By Sharif Elmusa
Al Ahram, 27 April – 3 May 2006
The writer is an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
A Palestinian state of the West Bank and Gaza is no longer on the cards, irrespective of the make-up of the coming Israeli government. Israel instead has created the strategic conditions, including a near Israeli public consensus, for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank. This is what the wall and the planned retention of Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and large settlement blocks foretell. Israel will likely let eviction happen by haemorrhage, rather than engineer a 1948-style ethnic cleansing. It may not feel impelled to act soon, waiting for the fall of the Hashemite monarchy, which Israel seems to anticipate and which could only be hastened by the continuous exit of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan. Ariel Sharon’s wish for a Palestine state in Jordan thus would be fulfilled. Gaza could dissolve imperceptibly into populous Egypt. Such a momentous "checkmate", however, is not destiny for the Palestinians. The leadership needs to think beyond the mental checkpoints around Ramallah and devise a new political vision and a commensurate strategy of action.
This vision, I submit, must rest on turning the current demographic fragmentation of the Palestinians into an asset, by redefining their geopolitical space to encompass a state in Greater Palestine, the territory that was Palestine before Winston Churchill in 1922 split it by fiat into Palestine and Transjordan. Today there are approximately eight million Palestinians in that area: 1.2 millions in Israel, 1.15 millions in Gaza, two millions in the West Bank and 3.2 millions in Jordan. In 30 years or so, they will double to 16 million strong. If the last century of strife has taught us anything, it is that they will fight fiercely for a state in which they are equal citizens. At a time when the advocacy of democracy has become a political mantra in the region, it is historically retrograde that the people who constitute the majority in Greater Palestine remain subject to dispossession by Israel and sub-citizens in Jordan.
Demography matters. In countries where aggrieved nationalities are concentrated in one area, we observe a centrifugal pressure towards secession or at least a demand for autonomy. The splitting of Czechoslovakia and Cyprus exemplify this conclusion. Quebec in Canada, the Basque region in Spain, and Kurdistan in Iraq and Turkey are further illustrations. Where ethnicities are more evenly spread and intermingled, only democratic accommodation can begin to tackle social tensions; South Africa stands out. Yet, in a third situation where the same nationality exists in two separate states, re-unification may be sought. Witness the two Germanys, North and South Koreas, Mainland China and Taiwan. In Greater Palestine "the demographic effect" is mixed. The diffusion of the Palestinian communities throughout the territory is a unifying factor, although their prolonged isolation from each other cedes the formation of distinct identities. The Jewish and East Jordanian concentration west and east of the Jordan River, in contrast, pulls in the opposite direction — separation.
By now it should be evident that establishing a third, Palestinian state, in addition to Israel and Jordan, faces insurmountable hurdles. Apart from the Bantustanisation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel adamantly rejects the Palestinian right of return. This means that even if a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza were established, there would be a large number of Palestinians left in Jordan. Although the Hashemite monarchy offered the Palestinians citizenship, acquiring in the bargain the West Bank and helping to obliterate "Palestine" from the map, it has failed to make them equal partners. East Jordanians, in turn, continue to fear a Palestinian takeover. The recent scare in Jordan caused by the news leak that two top Israeli military commanders predicted the demise of the Hashemite regime is indicative of the ethnically induced volatility of Jordanian politics.
In addition to the Palestinians in Jordan, there would be the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens but unable to overcome their third-class citizenship status in a state that insists on being a "Jewish state". In Greater Palestine we have not only the Palestinian predicament, but Jewish and East Jordanians dilemmas as well, for the presence of a Palestinian majority confronts both Jordan and Israel, and will ever more so, with a central question of how to co-exist with this majority. Both states have been apprehensive that a viable Palestinian state only would embolden the Palestinians under their tutelage to press them for fundamental political concessions. That apprehension explains why they have never genuinely contemplated permitting the emergence of such a state.
Seeing that a Palestinian state is untenable in the tattered West Bank geography, and that what was emerging was a South Africa-like apartheid system, some have begun to revive the old idea of a bi-national, Israeli-Palestinian state. But a tri-ethnic state in Greater Palestine is no different in its requisites from that of a bi-national state and, it can be argued, presents superior opportunities. Such an expanded state would be large enough for everybody; no one has to be squeezed out. It allows people to move into places where their heart or their pocket feels at home. The question of return of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan becomes a matter of normal movement within a country. With a decrease in competition for space, the Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon would be given the option of finding home in the proposed state. The Palestinian right of return for the major refugee clustres thus can be resolved as regards residence, identity and political status, rendering other aspects, such as compensation, easier to tackle.
