Commentary Magazine


Topic: Palestinian state

Does Obama Want 20 More Gazas?

Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

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Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

Though the United States has expressed its support for Israel’s right of self-defense against a ceaseless rain of rockets aimed at its civilian population, the Obama administration remains resolute in refusing to draw any conclusions from these events.

As I noted earlier this week, the administration began the week by issuing a scathing denunciation of Israel’s government delivered by a top White House staffer in person at an Israeli forum. Even as the Islamist group’s rockets were landing all over the Jewish state, Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East praised Hamas’s Fatah partners in the Palestinian unity government and blasted Israel’s leaders for the lack of peace. He urged Israel to give up the West Bank as part of a two-state solution that would end the conflict.

As it happens, most Israelis agree that this would be the best option. But the reason why there isn’t much support for Washington’s suggestions is directly related to this week’s events. As Netanyahu stated, Israel’s current no-win situation vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza is the result of a decision to take America’s advice about the value of territorial withdrawal. In 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled every last Israeli soldier, civilian, and settlement out of the strip in a vain effort to make progress toward peace. While few Israelis have any desire to retake Gaza, they understand that Hamas is creating what is, for all intents and purposes, an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

In Gaza, Hamas has not only created a terrorist fortress where they can hide behind a large civilian population. It has dug itself innumerable tunnels where it stores armaments such as the missiles it shoots at Israeli cities as well as more than 1,200 more crisscrossing the border with Egypt.

As Hamas has proved this week, Israel’s attempts to limit the damage that the group can cause are complicated by their ability to increase the range of their rockets while also depending on the Jewish state’s reluctance to engage in an all-out war with its attendant suffering to root out the terrorist threat. But most Israelis assume that sooner or later, Hamas will stop shooting and they can get back to their normal lives.

But unless a sea change in Palestinian opinion happens that would make it possible for their leaders to accept an end to the conflict and a recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s difficult to imagine how any Israeli government could possibly agree to the American request that it replicate the Gaza experiment in the far larger and more strategically located West Bank.

Speaking for President Obama, Gordon said that Israel is wrong to deny Palestinians sovereignty over the West Bank as well as security and dignity. But the problem here is not Israeli reluctance to give up territory. They have done it before and, if given any reasonable assurance that it will not come back to haunt them, may do it again. Yet somehow no one in the administration thinks that what happened in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal should inform their opinion of what would follow if they were to give up control of security in the West Bank. As Netanyahu rightly said, there is every possibility that, despite the administration’s faith in Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s dedication to peace, all such a withdrawal would mean is the creation of 20 more Gazas.

Israel’s critics see Netanyahu’s repeat of his pledge that he would not give up security control of the territory west of the Jordan River as intransigence. But it is a position that has majority support in Israel because, whether they like Netanyahu or support the settlements, they have seen what happens when Israel gives up territory to Palestinian groups that are still pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state or entrust their security to others.

More than any settlement or any statement by Netanyahu or even the clear reluctance of Abbas to sign a peace deal despite the blandishments of Obama, the rockets from Gaza are killing hopes of achieving a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. Gaza is not just a daunting military problem for Israelis or a challenge to those who wish to see the Palestinians live in peace without being pushed into destructive wars by Islamist leaders who are bent on fomenting more violence and opposing any progress toward reconciliation. It is a preview of what an independent Palestinian state would be. The rockets and the refusal to devote Palestinian resources to any effort but perpetuating the conflict is a guarantee that peace isn’t possible in the near or perhaps even the long term.

Though most Israelis long for peace and would pay dearly for it, the next time Obama chooses to reiterate his demand for an Israeli withdrawal, he should think about what happened this week. The citizens of the Jewish state will never allow the creation of another Gaza, let alone 20 more.

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The Fake Palestinian Generational Divide

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren hit on a clever way to reiterate a familiar theme for the newspaper’s readers in today’s story that sought to explore what she called a “generational divide” among Palestinians. The centerpiece of the article is an interview with Tareq Abbas, the youngest son of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which the former explains why he supports a one-state solution to the conflict with Israel rather than the two-state formula that his father purports to seek. Along with other younger Palestinians quoted in the piece, Tareq Abbas says that he is tired of waiting for his father’s peace strategies to succeed and now simply wants “civil rights” that would presumably be his if the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean became a single democratic entity.

The conceit of this argument is that since Israel will never allow Palestinians independence, they should instead simply wait for demographics and international pressure to force the Jews to give up their state. This notion of a generational divide also supports the claims of those who believe Israel must act now to divest itself of the West Bank, lest it eventually be forced to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one.

