A new plan is needed if Palestinian state is to become a reality
Alan Cunningham, the seventh and last British High Commissioner of Mandate Palestine, on May 14, 1948, drove down the hill from Jerusalem to Haifa, where he lowered the Union Flag and boarded a ship back to the UK with the remainder of the British military and civil administration. The British Mandate had ended under the pressure of fiscal reality, war and US hostility to any attempt to limit Jewish immigration. There had been violent disturbances — including the 1936-38 Arab Revolt — and fundamental differences within the British government over how to manage the situation since the 1920s. After the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947 and with the imminent prospect of British withdrawal, serious fighting between Jewish and Arab forces had broken out.
Israel’s victory in what it has come to know as the War of Independence, the failure of the Arab armies sent to crush it, and the inadequacy of the leadership of the Arab Higher Committee — notwithstanding the heroism at Kastel of Abdul Qader Al-Husseini — was a shock to an Arab public who had been told victory was certain. And the shockwaves spread. A year later, the Syrian government — a product of the parallel French Mandate — was overthrown. Within four years, the Free Officers, many of whom had fought in Palestine, overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. In 1958, the monarchy in Iraq followed. Meanwhile, there was an attempted republican coup in Yemen, backed by a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, which proclaimed that only it had the answer to failure. And the first shots of what would become a savage War of Independence in Algeria had already been fired.
It was the end of an experiment begun a quarter of a century earlier to reconfigure parts of the Middle East and North Africa as part of a European sphere of imperial interest in the flush of victory over the Ottomans in the First World War.
The efforts of leaders such as Yasser Arafat to construct a truly independent and unified Palestinian national movement foundered on internal rivalries.
Sir John Jenkins
That experiment failed. So has the aftermath. For the Palestinians, many expelled, dispossessed and driven into exile, the years since 1948 have been characterized by attempts by different Arab countries — Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq — to instrumentalize the Palestinian cause in their own interests. Jerusalem in particular became a pan-Arab and indeed a pan-Islamic cause.
The efforts of leaders such as Yasser Arafat to construct a truly independent and unified Palestinian national movement foundered on internal rivalries, external pressure and Arafat’s own inability to move on from a model of charismatic, unquestioned and sometimes brutal leadership to one that was more collective, collegiate and accountable. As we saw at Camp David in 2000, he alone could not take decisions that would affect all Palestinians. But he would not delegate or take advice either, and his strategy of armed struggle and then negotiation failed as the Mandate had failed. He and his successors undermined others who sought to construct a state institution by institution, which is one reason why Salam Fayyad is now teaching at Princeton rather than moving the Palestinian Authority toward nationhood.
So where are we now? Hamas’ attempts to show that it could make Gaza an exemplary state and therefore replace Fatah as the preeminent movement in Palestinian politics has also failed. This is partly because Israel continues to blockade Gaza. But it is also the result of its own incompetence and ideological rigidity — a characteristic of many Islamist movements.
Fatah remains split and fearful of what happens when Mahmoud Abbas goes. Some will say that international efforts to isolate Israel and spread the BDS movement more widely are having an impact. I think this is delusional. Israel’s economy is doing fine and the fundamental alliance with the US — even if the relationship has become a more partisan issue than it has been for 50 years — remains strong. And Israel has options: China is investing significantly in Israel both because of its technical capacities and also as a path to the Mediterranean. Russia and Israel have strong ties; go to Israel at election time and you will be deluged by Russian language election material. And, most importantly, the broader context in the Middle East has changed.
This is not to say that political and diplomatic normalization is on the cards, beyond the treaty relationships with Egypt and Jordan. Until there is a fair settlement of the Palestinian issue and a credible Palestinian state, this is simply not going to happen, as the recent Arab League Jerusalem Summit in Dhahran made clear. But Israel as a fact has long been accepted. Some states find its technical, military and intelligence assets too valuable to ignore. And, if you look at current conflicts, the most important fault line is between Iran and its allies and the rest.
More important, Israeli behavior no longer seems unusual. Now that we understand the way Iraqi governments since the 1960s sought to engineer population shifts and demographic facts on the ground in Northern Iraq; the way in which the Kurds have been treated in Iraq, Syria and Turkey over the last 50 years; the clearing of the Druze from the Chouf; Iranian oppression of the Baha’i; discrimination against the Copts; the pressure on Arab Christians and other non-Muslim minorities to emigrate; the way most recently the Syrian regime has barrel-bombed and gassed its own citizens and is settling Alawites and other Shiites in areas from which Sunnis have been removed — it all looks surprisingly similar to some of the tactics successive Israeli governments have used over the years. Now we have a new Syrian law that authorizes the state to confiscate the properties of those Syrians — mostly Sunni — who have fled their land. This could have been copied from the Israeli Absentee Property Law of 1951 and its successors. This is the new normal.
And that leaves Palestinians with a dilemma. In these circumstances and given that they do not have enough on their own to do a deal, what is the new plan with which they can attract enough Arab and international support to make a Palestinian state a reality?
There is no substitute for a plan that seeks to secure wide Arab backing, on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, for a state in return for an acceptance of Israel into the regional fold. Israel needs to accept that its security is also the security of its neighbors. And this gives it strength to do a deal that will transform its standing. Seventy years on, if not now, when?
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.