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Why a Palestinian State is Still a Mortal Threat

Both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres insist that the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington on September 13—popularly known as the “Gaza/Jericho First” plan—contains a fail-safe mechanism. Anything ceded in this plan, they claim, is retrievable. Not a single Jewish settlement in the territories will be dismantled, and the Israeli army will be in charge of safeguarding the settlers. Moreover, the experiment will begin with Gaza, whose loss virtually no Israeli will mourn, and Jericho, a small and insignificant town near the Jordanian border. If the experiment fails, if the Arabs use the removal of the “occupation” not to build institutions of self-government but to establish terror bases from which to attack Israel, the Israeli army will move in and cancel the whole deal.

It is this promise of reversibility that makes the plan attractive even to many Israeli hawks. Everything else, they say, has been tried; we cannot go on with the intolerable status quo; and so long as this move is reversible, there is virtually nothing to lose. If the plan works, we will have peace at last, even if it means the establishment of a Palestinian state. If the plan collapses, we will get credit for trying.

According to polls, a majority of Israelis deem peace and separation from the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza more important than keeping all the land won in the 1967 war. Only a third or so consider relinquishing Samarian towns like Shilo, Bethel, and Ariel as unthinkable as giving up Tel Aviv. Even fewer are those who believe that forfeiting the mountains of Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish civilization, is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise.

Nevertheless, to a majority, holding on to these mountains remains a simple matter of survival. That a hostile army should again threaten Israel from hills within rifle range of Tel Aviv’s suburbs and Jerusalem’s center is something virtually every Israeli finds unacceptable.

The architects of the agreement with the PLO are aware of this fundamental concern. They respond to it with breathtaking simplicity: once the main grievance of the people on those hills—the absence of self-determination—is removed, they will no longer be hostile. And anyway, they will be rendered harmless, as Peres informed U.S. television audiences in September, by being demilitarized. On returning to Israel from Washington he added another grievance—poverty—which will have to be eliminated if peace is to reign. Once the Palestinians are assured of three square meals a day, once they realize what prosperity peace can bring, they will have a stake in peaceful coexistence.

But neither these arguments nor their rebuttals impress Israelis as much as the contention that the whole pact with the PLO is no more than an experiment. If Israelis thought that there was no way back, that the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn signified an irrevocable withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines and the establishment of a PLO state beyond those lines, it is doubtful that more than a small minority would support the move.

Yet in truth there is no going back for Israel—unless the army’s departure from Gaza triggers an immediate daily barrage of Katyushas on nearby kibbutzim and towns. Anything less than that—such as ambushes of military vehicles, armed assaults on bus passengers, attempts by suicide bombers to blow up civilian and military targets—will be depicted as the expected attempts by extremists to undermine the process, the unavoidable birth pangs of the new era. Israelis will be told that eventually the new PLO police will eliminate these extremists with Israeli help. And, as Peres sees it, the world community, quick to condemn Israel when its security services have dealt with Arab terrorists, will view the PLO handling of the situation as a strictly internal matter.

Oddly, the moral problem posed by letting the PLO establish order in the territories seems to perturb no one. In fact, Rabin was positively gleeful at the prospect of the PLO police, “unhampered by Supreme Court rulings and human-rights organizations,” as he put it, taking care of “peace opponents.” How the PLO “takes care” of opponents is no secret: most of the torture-murders of almost 1,000 “collaborators”—a euphemism for any Palestinian who runs afoul of local “enforcer” gangs—have been committed by Arafat’s supposedly “moderate” Fatah faction. Neither Rabin nor his super-dovish coalition allies appears to recall that in 1983 the then-Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, was held “indirectly responsible” by a government inquiry commission for “not anticipating” the actions of Christian militiamen allowed into the Palestinian towns of Sabra and Shatila. It will be interesting to see if Amnesty International and the Israeli “human-rights” organization B’tselem will censure Rabin and Peres for inviting a scenario similar to Sabra-Shatila or nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Be that as it may, violence will go on. Without Israeli control it will be impossible to prevent the importation of vast quantities of small arms into the territories, and the three main factions—“mainstream” PLO, radical leftists, and Islamic fundamentalists—will struggle for primacy.