But the problem with the premise of this story is that it is false. Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli offers of statehood three times. He’s currently in the process of refusing another one that would probably, like the three previous peace bids, give the Palestinians the independent state they say they crave in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza (which is currently ruled by Hamas as an independent Palestinian state in all but name, but never mind), and a share of Jerusalem. The generational divide here isn’t so much about how many more Arab states there should be but rather the nature of the rhetoric employed in order to make the case against the existence of one solitary Jewish state.

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New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren hit on a clever way to reiterate a familiar theme for the newspaper’s readers in today’s story that sought to explore what she called a “generational divide” among Palestinians. The centerpiece of the article is an interview with Tareq Abbas, the youngest son of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which the former explains why he supports a one-state solution to the conflict with Israel rather than the two-state formula that his father purports to seek. Along with other younger Palestinians quoted in the piece, Tareq Abbas says that he is tired of waiting for his father’s peace strategies to succeed and now simply wants “civil rights” that would presumably be his if the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean became a single democratic entity.

The conceit of this argument is that since Israel will never allow Palestinians independence, they should instead simply wait for demographics and international pressure to force the Jews to give up their state. This notion of a generational divide also supports the claims of those who believe Israel must act now to divest itself of the West Bank, lest it eventually be forced to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one.

But the problem with the premise of this story is that it is false. Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli offers of statehood three times. He’s currently in the process of refusing another one that would probably, like the three previous peace bids, give the Palestinians the independent state they say they crave in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza (which is currently ruled by Hamas as an independent Palestinian state in all but name, but never mind), and a share of Jerusalem. The generational divide here isn’t so much about how many more Arab states there should be but rather the nature of the rhetoric employed in order to make the case against the existence of one solitary Jewish state.

The last 20 years since the Oslo Accords have shown that while the vast majority of Israelis are ready to trade land for peace, even those Palestinians anointed by the West as peacemakers are unwilling or unable to take yes for an answer. The difference between the generations cited in Rudoren’s article is not about goals but rather how to obtain it. The elder Abbas still feels obligated to go through the motions of negotiating with the United States and Israel for a two-state solution that he—and perhaps everyone else on the planet other than Secretary of State John Kerry—knows he will never accept. Doing so would require him to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn, and that is something that the political culture of the Palestinians will not let him do.

If the elder Abbas really were a champion of two states for two peoples, he would have said yes in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him a state and he wouldn’t be threatening to quit the current negotiations by refusing to say that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Doing so would, as Palestinians have frequently admitted, undermine their “narrative” and the goal of forcing the Israelis to allow a “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants, thus transforming the Jewish state into a bi-national one in which Arabs would be in the majority. Palestinian nationalism came into existence as a rejection of Zionism and what is needed is a new vision that will contemplate a future for their people alongside Israel rather than locked in perpetual conflict with it.

Younger Palestinians have no such compunctions about pretending to want to live in peace alongside Israel. What they want is to extinguish Jewish sovereignty in any part of the country. This has nothing to do with a desire for equal rights or democracy, which, despite the assertions of his son, the elder Abbas (currently serving in the ninth year of the four-year presidential term to which he was elected) denies his people, as do his Hamas rivals in Gaza.

If the Palestinians wanted an independent state alongside Israel, they could have had it more than a decade ago and can still claim it by Abbas saying two little words—“Jewish state”—that signify he means what he says about peace. The fact that he won’t means that the contrast between him and younger Palestinians who say they want one state to replace Israel is a difference without a distinction.

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Gaza Missiles: Palestinian State in Practice

In recent months, there’s been a lot of debate about the best answer to the Middle East conflict. The consensus here in the United States is that the answer is a two-state solution that envisages the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside the nation state of the Jewish people, i.e. the State of Israel. There are good arguments to be made that such an arrangement would be the ideal conclusion to the century-long war that Arabs have waged to extinguish Zionism. Indeed, should the political culture of the Palestinians ever change to the point where their leaders could count on strong support for a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, there would be no resisting such an outcome.

For now such a scenario remains more a matter of science fiction than political reality. In the meantime, while Israelis await that happy future, they must contend with a Palestinian leadership and terror groups that, unfortunately, continue to better represent the wishes of their people than any pious platitudes about peace that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas utters when in the presence of Western reporters or gullible Israelis.

