Jerusalem – Next week, unless another twist of history prevails, President Abu Mazen will become the fulfiller of an old dream: the establishment of a Palestinian state. It will be a triumphant moment for many, the end of an era and a reason to wave the thousands of Palestinian flags woven in recent weeks. The world has been entranced with this small piece of land that has triggered too much blood and attention. Finally, one would hope, all of that would come to an end. Or, will it be to another dead end?
A short review of history revels that the “unprecedented moment of Palestine” occurred three times already and that a recognized government of Palestine has already been in office. This, of course, did not help the Palestinian people who were dispersed in the region under the yoke of Egypt, Jordan and, later, Israel. This moment might not be different.
In September of 1948 –in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war- the first All-Palestine Government was formed in Gaza. Its leader, the Jerusalem Mufti, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, unilaterally declared the independence of Palestine with Jerusalem its capital. The new state formed a government, issued passports but failed to gain recognition even amongst other Arab states. Nine years later, in 1959, the All-Palestine Government was annulled by no less than President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt who claimed that it failed to successfully advance the Palestinian cause.
But the Palestinian National Movement persisted. In 1964 it formed the Palestine Liberation Organization with its goal to create a Palestinian state. The original Palestine National Charter declared that “Palestine with its boundaries at the time of the British Mandate [i.e the land that includes the state of Israel N.B] is a regional indivisible unit” and affirmed the commitment to “continue its struggle and to move forward on the path of holy war until complete and final victory has been attained”. That unilateral statement did also not result in a Palestinian state. On the contrary, 6 years later, when the PLO attempted to assert independence and rebel against the Jordanians it ended up expelled from the country that is the home to the largest Palestinian population in the region.
On November 15, 1988, the Palestinians went a step further and a Palestinian state was again proclaimed by Yasser Arafat at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers. Although Arafat, the leader of the PLO, declared that he believes in the settlement of regional and international disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with the UN Charter and resolutions, the declaration actually praised this new phase of Palestinian straggle: “Our hearts are lifted up and irradiated by the light emanating from the much blessed intifada, from those who have endured and have fought the fight of the camps, of dispersion, of exile… we pledge that our struggle shall be continued.”
One hundred nations recognized an Arab Palestinian state in 1988. But little had changed on the ground as the Palestinians grew in numbers and became more dependent on the good services of international agencies as UNRAW and USAID.
Time has passed and, at last – following the first Intifada – a path of negotiation began. The Oslo agreement was signed and consequent agreements were codified between Israel and the newly established Palestinian authority. In the year 2000, during Camp David accords, Palestine appeared closer than ever. But alas, an agreement was replaced with another bloody phase of armed struggle as negotiations failed.
Another decade has passed and the Palestinians appear to be ready yet again to unilaterally declare statehood. In a speech delivered last week, President Abbas declared “we are trying to get a full membership in the UN, on the 67 borders, so we will be able, afterwards, to go back to negotiations.” For the Palestinians who have thus far refused to return to the negotiation table, this appears as win-win strategy: On the one hand, any move on the international front will strengthen their ability to pressure Israel by legal means and via UN related bodies. On the other hand, the international support provides an added leverage that can be used when negotiations resumed.
However, that “winning” strategy might backfire as well. Although progress has been slow, the principle of the two- state solution along with the concept of “Land for Peace” has become the accepted norm. Even Israeli P.M Netanyahu, a conservative hawk, adopted it publically. Although the two sides have failed to agree on its implementation, a unilateral adoption of the 1967 borders (a formula that departs even from the Obama parameters that spoke about “territorial swap”) will surely not serve as a negotiations starter. Further, once the UN approves these disputed borders, Abbas will find it very difficult to negotiate although he too understands that compromise is vital for progress. Can Abbas return to his people and tell them to take less than what the U.N. promised? And, assuming that a state will be declared – with disputed borders and no change on the ground – Can Abbas calm a growing frustration that previously lead to another cycle of violence?
Unilateralism is a dangerous game. The last time it was tried here – with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza – it resulted in a political coup and the hostile takeover by Hamas, a terrorist group, of what should have been a part of the Palestinian state. Israel is still recovering from that lesson while the Palestinians are gearing up for an equally dangerous unilateral path.
The Europeans, the UN and the Americans have been working tirelessly in an attempt to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiation table. Netanyahu agreed to flex his positions on some of the key issues but Abbas insists on setting conditions knowing that the UN negotiation might prove more beneficial. Abbas might be correct and he could very well find himself winning the declaration battle. But as for the Palestinian state, he may find that this last move will push it further away from the Palestinian people.
Nir BOMS – Middle East Expert of STRATEGIC OUTLOOK