumped that mythic goal.
This destructive mindset has a long history.
After rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947 and failing to crush the nascent Jewish state, the Arabs failed to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza (which they controlled). Indeed, the Arabs and Palestinian leadership sought to ensure that approximately 700,000 Palestinians who either had left or been forced from their homes, as well as their descendants, remained in perpetual refugee status. As long as Palestinian lives remained in limbo, the war against the Jewish state would never be over.
Notably, in the wake of World War II, there were tens of millions of refugees who the international community resettled into host countries. These people, all of whom had tortured experiences and deep grievances, nonetheless began new lives. Not surprisingly, the international community long ago put aside their wrenching stories of displacement and expulsion.
The exception, of course, was the Palestinians. The UN established a special relief agency for them alone, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). Unlike the other post-World War II refugees, under UNRWA’s patronage the Palestinians have remained refugees despite their common language, religion, and cultural heritage with the people of their host countries. According to UNRWA, Palestinian refugees now number five million.
The Arab and Palestinian leadership, with the UN’s help, was brilliant in ensuring that the world would never forget Palestinian refugee story and, indeed, it is as fresh today as it was in 1948.
A 1959 news report, gleaned from the New York Times archive, provides a revealing illustration of this cynical public relations stunt, which was as destructive as it was effective.
That year, then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold proposed a massive international development project to resettle Palestinian refugees. As the Times reported on August 9, 1959, Mr. Hammarskjold suggested that $1.5 – $2 billion (approximately $11-$15 billion in 2014 dollars) be spent over the next five years to “make productive jobs for the 1,000,000 refugees in Arab lands.”
It was not to be. The Arab League, supported by Palestinian refugee leaders, opposed the UN plan. They not only rejected the development concept, they demanded that UNRWA “drop all of its resettlement operations and become exclusively a relief agency.” Echoing exactly what we hear from today’s Palestinian leadership, the Arabs insisted that refugees be permitted to return to homes in Israel or receive compensation if they chose not to.
The Times story left no doubt as to what motivated the Arabs’ position:
Their objection to proposals for economic development for refugees is that such development would make permanent the refugees’ present homes. The Arabs feel this would prejudice refugees’ claims to their old homes.
The Hammarskjold plan went nowhere, although the demands of the Palestinian leadership became a reality. UNRWA would have no role in resettling Palestinians and it would function solely as a relief agency. Palestinians, under UNRWA, would remain stateless and dependent on the international dole indefinitely “in the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem.” (Quotation from the UNRWA Web site).
Ancient history? Afraid not. One way or another, Palestinians have repeated history and spurned statehood in favor of continued statelessness. Notably, Chairman Yasser Arafat walked away from President Bill Clinton’s end-of-conflict “parameters” in late 2000. President Mahmoud Abbas did the same in response to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s even more generous proposal in 2008.
Perhaps most telling is Gaza.
Israeli military forces and civilians left Gaza in 2005. Palestinians were free to have formed a proto-state. They could have established in Gaza a model for Palestinian independence on the West Bank. That is exactly what did not happen.
As Israel pulled out, Gazans destroyed the agricultural infrastructure that Israel had left behind; Hamas took over and turned Gaza into a rocket base against Israel. Blockade and war were the inevitable, indeed, intended results.
As far as the international community was concerned, it seemingly took no account of the significance of the Palestinian’s destructive response to the Israeli pullout. While, true to form, Palestinians did not view Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as an “opportunity” to start new lives, it is shocking and disheartening that the international community took much the same approach.
Rather than insisting that its economic largess be conditioned on demilitarizing Gaza and developing Gaza into a legitimate proto-state, the international community has tacitly accepted and, in some instances, embraced the Hamas terrorists who rule the Strip. And in so doing, much of the international community and media have sought to demonize Israel and to frame the conflict in the hyper-simplistic terms of “West Bank settlements.”
The message from Gaza, has not been lost on Israelis. The notion that, at this point, Israel would cede the West Bank to Palestinians seems preposterous. The international community is largely deaf to the message heard clearly by Israelis.
Is there a path forward? Perhaps. Just as the international community has long told Israel what it believes to be the truth about West Bank settlement activity, it must finally tell the truth to Gazans: No more rockets. No more tunnels. No more terror. International funds will flow only if Palestinians construct a civil society in Gaza where they can build normal lives for themselves and their children and coexist with Israel.
Gaza, in fact, remains an opportunity for Palestinians to demonstrate that a two-state solution is viable. They can still develop what amounts to a “pilot program” for Palestinian independence. Doing so would not be an abandonment of Palestinian opposition to Israel’s control of the West Bank. To the contrary, the peaceful development of Gaza would be the Palestinians’ best hope for finding a solution to it.
But this requires Palestinians and their leadership to abandon the most enduring and destructive component of their narrative: that the war of 1948 was their Nabka (catastrophe) and they will reject anything – including building their own lives – that acknowledges the reality of the Jewish state and compromises their so-called “personal” right to return to Israel.
While it may not be surprising that Palestinians still refuse to move beyond their Nabka, the true catastrophe is that the international community continues to enable this dysfunction. Ambassador Eban may not have fully fathomed the Arabs. His analysis, however, was spot on when applied to those in the international community who purport to seek a just solution but, in reality, perpetuate the conflict.