During a month-long December/January visit to Israel and the West Bank, I quickly noticed the obvious: many Palestinians and Israelis hoped Mahmoud Abbas’s expected election as President of the Palestinian Authority would end the violence and lead to a Palestinian state. The optimism was refreshing, but I didn’t share it.
Gearing up for the election, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders de-escalated the four-year-old intifada. The Israeli leadership clearly thought Abbas was their man, willing to criticize violent resistance and, more important, willing to settle for a truncated Palestinian state. Palestinians hoped the election would legitimize their nationalist aspirations, and many were reassured by Abbas’s campaign pledge to stick to popular demands; even Hamas, which opposes the two-state solution Abbas accepts, reduced its attacks.
Throughout the West Bank, campaign posters presented presidential candidates posing under Palestinian flags with a smiling Yasser Arafat. But amidst the nationalist euphoria, a couple of Palestinian political elites told my group the over-optimism worried them. “Some Palestinians think they’ll be driving to Jerusalem soon to go shopping like before,” one said. “What will happen when they are disappointed?” Abbas has to bring results within two years, they estimated. They doubt he’ll succeed.
Most Palestinians, fed up with the Occupation’s unremitting oppression, appear ready to compromise with Israel, but not to accept a sell-out. They want a Palestinian state alongside Israel — the internationally agreed-upon plan — but only a viable contiguous one with a capital in East Jerusalem. Jewish settlements have to go. The refugee problem has to be settled fairly, though there’s no consensus about what that means. If Abbas can get this agreement, most Palestinians would go along. If not, support for Hamas and other anti-compromise Islamic groups will escalate and the third intifada will begin.
As I write this in mid-February, Ariel Sharon is accommodating Abbas while pushing to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza this summer. But it’s widely understood by Palestinians that Sharon’s willingness to evacuate Gaza means little for the West Bank, which has greater historical, religious, emotional, and economic value. In this case, it’s the Israeli Zionist left that seems to me over-optimistic, hoping despite decades of evidence that Sharon will end Israeli expansionism rather than seek to institutionalize it.
The current de-escalation can enable short-term cooperation, but the long-term outlook remains bleak. Sharon’s refusal even to talk with Abbas about a final settlement until all violence ends clarifies that the stall is on. It also strengthens Hamas, which can be counted on to provide whatever justification Israel needs to delay serious negotiations.
Even if talks proceed, any two-state solution Israel agrees to would leave the Jewish state dominant and Palestine dependent. A one-state secular democracy is a more legitimate goal despite the odds against it, but that would also galvanize those on both sides who prefer theocracy and ethnic cleansing to co-existence. In the end, nationalists and fundamentalists on both sides of the Green Line remain the primary obstacle to justice.