Even more to the point, the theoretical arguments about a Palestinian state tend to ignore the fact that one currently exists in all but name in Gaza. There, a Hamas government continues its tyrannical Islamist rule over more than a million people with no interference from Israel other than the imposition of a loose blockade on the strip (food, medicine, and other essential items enter it daily from Israel). But as today’s barrage of missile fire aimed at southern Israel from Gaza shows, this Palestinian state presents a clear and present danger to both the Jewish state and regional stability. While no casualties resulted from the 50 rockets fired from Gaza, the incident not only terrorized southern Israel. It also demonstrated the inherent danger that an irredentist Palestinian state where armed terrorists are free to plan mayhem poses to Israel’s security. While peace activists claim all problems will be solved by Israeli territorial withdrawals, the example of Gaza, where every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was pulled out in 2005, continues to operate as a powerful argument against repeating the experiment in the West Bank as much of the world insists Israel must do.

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In recent months, there’s been a lot of debate about the best answer to the Middle East conflict. The consensus here in the United States is that the answer is a two-state solution that envisages the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside the nation state of the Jewish people, i.e. the State of Israel. There are good arguments to be made that such an arrangement would be the ideal conclusion to the century-long war that Arabs have waged to extinguish Zionism. Indeed, should the political culture of the Palestinians ever change to the point where their leaders could count on strong support for a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, there would be no resisting such an outcome.

For now such a scenario remains more a matter of science fiction than political reality. In the meantime, while Israelis await that happy future, they must contend with a Palestinian leadership and terror groups that, unfortunately, continue to better represent the wishes of their people than any pious platitudes about peace that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas utters when in the presence of Western reporters or gullible Israelis.

Even more to the point, the theoretical arguments about a Palestinian state tend to ignore the fact that one currently exists in all but name in Gaza. There, a Hamas government continues its tyrannical Islamist rule over more than a million people with no interference from Israel other than the imposition of a loose blockade on the strip (food, medicine, and other essential items enter it daily from Israel). But as today’s barrage of missile fire aimed at southern Israel from Gaza shows, this Palestinian state presents a clear and present danger to both the Jewish state and regional stability. While no casualties resulted from the 50 rockets fired from Gaza, the incident not only terrorized southern Israel. It also demonstrated the inherent danger that an irredentist Palestinian state where armed terrorists are free to plan mayhem poses to Israel’s security. While peace activists claim all problems will be solved by Israeli territorial withdrawals, the example of Gaza, where every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was pulled out in 2005, continues to operate as a powerful argument against repeating the experiment in the West Bank as much of the world insists Israel must do.

It is true that Gaza is not technically independent. Its status is, like that of the West Bank, legally murky as no nation can claim unchallenged sovereignty on these portions of the former British Mandate for Palestine. Israel maintains a presence in the West Bank in the form of settlements, many of which it rightly expects to keep even in the event of a peace deal with the PA, as well as a strong security apparatus that exists to prevent a recurrence of the terror campaign of the second intifada that cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives. But Israel abandoned all claims to Gaza in 2005. It does attempt to keep the terrorist enclave in check via a blockade in which Egypt actively participates and which is legal under international law. That leaves some leftist propagandists to claim that it is still occupied, but this is nonsense. For all intents and purposes, Gaza is completely independent. And therein lies the problem.

The Palestinian state in all but name is bristling with weapons and honeycombed with fortifications aimed at making it difficult for Israel to counterattack against terror attacks launched from the strip. Though Hamas has largely observed the cease-fire which ended the daily assaults on southern Israel, it remains ready to use its military forces to counteract any possible peace moves from Abbas. Even worse, it tolerates the existence of another even more extreme Islamist terrorist movement in the area. Islamic Jihad has grown in strength and influence in recent years as a battered Hamas has grown more gun shy about confrontations with Israel.

The dynamics of Palestinian politics are such that these movements’ credibility rests on their ability to inflict pain on Israel. That means Islamic Jihad—which is allied with Iran and apparently the intended recipient of the Klos-C arms ship that Israeli forces intercepted last week—has an active interest in keeping the border hot in order to maintain pressure on Hamas to maintain its war on the Jewish state. Whether today’s missile fire was a local initiative that sought to remind Abbas or Hamas that movement toward peace was unacceptable or the result of an Iranian request, the net effect is the same.

The point here is that an independent Gaza is an armed camp that stands ready and willing to attack Israel at a moment’s notice. Yet as dangerous as it is, it remains hemmed in on the Jewish state’s southern periphery and its ability to inflict terror is limited. That would not be the case in the West Bank where, absent Israeli security forces, terror groups would have the ability to strike the country’s main population centers with impunity and with deadly effect.