It can, however, safely be expected that not even the most fanatic jihadists will be foolish enough to celebrate the departure of the Israeli army with a spectacular Katyusha shower on, say, Yad Mordekhai—a kibbutz on the Gaza-strip border. Instead, there will in all probability be a controlled war of attrition against the Jewish residents of the territories and the army units assigned to protect them. Each segment of the “Palestinian resistance” will play its role in this war. It is even possible that so long as there are Israelis around to be targeted, internecine fighting among the major terrorist groups will be kept to a minimum.

That Arafat’s intentions are not pacific is not mere speculation. Almost immediately after his handshake with Rabin, Arafat and his aides announced that the intifada would continue in all areas in which the “occupation” was still present. From the start, Arafat blithely ignored the commitment he made in a letter to the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jorgen Holst, to “reject violence and terrorism in public statements.” He did not call for the cessation of violence in his Washington speech, and while his letter to Rabin committed the PLO to nonviolence, there was nothing in it about controlling elements like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Nor do Arafat’s pronouncements to his own people match his interviews with American journalists. In a telephoned speech to students at Nablus’s Najah University on September 1, he assured his audience that the agreement with Israel was only the first phase of the PLO’s “phased plan,” which calls for the use of Palestinian sovereignty in part of Palestine as a springboard for a final assault on Israel. The same line is preached by PLO representatives in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Both the PLO and the “rejectionists” have developed sophisticated skills in pursuing the “armed struggle.” They have learned when to employ lone, “unaffiliated” knifers and suicidal bombers to demoralize civilian populations, and when to ambush an army patrol with military precision. If they feel that the Israeli army will evacuate sooner without provocation, they may lie low. But chances are that the different Palestinian groups will try to score points with the population by hastening the Israeli withdrawal. The mood in Israel will favor a fast evacuation no matter what—no one wants to die for land that has already been relinquished. Nor can military morale be maintained when the army is limited to purely defensive, reactive measures.

Ironically, the security forces’ success in apprehending terrorists has been spectacular in recent months. But under the new agreement it is doubtful that they will be able to continue employing the most effective anti-terrorist tactics—“initiated actions” by special army units. Tipped by the intelligence services, these special units, dressed as Arabs, penetrate villages and refugee shanty towns which serve as terrorist bases and apprehend wanted terrorists. To do this, obviously, the army must have the freedom to engage in “hot pursuit.”

So obvious is this that it occurred even to American media interviewers when the Israel-PLO pact was first revealed—particularly when it became known that Israeli army officers, from Chief of the General Staff Ehud Barak down, had expressed concern about the army’s ability to combat terrorism under the new circumstances. Yet when asked what would happen if terrorists struck at Israelis and then escaped to the self-rule zone, Peres answered that it was to be hoped such things would not happen. Israelis who were not satisfied with that answer were told that there would be an exchange of intelligence and other forms of collaboration between the Israeli army and the PLO police. Working together they would be able to eliminate terrorism.

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In general, Peres and Rabin keep assuring Israelis that the new Palestinian entity will not be a sovereign state. Like former Secretary of State James Baker, Israeli ministers like to call the territories’ ultimate status “something more than autonomy and less than a state.” But the Declaration of Principles makes it clear that the creation of a PLO state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, with minor border adjustments, is inevitable. The very preamble to the declaration speaks of the “mutual legitimate and political rights” of the two sides, putting Israel and the Palestinians on equal footing. The Palestinian interim governing body—the Council—will have executive, legislative, and judicial authority. Its jurisdiction will cover the entire West Bank and the Gaza district, which will be viewed as “a single territorial unit.” There will be a Palestinian Land Authority and a Palestinian Water Administration Authority. This, clearly, is a state in the making.

The agreement even implicitly entertains the idea of Jerusalem as the capital of the new state. Jerusalem is specifically included as an issue to be raised at the permanent-status negotiations, to commence “as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period.” And Jerusalem’s Arab residents can both vote and be elected to the Council.

Other issues left for these discussions are refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, and relations with other neighbors. Only the mention of borders in this context hints that, while the West Bank and Gaza are certain to become the Palestinian state, border adjustments may still be negotiated.

