The US-led Bahrain economic conference not only cemented Israeli relations with some Arab states, it also reflected the aspirations of many West Bank Palestinians. As the New York Times reporter Isabel Kirschner noted, “pocketbook issues are taking priority over protests.” She quoted Muhammad Abu Rahma who had served three terms in prison for his activities at the height of the protests. But now, at 33, he has a family and a job as a garbage collector. “People want money to live, and permits,” he said, referring to the Israeli permits allowing laborers to work in Israel.
The conference, however, only brought out venomous rejections from the Palestinian leadership and their allies. They claim that a political settlement that includes an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capitol must happen first. The Palestinian authority pressured Palestinians to not attend the conference and have taken actions against the few who did. A government official said that the Palestinian businessmen’s participation in the conference was “tantamount to betrayal,” adding that Palestinian law punishes those who betray their homeland.
PLO leader Abbas’ claim that he supports a two-state solution is unquestioned by the major European powers and liberal Jews in the US. These groups fault the Israeli government for the impasse. However, suppose that Israel agreed to a Palestinian state in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the all of the West Bank except allowing the major Jewish settlements near Jerusalem to be transferred to Israel as part of a land swap; something previous Israeli governments had agreed to. Do you really think that Abbas would now agree to that?
If, in addition, it did not include unlimited return of those with refugee status, how would this change the lives of the more than half million Palestinians living in UN Lebanese refugee camps – more than 90 percent of whom were born in Lebanon. Across the countries in which the UN administers to Palestinian refugees, “Lebanon has the highest percentage of refugees living in abject poverty.” These Palestinians can only gain better lives by improving their situation in Lebanon – given them the ability to go to Lebanese schools and universities and work at jobs that require citizenship.
However, as long as they have refugee status, they cannot become Lebanese citizens and so are consigned to refugee camps which resemble open-air prisons. Not surprisingly, the Lebanese government strongly rejected the billions of dollars promised at the Bahrain conference to improve the economic and educational situation of these Lebamese Palestinians; for as Aaron S. notes, “Their fear is that it will force their hand to accept the definitive inclusion of the Palestinians who have lived as refugees in the country since the creation of Israel in 1948.” Thus, Lebanon would reject any settlement that would require its Palestinian refugees to have permanent Lebanese residency.
Would this settlement appease Hamas or Hezbollah? Neither party accepts a two-state solution. Indeed, Hamas has steadfastly rejected renouncing armed struggle despite the economic benefits it would bring to Gazans. How then could Abbas actually agree to a treaty that accepts two states where only a very limited number of Palestinians could relocate to Israel? He would immediately be branded a traitor to the Palestinian cause and likely be toppled. This, of course, is the reason that Abbas had never seriously considered negotiations and instead promotes jihadism through textbooks, ceremonies, and payment to families of fallen terrorists.
Next there is the issue of Jewish residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Currently, the Europeans and liberal Americans have no problem with requiring that the Palestinian state to be Judenrein whereby all Jews must be evacuated save for those living in the settlement blocs adjacent to Jerusalem. It is one thing to transfer modest numbers from the isolated settlements but what about those who live surrounding Hebron; the heart of biblical Israel with a number of deeply-held religious sites, none more important that the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Just as relevant would be the uprooting of Jewish families living in East Jerusalem. Should these forced transfers be rationalized by the EU and liberals in the US?
In addition, there is the issue of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, particularly those on the Israeli side of the wall. This is a population that lives under the rule of law administered through an independent judiciary, something that is not the case in Gaza and even much of the West Bank. It is a community that has substantial healthcare and educational opportunities, as well as being increasingly integrated into the Israeli fabric. Certainly, if they could keep these Israeli benefits, East Jerusalem Palestinians would accept becoming legally part of an independent Palestinian entity.
It is not clear, however, how they would react if the price of being part of the Palestinian state would be to lose all the economic, social, and educational benefits of being a part of Israel. This would particularly be the case for Palestinian women and members of the LGBTQ community. A recent BBC poll found that among Palestinians living in the West Bank, more supported honor killings than LGBTQ rights. In Israel, Palestinian women have more access to education and employment than elsewhere and the LGBTQ community’s unparalleled acceptance by the state. Indeed, even rightwing Likud just appointed an openly gay man to a cabinet post. Thus, the Palestinian demand for East Jerusalem, would not sit well with many of its Palestinian residents if it meant losing the benefits they have as being part of Israel.
The EU and UN appear to be unwilling to force changes in Palestinian textbooks, to withhold funds as long as Abbas insists on honoring terrorists, or to support a transition away from refugee status for those living in refugee camps – demanding for instance that Palestinians born in Lebanon should have all the rights of Lebanese citizens. As long as the EU and the UN put no pressure on Abbas, he will never seriously negotiate a two-state solution and simply try to hold hostage any attempts to change the status quo.