Commentary Magazine


Ending “the Occupation” Is Not a Palestinian Priority

In yesterday’s post, I explained why a settlement freeze decreases Palestinian motivation to make a deal by ensuring that foot-dragging entails no price. But conventional wisdom on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would counter that this argument has an obvious flaw. Surely, its advocates would retort, Palestinians already have the strongest of all possible motivations to sign a deal quickly — their burning desire to end the hated occupation?

In fact, no. As a new poll by the Ramallah-based Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre reveals, the occupation is nowhere near the top of ordinary Palestinians’ priority list — and neither are the settlements or Jerusalem.

The number-one concern for ordinary Palestinians is the economy, cited by a plurality of 22.4 percent. In second place is Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, at 18 percent. The hated occupation was relegated to third place, with 15.5 percent, followed by “the siege on Gaza” (9.4 percent). The settlements and Jerusalem trailed far behind, at 6.6 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively.

This means that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has no incentive to make any kind of deal because ordinary Palestinians don’t care enough about ending “the occupation” to make them willing to swallow the concessions a deal will entail.

A 2001 poll found that a whopping 80 percent of Palestinians believe “the rights and needs of the Palestinian people” cannot be met as long as Israel exists, regardless of its borders. An agreement would thus require them to accept that their “rights and needs” will not be perfectly met. It would spell the end of long-cherished dreams like “returning” the refugees and their descendants to Israel, or otherwise turning back the clock.

But giving up a cherished dream is hard. Most people will do it only in exchange for a major improvement in reality. And if settlements and the occupation are not actually oppressive enough to rate as burning issues for ordinary Palestinians, a deal cannot produce the massive improvement in reality that would compensate for abandoning their dreams.

Moreover, a people that views Hamas-Fatah reconciliation as more important than ending the occupation is clearly not interested in a deal; given Hamas’s commitment to “armed struggle” and Israel’s ultimate eradication, reconciliation can only take place on terms that would preclude any agreement.

Abbas already appears to have made his choice. Even as he has adamantly refused to negotiate with Israel for the last two years, his Fatah party has been engaged in ongoing talks with Hamas. And at a meeting with Fatah leaders in Ramallah on Monday, he told them reconciliation with Hamas was “at the top of the PA’s agenda.”

Under intense pressure from Washington, he may nevertheless agree to go through the motions of talking with Israel. But anyone who expects a deal to emerge from these talks is deluding himself.