By Barry Rubin
An Arab reader asks: Does the Palestinian leadership still desire to eliminate Israel?
Answer: If we are talking about Hamas, of course yes, there is no doubt about that and shouldn’t be. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is a more complex case. Many PA leaders know that they cannot destroy Israel and that the cost of trying would be very high for them. A number of them, in their private thoughts or personal preferences, would like a lasting two-state solution. Prime Minister Fayyad is one of the few who has apparently abandoned this idea in his behavior as well.
But in another part of their minds many PA leaders think that destroying Israel is the right goal and can be done in the long term. What is especially important is that they still teach their people this idea and do not break publicly with it. How much effort has been done in Arabic by the PA to promote the idea of a permanent solution in which two states live side by side in peace since the 1993 Oslo agreement?
Remarkably little. Media, textbooks, mosque sermons, leaders’ speeches rarely speak in these terms when made in Arabic. Thus, the continued domination by this doctrine provokes violence, conflict, radicalism, and legitimacy for Hamas.
Why do they behave this way? Some hold radical ideological views and see themselves and Fatah as a revolutionary organization. This is a doctrine that all of its internal documents confirm. Others simply understand that if they were to become genuinely and explicitly moderate in their long-term goals, their enemies and rivals would use this against them. They would be seen, or treated, as traitors. Their careers would be over, and there would be some danger to their personal survival as well, though this last point shouldn’t be overstated.
In this regard, several clear categories can be seen among Fatah leaders. The largest single group is former Arafat loyalists who very much believe that they can have the fruits of moderation and of radicalism simultaneously, they can maintain the PA and even cooperate a bit with Israel at present while retaining the option of violence and not giving up their hope of future total victory. That is why the PA is a partner at present for maintaining the status quo but not for making a comprehensive peace
Another grouping is led by PLO radicals who also speak of wanting to wipe Israel off the map but are patient about doing so. To make a generalization, the older generation among them hate Hamas; the younger are willing to cooperate with it in a third intifadah.
The number of real moderates genuinely ready for a permanent two-state solution that would be peaceful and stable is very small.
What is especially pernicious is the doctrine that even if the PA leaders themselves don’t struggle to destroy Israel, they will make no concession that will close the door to a future total victory by another generation. This makes it impossible to have a peace agreement.
A critical element here is the demand for a “right of return” in which all refugees and their descendants who wish to do so must be allowed to live in Israel as part of any peace agreement. This doctrine, accepted by 82 percent of Palestinians according to a recent poll, serves as a bridge between a two-state solution and a future total victory. It is a lie to argue that Palestinians only advocate a one-state solution because the two-state solution is blocked by Israel. On the contrary, the one-state (Arab, Muslim) solution is a critical element in Palestinian ideology that blocks any two-state solution.
Again, this is not to claim that all PA leaders are hardliners who want violent conflict. Many do enjoy economic wealth and power in the PA that they don’t want to risk by returning to all-out conflict. But this analysis shows why the status quo is easier to maintain and a peace agreement is harder to reach than many Western observers think.
One of the worst of many bad ideas promoted in the West is a merger between the PA and Hamas. This would guarantee a majority of leaders who wanted a violent confrontation and a struggle until final victory no matter what the cost.
It is argued that the creation of an independent Palestinian state would automatically make the PA moderate. Eager to keep their own state they would not risk it through continuing the conflict with Israel. They would become preoccupied by accumulating wealth.
This might be true–well, no, not really, I’m just being polite–yet there is ample reason to doubt it. After all, this was the argument made in the 1990s for the PA under Arafat and it clearly didn’t work. Having a state might in fact further inflame the determination to gain total victory. Hamas would be a factor as would Syrian and Iranian subversion. Competing factions would probably strive against each other by outbidding each other in militancy, a common feature in Arab states.
Again, while one could argue these points it is a very high-level risk not only for Israel but for Western interests. A two-state solution could work under proper conditions but these should be proven, not assumed.
We will truly know that a two-state solution is possible, desirable, and workable when there is a clear change in the stance of the PA leaders.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), and editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).