A hallmark of the long conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has been a remarkable tendency toward self-destructive behavior by Palestinian leadership. That is why so much hope has been placed on Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. While there is a debate as to how much he has actually accomplished, his rhetoric and his programs focus on creating a state in the making, on turning away from the self-destructive policies of his predecessors.
That self-destructiveness has reappeared time after time over the years. Rejection of the United Nations partition of Palestine in 1947 was a critical manifestation of this behavior. Instead of a state alongside Israel, their focus on preventing the Jewish state resulted in a resounding military defeat, a refugee problem, and suffering of their people.
This set the stage for repeated opportunities to change the lives of their people, squandered by a combination of illusions and negativity. Post-1967 war, the Oslo process, the 2000 Camp David meetings, the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the Annapolis process were all times when the arc of Palestinian history could have taken a dramatically different course.
Alongside Palestinian behavior, captured so well by Abba Eban’s phrase that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” was a tendency by the international community to feed into and encourage the very behavior that has caused the Palestinians such heartache. What is particularly ironic about this, whether it manifested itself in diplomatic resolutions at the U.N., media coverage or boycotts, is that all of this has taken place under the rubric of helping the Palestinians. If the Palestinian leadership has been the worst enemy of the Palestinian people, the international community and international media, in the name of helping the Palestinians, are not far behind.
All of this comes to mind as we approach decision-making time as to whether the Palestinians will bring a resolution to the U.N. unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. It is no accident that the most significant Palestinian leader to oppose this proposed step is Prime Minister Fayyad. If he represents an attempt to break from the past, to move from illusions and self-congratulatory victim hood to practical steps to change the dynamic, then his opposition is sending a message that the UN initiative is a repetition of past blunders that have led to such tragedy for his people.
It should not be surprising that Fayyad is relatively isolated in the Palestinian camp, at least publicly, in expressing those views. It is a difficult process to change a culture that has been so deeply embedded in the Palestinian psyche, even if terribly harmful.
What one must have less patience with is the role of those outside the Palestinian community, whether they be Arab governments, Europeans, Latin Americans, Russians and Chinese. This is a moment that an element of self-reflection should enter the picture. In the name of helping the Palestinians, even in the name of frustration with the Israelis, is their support for or lack of active opposition to this move to the UN, going to be remembered as one more time that the Palestinians have been failed by their so-called friends?
Like other campaigns against Israel over the years, the Israelis will be hurt by it. But by far the party that will suffer the most will be the Palestinians themselves. As Fayyad has pointed out, it will not bring the Palestinians any closer to a state. It will raise expectations that will be dashed and could lead to violence out of frustration. The Palestinian economy, which has been doing so well, will undoubtedly take hits, especially if there is confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.
All in all, this would create an even greater mess.
It is good that Washington is taking the lead in trying to dissuade the Palestinians from going forward with this plan and the Europeans from supporting it. Ultimately, the US can prevent the worst things from happening, in this case by vetoing any Security Council resolution on a Palestinian state that the Palestinians might bring to the Council. But the mindset should not merely be one of stopping the bad, or at least stopping the worst.
The real challenge presented by the UN resolution is whether the international community, especially those claiming to be the friends of the Palestinians, are finally ready to say to them: “This is a moment and an opportunity to distance oneself permanently from the self-destructive approach and enter a new era, one that Prime Minister Fayyad has taken the first steps toward. And we, as true friends of your people, are going finally to live up to that by letting you know that we cannot and will not be party to this initiative that will simply repeat and deepen the blunders of the past.”
Such an approach may sound far-fetched considering the history of the last 60 years. It is one, however, that needs serious consideration in order to move Israeli-Palestinian issues to a new place.