To keep insisting, as Rabin and Peres are doing, that it will be possible to prevent the birth of a Palestinian state after the interim period—which may last far less than five years—is to insult the intelligence of Israelis and Palestinians alike. In fact, all that is needed for the emergence of a Palestinian state is the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Even if the territory were handed to Jordan, King Hussein would not be able to prevent a declaration of Palestinian sovereignty.

The question, then, is not whether the government’s plan will lead to a Palestinian state—which Labor no less than Likud has always considered a mortal danger to Israel—but whether Israel and a Palestinian state can coexist in peace.

The advocates of the agreement say that a Palestinian state would not only pose no danger, it would enhance Israeli security by enabling Israel to make peace with other Arab countries. When Rabin returned from Washington (via Morocco), he mocked right-wing warnings that the agreement would create a terrorist state which would endanger Israel. To his credit, he did not deny that a PLO state might become a base for terrorists; he merely asserted that

Palestinian terrorism has never been, is not now, and will not be in the future a threat to the existence of the state of Israel. [Terrorism] is, to be sure, a troublesome, painful threat that leads to the loss of life of Israeli soldiers and civilians, but it does not and cannot threaten Israel’s existence.

Rabin’s confidence about the relative safety of the agreement has had a decisive impact on the Israeli electorate. He served, after all, as Chief of the General Staff in the Six-Day War and as Defense Minister under Yitzhak Shamir in the national-unity government. To make the effect of his confidence even greater, over 100 high-ranking reserve officers signed an advertisement supporting the agreement. Ironically, it came just before the 20th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which reminded the less sanguine that the whole army brass, almost to a man, was dead wrong about the intentions of Israel’s neighbors at that time. It was a miscalculation that almost cost Israel its life.

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There is, to be sure, no disputing the contention that a Palestinian state in itself cannot threaten Israel’s existence. This is not because it will be demilitarized, or because it will be, in Abba Eban’s words, a small country with “zero tanks” against Israel’s 4,000 tanks. To the contrary, whereas an unpopulated desert like the Sinai can be kept more or less demilitarized and efficiently patrolled and inspected by multinational forces, there is no way to keep a sovereign nation from cheating.

Thus, as Iraq has shown, despite all the sophisticated monitoring available today, a sovereign country can accumulate heavy arms undetected. With its own airports and seaport, and with free movement across the Jordanian border, the new Palestinian state could acquire not only tanks but also fighter planes and heavy artillery. And even if a quasi-demilitarized status were negotiated, Israel would not be able to invade the newly established Palestine to enforce the agreement against violation. In such cases the international community would be more likely to impose sanctions on the “aggressor” Israel than on Palestine.

The new state will indeed be tiny in area, but it will be strategically and topographically at an advantage vis-à-vis Israel. Nor will the size of its population be insignificant. Now under two million, it will bring in—perhaps even during the interim period—close to half-a-million refugees from the 1967 war. Once it becomes independent, it will be pressured by Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria to absorb the Palestinians now living in “refugee camps” in those countries. This could mean the addition of another million.

Still, despite all that, even a hostile and armed Palestine will pose no great threat by itself to the powerful Israeli army. But Palestine will not exist by itself. Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan valley and the Judean-Samarian mountains will leave in Arab/Muslim hands an uninterrupted land mass from Iran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Rabin’s rationale for creating this situation by getting out of the territories, and by concluding agreements as quickly as possible with Israel’s immediate neighbors, Jordan and Syria, is based on the assumption that Iraq and Iran will possess nonconventional arms—including nuclear weapons—before the end of the decade. It would be better for Israel, he contends, to be at peace with Jordan and Syria and thus prevent their joining Iraq or Iran (or both) in an eastern front against Israel.

But would peace treaties with Syria and Jordan keep them out of war with Israel? After all, as Peres himself once said, the number of broken treaties in the Middle East is equal to the number signed.

As for the about-face on the PLO, the justification for it was that if Israel did not talk to Arafat it would have to talk to Hamas. It is precisely this kind of reasoning which led the West to believe that Saddam Hussein was preferable to the Iranian ayatollahs, only to find that the difference was in style rather than substance. Saddam had learned the language the West wanted to hear, but in ruthlessness and ambition there was little to choose between his regime and that of Teheran. Much the same holds for the PLO and Hamas.

