Over at the New Republic, Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations speaks a few truths about Palestinian politics that aren’t often mentioned. His “The Third Intifada” discusses the likelihood of the current diplomatic standoff between Israel and the Palestinians resulting in a new round of violence. But rather than going the route of conventional wisdom and blaming it all on the hard-hearted Israelis, who won’t make enough concessions to appease their antagonists, Cook goes straight to the heart of Palestinian political culture when he notes that, as in the not-so-distant past, their leaders will resort to bloodshed as a way out of the corner into which they have painted themselves and as a means to bolster their credibility with constituencies that seem only to respect violence.
Another intifada makes no sense for the Palestinians. Another campaign of attacks on Israeli targets has little chance of success and it would, without doubt, cost far more Palestinian than Israeli lives. It would also ruin, as the first and second intifadas did, the economic progress Palestinians have made in recent years and inflict a new round of misery on them. But, as Cook points out, none of that will matter because “if history is any guide, the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank — whether it includes Mahmoud Abbas or not — may again look to a violence to improve its sagging domestic popularity. Throughout contemporary Palestinian history, spilling Israeli blood has often been the best way for competing political factions to burnish their nationalist credentials.”
In an important point often overlooked by apologists for Abbas, Cook also believes that “faith” in the ability or willingness of the new Palestinian Authority security forces to stop anti-Israel terror in the future “seems misguided.” Those forces have been the subject of much positive comment from both Jerusalem and Washington, but Cook understands that in order to maintain their credibility among Palestinians these units will have to turn their guns on their erstwhile Israeli partners if push comes to shove. Since this is exactly what happened in 2000 when the second intifada broke out — when Palestinian policeman who had also received U.S. training joined mobs attacking Israeli positions rather than try to restrain them — why should anyone doubt that another intifada will produce the same result?
But lest anyone conclude that the only alternative to another intifada is a more forthcoming Israeli negotiating position, it is important to remember a few points that go unmentioned in Cook’s article. Far from a lack of diplomatic progress providing a spur to Palestinian violence, it is the Palestinian leadership’s unwillingness to make peace that is the root cause of the problem. Having rejected a state in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for recognizing Israel’s legitimacy both in 2000 and 2008, it is more than obvious that their real fear doesn’t stem from the unlikelihood of peace but rather from the certainty of a deal if they should actually seriously pursue one. Though Barack Obama gave them a new excuse for dragging their feet this year by trying to make a settlement freeze a precondition for talks, Abbas must follow Arafat’s precedent and choose war over peace because anything less would result in his destruction.
Whether or not Israelis build new homes in their own capital, a point that Cook wrongly acknowledges as a seeming justification for Palestinian unhappiness, rejection of Israel’s existence and belief in the inherent legitimacy of anti-Israel violence is still the core of Palestinian political identity. Unless and until that changes, all we can expect is an endless stream of intifadas undertaken not out of frustration but as a way to avoid making peace.