Friday, March 9, 2012

Lonely Palestine

As Israel vs. Iran crowds Israel and Palestine off the top of the Middle East agenda, Palestinian leaders are sounding wistful:
“The biggest challenge we face — apart from occupation — is marginalization,” Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (below), said in an interview. “This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.”
A year ago, some predicted that Israel, feeling encircled by hostility as a result of the Arab spring, would be more eager to establish a Palestinian state. Perhaps the Palestinians thought so, too. If so, they were wrong. It's not the first time they've either put too much faith in the leverage applied by regional and global friends or walked away from the table believing that they could get a better deal next time. In late 2001, Yasser Arafat told former President Bill Clinton that he should've taken the deal the U.S. brokered in 2000. The Palestinians balked again in 2008, when the Bush administration did the honors. They squandered the 2009 Obama initiative by insisting that Israel suspend its West Bank settlements before even coming to the table.

It's actually astonishing to hear Fayyad say Palestinians feel marginalized, since they've been an A-list international cause for a generation. Three U.S. presidents have committed substantial effort and capital to a Palestinian state. They've been the toast of their Arab brethren throughout the region, though it's usually been all gas and no champagne. In her memoir, No Higher Honor, Condi Rice writes that when she was George W. Bush's national security adviser she told a group of representatives of Arab nations, "If you care so much about the Palestinians, why have each and every one of you expelled them from your country at some point in time?" Rice adds, "I can't count the number of phone calls I made to the rich Arabs, begging them to give just a little bit of their excess oil revenue to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority."

Now the world is otherwise occupied. Arabs are dealing with their revolutions, the Obama administration and Israel are dealing with Iran, and the Palestinians say they're in a corner. Indeed they are, and it's a corner of their own painting. They've been so fixated on what they believe Israel and the U.S. should do that they've failed to appreciate the basic truth of their situation, which is that Israel will do for them what it wishes, what it determines to be in its long-term interests, and no more. In the end, there are two negotiating partners, and no amount of external pressure can change the fact that Israel is in the stronger position, perhaps more isolated since the Arab spring but still indomitable.

Until now, it's been hard to avoid the impression that Palestinians' understandable feelings of resentment and entitlement have contributed to their failure to make the most of their opportunities with friendlier Israeli regimes. Here's hoping that their new feeling of isolation will help Palestinians understand that, if the two-state solution is to be salvaged, they should make the best territorial settlement they can as soon as possible. Israel has exploited over a decade of Palestinian hesitation and vacillation by building and expanding more and more settlements in the West Bank. Israel won't stop, and the U.S. can't make her stop. Only the Palestinians can, by finally saying yes.

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