It is true that if the conflict were settled and the Palestinian people accepted Israel’s permanence while giving up their dreams of destroying it either by armed conflict or by swamping it with the descendants of the 1948 refugees, there would be no need to fear that Palestinian sovereignty would pose a threat to the Jewish state. But one needn’t be a supporter of Israel’s right-wing parties or the settlement movement to understand that recreating the independent state in Gaza in the West Bank would be suicidal for Israel.

Though foreign observers strain to avoid drawing the obvious conclusion, a two- or three-state solution (if the PA achieves sovereignty in the West Bank while Hamas or Islamic Jihad holds onto Gaza) under the current circumstances would actually worsen the conflict rather than solving it. As long as Gaza provides an example of what Palestinian statehood means in practice, it is not reasonable to expect Israelis to replicate it in the West Bank or in portions of Jerusalem. If Palestinians and their foreign supporters wish to convince them otherwise, they can start by transforming their state in Gaza into one that is less dangerous for themselves and the Israelis. Until they do, no one should take their appeals for two states seriously.

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Peace and the Palestinian We Do Not Know

In his now-famous interview with President Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg asked if he agreed with Secretary Kerry’s June 2013 statement to the American Jewish Committee that “we’re running out of time … [and] if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” Obama added his own window-is-closing pressure on Israel, but the last sentence of his answer – which he intended as an argument for speed – actually argues for the opposite. Here is what he said:

I think [Kerry] has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize, which is that with each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept — in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what’s been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.

Before signing an agreement with an aging “president” more than five years past the end of his stated term — someone with no known successor, no process for choosing one, no institutions for holding elections, no capacity to implement any agreement in half his putative state (controlled by the terrorist group he promised to dismantle under the Road Map and didn’t), presiding over a society steeped in anti-Semitic incitement, unwilling to endorse even the concept of “two states for two peoples” (much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state) – we should put aside the perennial argument that time is running out, the over-hyped demographics, and “what’s happening in the settlements” (since what’s happening in the settlements is mostly construction in areas Israel will retain in any conceivable peace agreement), and pause to reflect on President Obama’s last sentence: “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.”

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In his now-famous interview with President Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg asked if he agreed with Secretary Kerry’s June 2013 statement to the American Jewish Committee that “we’re running out of time … [and] if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” Obama added his own window-is-closing pressure on Israel, but the last sentence of his answer – which he intended as an argument for speed – actually argues for the opposite. Here is what he said:

I think [Kerry] has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize, which is that with each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept — in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what’s been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.

Before signing an agreement with an aging “president” more than five years past the end of his stated term — someone with no known successor, no process for choosing one, no institutions for holding elections, no capacity to implement any agreement in half his putative state (controlled by the terrorist group he promised to dismantle under the Road Map and didn’t), presiding over a society steeped in anti-Semitic incitement, unwilling to endorse even the concept of “two states for two peoples” (much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state) – we should put aside the perennial argument that time is running out, the over-hyped demographics, and “what’s happening in the settlements” (since what’s happening in the settlements is mostly construction in areas Israel will retain in any conceivable peace agreement), and pause to reflect on President Obama’s last sentence: “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.”

We do not know, in other words, who will be implementing the agreement Israel is being rushed to sign. We do not know whether it will be Hamas, taking over a Palestinian state in an election or coup (both have happened before); or perhaps the guy next in line in Abbas’s corrupt ruling party; or perhaps the charismatic terrorist currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail, who would undoubtedly be released as part of a “peace agreement” but is not likely to be the next Nelson Mandela. We do not know because the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated multiple times that if converted to a state it will be a failed one, lacking the basic institutions of a successful state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one. Yesterday the Fatah leadership unanimously endorsed Abbas’s rejection of any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, without which the “two-state solution” is simply a two-stage plan.

If it is in fact urgent to sign an agreement while President-for-Life Abbas is still around, it is even more urgent for him to give his long overdue Bir Zeit speech, telling his people in Arabic that the price of a Palestinian state is recognition of a Jewish one, and that the conflict will not end with the “return” of the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war the Arabs started to a place where those descendants have never lived. It will end with their resettlement in the Arab states that started the war, where those descendants have lived their entire lives, deprived of basic civil and human rights by the countries of their birth.

If Abbas cannot give his Bir Zeit speech, it is not likely he can preside over a peaceful state. Moreover, as President Obama noted, we do not even know what the successor to Abbas will look like. Perhaps it is time to rethink a Palestinian state, not rush to create one.

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