If there’s one person I wish world leaders would listen to in the New Year that began last week, it’s an anonymous physician from Gaza identified only by his initial. “I wish Israel never existed, but as it does not seem to be going away, I would rather be working in Israel like I used to before the first intifada, not fighting it,” F. told Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian-Jordanian living in Britain, earlier this month.
F. isn't alone. In a poll of Palestinian attitudes conducted by the Washington Institute in June, shortly before the Gaza war began, over 80 percent of respondents said they “definitely” or “probably” wanted more Palestinians to be allowed to work in Israel, while a smaller but still decisive majority wanted Israeli companies to provide more jobs in the West Bank and Gaza. And in a rare moment of honesty this July, even senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk acknowledged his people’s hunger for work, saying he would prefer an Israeli reoccupation to Gaza’s current situation, because “occupation means providing electricity, water and jobs.”
None of this means the Palestinians have stopped hating Israel. Indeed, fully 60% of respondents forthrightly told that same Washington Institute poll that "the main Palestinian goal for the next five years” shouldn't be a two-state solution, but “to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea" – aka eradicating Israel. And 64% said that even if a two-state agreement were signed, it wouldn't end the conflict; instead, “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.”
Yet meanwhile, they want to live – or at least, most of them do. Though Palestinians overwhelmingly applaud the “martyrs” who die while trying to kill Israelis, most don’t want to die such a death themselves; they would prefer to earn decent livings for their families and not be killed in constant wars.
And this is where international leaders, diplomats and journalists make their big mistake: Starting from the correct premise that most Palestinians would like to lead normal lives, they erroneously conclude that Palestinians are ready for a two-state agreement, which would help them to do so. And they simply ignore what Palestinians keep telling them, in poll after poll, failed negotiation after failed negotiation: They don’t want normal lives at the price of giving up their dream of destroying Israel. They aren't ready to abandon their hope of “reclaiming all of historic Palestine.” They aren't ready to waive the “right of return,” aka their demand to eliminate the Jewish state demographically by settling millions of descendants of refugees in it. They aren't ready to end the conflict. And even if a two-state solution were reached, they would see it as nothing but an interim step toward the goal of Israel’s ultimate destruction.
Compounding this error is the fact that diplomats and politicians naturally hunger for high-profile agreements that will win them newspaper headlines and perhaps even Nobel prizes; there’s little glory in simply managing a conflict in a way that makes life a bit better for all sides. So over and over, they push the parties into fruitless negotiations that inevitably collapse, and in the process (for reasons I explained here) frequently spark a new outbreak of violence.
Yet “managing the conflict” is precisely what most people on both sides actually want. Israelis would like peace, but most don’t consider it achievable right now. Palestinians would like to destroy Israel, but most don’t consider that achievable right now. So meanwhile, both would like to live as well as possible – i.e., with minimal violence and maximum opportunities to earn a decent living – until some change in the situation makes one or the other of their mutually incompatible goals achievable.
This, basically, is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated years ago when he spoke of “economic peace” with the Palestinians. Although he was derided worldwide for thinking economic improvement could replace a diplomatic agreement, Netanyahu never intended this as a substitute for ending the conflict. His goal was merely to improve life on both sides until such time as ending the conflict actually became possible.
Though Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation was sharply reduced by the wave of Palestinian terror that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords, it still exists in many fields, from Palestinian construction workers who build houses in Israel to Israeli high-tech firms that outsource programming to Palestinian companies. And expanding it again could benefit both sides: Israel could provide jobs, which Palestinians desperately need and want; Palestinians could fill Israeli labor shortages in fields like construction and agriculture; Israeli firms could outsource work to the territories; and so forth.
Yet expanded cooperation clearly isn't possible while Palestinians are actively waging war on Israel, either militarily or diplomatically. And this is where Western leaders come in. For while Hamas’ military war may be beyond their control, they have actively abetted the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic war – by demanding Israeli concessions just for the privilege of holding talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, by threatening Israel with boycotts and imposed solutions; and above all, by financing Abbas’s war with the billions of dollars a year they give the PA.
Ostensibly, their goal is to encourage an Israeli-Palestinian deal by “bolstering” Abbas while pressuring Israel. But no such deal is achievable as long as Palestinians don’t want it. And meanwhile, by fanning the flames of Israeli-Palestinian animosity, these Western moves preclude the kind of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation that could improve lives right now.
So if the West truly wants to improve the Palestinians’ situation, the best thing it could do is promote Netanyahu’s derided “economic peace.” There would be no signed agreements, just informal arrangements: Western countries would use their financial leverage to make Abbas scale back his diplomatic war and would stop supporting this war themselves; in exchange, Israel would take significant steps to bolster the West Bank economy. Although Gaza would have to be excluded as long as Hamas remains in power, helping some Palestinians is surely better than helping none at all.
Granted, it wouldn't win Western leaders any Nobel prizes. But many ordinary Palestinians like F. might thank them for it.Evelyn Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.