The only other way the refugees’ right of return could possibly be met is to implement the 1947 UN partition plan. This plan, in fact, is the sole international legal document that defines borders for Israeli and Palestinian states; the land that Israel has come to control by military conquest. Israel needs to choose between demographic advantage and state size; to insist on having both is to invite strife. In a state within 1947 borders Jews would be a majority, but Israel is not satisfied with the area it controlled on the eve of the 1967 War. A tri- ethnic state in Greater Palestine would enable Jews to live in Eretz Israel (Land of Israel), as Israelis call Greater Palestine. Jews for millennia lived amongst Arabs and Muslims and thrived economically and culturally in their midst. Yes, they experienced episodes of misfortune, which often struck the Arabs themselves too. The creation of Israel disrupted a largely admirable, long-shared cultural history. Anti-Semitism is a European-spawned demon that caught in its claws first the Jews and then the Palestinians. The fog of present hostilities prevents envisioning a tolerant, inclusive political order; however, it is not, or at least we must believe it is not, impossible. Israel bears a special responsibility for bringing it about; the choices it makes will largely determine the course of the conflict.
With my sincere admiration for Jordan’s historical heritage, I should think that it is loftier for East Jordanians to belong to a state that encompasses Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. The Hashemites began their career on a high rhetorical note of pan-Arabism, which has diminished into the parochial and divisive, "Jordan first". They and Zionism divided up Greater Palestine and undertook to suppress Palestinian nationalism. In the process, a deep Palestinian-East Jordanian cleavage evolved that kept the two peoples suspicious of each other. Yet, considering the cultural affinities between them, in the long run they could forge a common identity, although the example of Iraq must be borne in mind. The Palestinians must reassure the East Jordanians that they won’t simply reverse roles. They ought to recall how their hyper-nationalist displays after the 1967 War frightened East Jordanians, and how the government harnessed that fear in 1970 to end the Palestinian military and political presence in Jordan.
The vision of a single state in Greater Palestine could only come to fruition through Palestinian mass mobilisation. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) needs to reconstitute itself as a non-corrupt Palestine Reunification Organisation (PRO). The PLO, even though it had earned the support of the majority of Palestinians, was never able to harness Palestinian energies. It became absorbed in local battles where the leadership happened to be headquartered. The latest manifestation of this tendency is the ascent of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the decline of the PLO, and the concomitant inattention to Palestinians outside Israeli-controlled territory. Whether this development was engendered by the maladroit behaviour of leaders or by deliberate policy to downgrade the "right of return", the net outcome has been the weakening of the position of those under occupation as well of those in exile.
The PA thus finds itself at the mercy of politically driven foreign aid, which can be withheld when the authority does not comply with the political diktat of donors. In Jordan, the Palestinians, among other things, were blocked from publicly demonstrating their support for the recent Intifada. The time has come to rectify this structural failure. Two West Bank intellectuals, Ali Jarbawi and George Giacaman, have advocated one option that deserves serious debate. On their suggestion, the PA, whose main function of negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state has been superseded, ought to be disbanded while the PLO is reconstituted. The West Bank and Gaza could be led once more by informal institutions, as was the case before the Oslo accords.
"Armed struggle", however, would have to be re-evaluated since the aim is not to separate, but put together. A strategy of non-violence, according to Palestinian and international activists, is more likely to convince the current adversaries of the sincerity of Palestinian intentions, to garner global allies, and to keep the Palestinians themselves engaged. What I want to underline is that President Mahmoud Abbas, with his international credibility and forthrightness, could be an ideal shepherd for a creative, peaceful resistance. But he still clings to the belief or hope that diplomacy and reason could bring about a Palestinian state and the right of return, without first mustering the strength necessary for negotiating such a political feat. The rationalist "engineer of Oslo" would render his people a lasting service, if he drew a different conclusion. The Palestinians have before them great counsellors: Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.
This proposal of a single state in Greater Palestine hardly arises out of some wide-eyed optimism. It is easy to stack up objections regarding practicality, or shrug shoulders at its apparent utopia. But if it’s impractical, why hasn’t something more practical materialised? And if it’s a utopia, mustn’t it be weighed against the dystopia of interminable conflict?