Are the Palestinians powerless?

Abbas can change the entire nature of the conflict by declaring 3 simple things.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Fewer assumptions guide those who sympathize squarely with the Palestinian cause more than the core belief that they are weak and powerless.
Brian Walt, a retired rabbi from Philadelphia, exemplified this well in an article he wrote for Tikkun Magazine: "Israel has immense power and the Palestinians are powerless; Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are oppressed. Our religious tradition is clear that God calls us to be on the side of the oppressed."
Others are far more colorful. Edward Said, who was one of the most prominent and eloquent Palestinian activists, said of the first intifada that it had unmasked “the Israelis as sullen and brutal killers, their ‘vision’ nothing more than cruel punishment administered to defenseless civilians.”
Indeed, in the minds of many, nothing captures the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more than that image of young Palestinian children throwing rocks at massive Israeli tanks.
The problem is that the assumption is utterly false. The Palestinians actually have enormous potential to influence their own fates; far more, in fact, than any other stateless people. Their wretched existence—and there's no denying that for many Palestinians, that is the only fitting description—is not the sole result of what others have done to them. It is, at the end of the day, also a result of choices they as a people have made in the past, and no less important, continue to make until this very day.
Imagine what would happen if PA President Mahmoud Abbas were to hold a joint press conference with Hamas' Ismail Haniyya, and jointly declare three simple things: 1) that they are willing to permanently drop all claims to territory beyond the 1967 border and end the state of conflict; 2) that they are willing to have joint or UN custodianship over the entire Old City and all its holy sites; 3) that the Palestinian right of return will be limited to the new Palestinian state, with only a few thousand allowed to come into Israel for family reunions.
Such a small, simple press conference would change the entire conflict within the hour. Its effect would dwarf that of all previous wars and intifadas. Without throwing a single rock or Molotov cocktail, these words would not just bolster Israel's pro-peace camp, it would be the political tsunami that would reshape Israeli politics altogether.  Israeli politicians would be tripping over themselves in their race to see who would be that guy shaking the Palestinian leader's hand on the White House lawn.
Such a Palestinian announcement would be a disaster for the settlers. If the rest of Israel's citizens actually had to make a choice between them and a true, final peace settlement, they'd be toast. Even a big settlement bloc like Ariel would be a sacrifice worth making.
Even those like myself, who recite the Psalmist's words with utmost conviction, "If I forget thee oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning..." yes, even people like me will think seriously about compromise in Jerusalem. We will ask how we can make Temple Mount into a place which once more symbolizes endless brotherly love (as Jewish tradition holds) instead of its current status as ground zero for never-ending religious hate.
Try a similar thought experiment with the Tibetans. Imagine their leadership announced a similar willingness to permanently respect China's borders and end the conflict between them. Do you think China would grant them independence? Think Spain or France would do so if the Basque were similarly forthcoming? Surely Turkey or Iraq would immediately come to agreeable terms with an independent Kurdistan, right?
Of course, Palestinian supporters will claim that Palestinians couldn't just give up the most important points to be negotiated before such talks even began. The problem is that we actually have had enough talks to be quite clear about what a final agreement will look like. We all know the parameters. All that are left is the miniscule details: will 3 percent or 5 percent of the West Bank go to Israel, and in exchange for exactly what Israeli territory. Will it be 1,000 Palestinians or 10,000 who are allowed into Israel, and so forth.
Moreover, precisely because the Palestinians have never been so bold, they have failed to convince even those of us with pro-peace tendencies that they are truly sincere. That unwillingness to convince us of their long-term aspirations has actually made Israel far less forthcoming in negotiations than we would have been otherwise.
Ah, I know what you're thinking: but the Palestinian street would never support their leaders if they made such concessions. They would demand their immediate resignation, or more likely, kill them outright.
My point exactly. The Palestinian "street" continues to make choices. For however wretched they believe their lives to be, it is time the rest of us realize that they have collectively chosen to pay this price in order to avoid compromise.
The ability to make choices that can transform one's fate—that's power. The unwillingness to abandon maximalist positions for so many years—even if under poetic banners like "to exist is to resist"—that's just being stubborn.
The writer is Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.