The enthronement of the PLO has also made Jordan’s King Hussein unhappy. Jordan has always paid lip service to the PLO’s role as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” but King Hussein has seen a PLO state as a threat and has counted on Israel to prevent it. The king is even more unhappy about the idea—ardently touted by Peres to allay Israeli fears of an irredentist, unviable state next door—of confederation between Palestine and Jordan. Since the majority of the Jordanian population consists of Palestinians from west of the Jordan river, it is very likely that such a confederation would be dominated by the new Palestinian state and would spell the demise of the Hashemite monarchy. The prospect of a radical Palestine-Jordan bordering Israel on one side and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Hafez Assad’s Syria on the other must give pause even to the terminally optimistic.

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The agreement’s supporters, of course, foresee a different future. Israeli economists forecast the imminent lifting of the Arab boycott, an avalanche of foreign investments, and the free movement both of cheap Arab labor and of goods in and out of Israel. Most enticing are the projections of huge exports to the Arab world, resulting in Israeli prosperity of unprecedented proportions.

The American diplomat, Roger Harrison, who once served as political counselor in Israel and ambassador to Jordan, has articulated the prevailingly optimistic attitude in a New York Times article. The new Palestinian state, he writes,

will have to be far less concerned with Israel’s destruction than with its own survival. . . . It would have no army worth the name and no means of acquiring one, since all the money squeezed from reluctant Gulf states will be required for more urgent problems.

Harrison, moreover, believes that the new state would not be radical, because

Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria (assuming an agreement is reached on the status of the Golan Heights) will all have a stake in peace; none would welcome the increase in power of radical interests that a militant state would portend.

What Harrison forgets is that even if Assad were to expel the rejectionist Palestinian organizations he is harboring in Damascus, cut his ties with Iran, and opt for a pro-Western stance, there would still be Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Iran to sponsor radicals and fundamentalists. Nor is the general belief warranted that the Saudis and the Gulf emirates would fight against a fundamentalist regime. Hamas’s main financial support today comes from Saudi Arabia.

Neither Harrison nor anyone else has much to say about what will happen if, as he writes, “fundamentalist fever spreads throughout the Mideast, toppling the moderate governments in Egypt and Jordan and the despotic but cautious leadership in Damascus.” It is a danger, he admits,

but not one Israeli occupation helps deter. The fundamentalists and other radicals have used the occupation for decades as their chief rallying cry—their “ladder to power,” to use King Hussein’s phrase. Removing that ladder will cripple them, which is why they are determined to scuttle any agreement.

Thus—not for the first time—Israel is blamed for contributing to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Harrison implies that this movement, which has swept the Muslim and Arab world from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, will subside if only Israel gives the Palestinians what they want.

Quite apart from the implausibility of this analysis, the trouble is that what the Palestinians want right now is not just a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza but half of Jerusalem as its capital and the “right of return” for the refugees of the 1948 war so that they can go back to their former homes in Israel. Aware of this, Peres’s deputy, Yossi Beilin, the architect of the agreement with the PLO, is already talking of a “quarter” in Jerusalem which would be run by Palestinians.

The “right of return” is no longer unthinkable, either. Uri Avnery, a prominent journalist who is now being celebrated as a prophet for having long advocated precisely what the government is bringing about—recognition of the PLO and a Palestinian state at the 1967 lines—has begun suggesting that the resettlement of 300,000-400,000 Palestinians inside Israel would enhance the chances of peace.

Here, then, is what the government is asking the people of Israel to believe: that the Palestinian state will form a benign, business-oriented confederation with Jordan; that, with open borders, 150,000 Arab workers will enter Israel every day and—satisfied with seeing their flag in Gaza, Hebron, and Nablus—will forget all the catechisms of hatred and revenge they have been taught and will work peacefully in Israel; that the very same chieftains who fathered international terrorism will from now on change course completely, apprehending and hanging Islamic fundamentalists, heroes and martyrs of the glorious intifada, for the sake of the Israeli infidels; that the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their offspring, who for 45 years have been kept in squalor with promises of reclaiming their homes, will now be satisfied to relinquish those claims; that Syria, once it has regained the Golan, will start disarming, throw out the Palestinian rejectionists, and disband Hezbollah (“Syrian youth are becoming democratic. Soon they will not tolerate a dictatorial government,” said Peres recently); that Iraq, Libya, and Iran will realize that they, too, have a stake in peace and stability and will cease fomenting unrest in the Arab world.

In short, as Peres announces at every opportunity, “It’s a new Middle East.”

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The dream is so seductive that it seems positively indecent to pose against it the words of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Here is what he said in a speech on September 1 responding to the news of the Israel-PLO agreement:

I warn Jews that this is a conspiracy against them. The Palestinian state which is established in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a mere stage; the Palestinians will take it as a base for liberating Tel Aviv, Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa. . . .

When the PLO was set up, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belonged to Arabs. Thus the conflict was for Palestine, not for the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab boycott of the Israelis—the Arab boycott and the Arab League Charter—are based on liberating . . . all Palestine . . . occupied in 1948.

Did the Arabs establish the boycott in 1967? . . . They established it in 1948. Why? Because the conflict was over Palestine, and not only over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Arab League Charter calls for liberating Palestine. . . .

This is a stage in which we are establishing the Palestinian state. It will not stop at the liberation of sea towns. Why should we deceive ourselves and the whole world—the whole world or the Jews?

Of course, Qaddafi can be dismissed as a wild man. But consider the following scenario, surely a more realistic one than the rosy vision of “a new Middle East”:

A PLO state in the territories will become an improved model of the PLO state in Lebanon before the Israeli incursion of 1982. (When asked if the PLO could run Gaza and Jericho, Arafat said, “We ran all of Lebanon until 1982; Gaza and Jericho will be child’s play.”) As some observers still remember, the PLO regime in Lebanon, presided over by the very same gentlemen who will be taking power in the West Bank and Gaza, was so corrupt and so savage that even the Syrians were welcomed by the local populace as a relief.

At first, the Western powers and Japan will try to bolster “moderates” with financial support and investments, but a corrupt regime will prove a bottomless pit and neither the Western economies nor the Saudis will be able to afford the drain.

At some point, radical elements in Jordan, encouraged and incited by their newly independent neighbors, will overthrow the Hashemite monarchy and extend the Palestinian state from the Iraqi border to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. (Jordan was part of the British Mandate of Palestine, and the PLO charter defines “Palestine” as demarcated by that Mandate.) Strife between secular and Islamic factions, already brewing, will intensify, with Iraq supporting some and Syria others. Whether Syria or Iraq gains the upper hand, the eastern front against Israel will become more dangerous every day.

Dwarfed Israel, back to its “natural size,” as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt likes to refer to the Jewish state within the 1949 armistice lines, will become an irresistible temptation again, just as it was in 1967. Except that today’s Arab armies are far more efficient and sophisticated, and they do not have a friendly-to-Israel, Shah-dominated Iran threatening their backs. Just the opposite: the ayatollahs will support any move they make, as long as it is against Israel.

Shlomo Hillel, one of the very few Labor-party stalwarts who has resisted the idea that “it’s a new Middle East” and that Israel can therefore permit the establishment of a Palestinian state and safely return to the 1967 borders, puts the case powerfully:

It is a big mistake to think of Middle East countries in terms of relations between Belgium and France, Norway and Sweden, or even France and Germany. We are not living here in Europe of the end of the 20th century, but, at best, in Europe of 300 years ago.

I don’t believe that the missile age renders territory unimportant. The fact is that the glorious air forces of the U.S., Britain, and France could not destroy the Iraqi Scuds. The only way to prevent such danger is by being present on the ground. Since 1974 the Syrians have not fired at us, not because they are nice people but because we are on the Golan.

A return to the 1967 borders is a return to a constellation which may take us back to the 1967 reality.

True, the Arab states also do not have the backing of the Soviet empire, which they had in 1967 and 1973. But the crumbling of the Soviet empire did not stop Saddam Hussein in 1990, nor has it diminished the access of the radical regimes to modern weaponry. Moreover, the cool calculation and the restraint which the Soviets imposed on these regimes for fear of a superpower conflagration are no longer an inhibiting factor.

Now Saddam Hussein’s ally and staunchest supporter will have his headquarters in Jericho—a 30-minute leisurely drive from Jerusalem. And make no mistake: when Arafat and his associates say “Next Year in Jerusalem,” they mean it.

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