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A Palestinian State: What Would Ben Gurion Have Said?

A Palestinian State: What Would Ben Gurion Have Said?

Friday, 30 April, 2021 - 05:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Another missed opportunity?

This is the question that, observing the long overdue forthcoming Palestinian elections comes to mind. When the decision to hold the elections was first declared some of us hoped that it would provide an opportunity for Palestinians to attempt three changes in their political trajectory: to organize a change of generations at the top levels of political decision-making, to forge a minimum of understanding among long rival political groups on the basic rules of the game, and, more importantly, to transform their various versions of “the cause” into a state-building project rooted in reality.

Judging by the course that the lackluster election campaign has taken and the continued domination of today’s scene by men of yesterday, none of those three hopes seem anywhere near realisation. In its current form, Palestinian politics remains atrophied in a lost cause that in zombie style bars the route to positive energies.

Less than a year ago, in what was to be his last trip abroad, veteran “negotiator” Saeb Erekat told a small audience at the home of the Kuwaiti ambassador in London that Palestinians were getting ready to attempt a radical change of course in the hope of achieving a “just peace.”

In the debate that followed, we suggested that using any qualifier for peace could render it impossible to achieve. In a sense, all peace(s) are always unjust for one side and just for the other.

Erekat insisted that there could be no peace unless four conditions were met.

First, Israel should agree to return to the 1968 ceasefire lines. He ignored the fact that ceasefire lines exist in the context of a truce, not of peace and that, if achieving peace is the aim, there is no point in choosing them as a sine qua non in a negotiated deal.

In any case, why chose 1968 as a marker? Why not 1948 or 1048 or even 68 AD? Moreover, those ceasefire lines were drawn between Israel on one side and four Arab states on the other without involving Palestine beyond a vague symbolic notion. In any case those ceasefire lines, with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have undergone changes, some quote significant, since 1968 and trying to revive them would affect the larger architecture of stability in the region.

Erekat’s second “condition” concerned the “right of return” allowing Palestinians who wished to resettle in their ancestral land to do so. The “right of return” is recognized in international law and is routinely exercised by hundreds of peoples in several countries each year. However, this is an individual, not a collective, right and its exercise depends on the consent and laws of the states concerned. In other words neither Israel nor any other state could grant a collective right that would allow any and all seekers of “return” to do so when and how they wished. In other words, Palestinians should first recognize Israel as a legitimate state before they can work with it to allow seekers of return to achieve their goal with its consent.

The third “condition” concerned the status of Jerusalem as the capital of a putative Palestinian state. Here, too, the Palestinian position suited those for whom Palestine is a cause not a project for state building. A Persian proverb says: You don’t burn Caesarea for a handkerchief, meaning that a larger goal shouldn’t be sacrificed to a smaller consideration. Accommodating a “capital” for a putative Palestinian state in the greater Jerusalem areas has been regarded as a possibility since the 1990s.

As far as “capitals” are concerned, there are many atypical examples, not to say anomalies. The German Democratic Republic’s “capital” was supposed to be in Berlin, then divided between the Soviet Union on one side and US, Britain and France on the other. In reality, however, the Communist regime was located in Panko, a suburb of Berlin. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are, in fact, urban twins on two banks of the same river but capitals of two different states. The entire state of Vatican is located in Rome, the capital of another state, Italy.

It is, of course, possible to refute that argument by referring to Jerusalem’s “special place” in religious, not to say mythological, terms. Such a concern is understandable if one remains frozen with Palestine as a cause, not as a state-building project. Interestingly, some Zionist pioneers faced a similar state-or-cause dilemma. Many opposed David Ben Gurion's decision to accept the partition of what was left of the British mandate which left the Jews with a Swiss-cheese rump of territory that, worse still, did not include West Jerusalem not to mention many other locations where Jewish “holy places” are located. If the creation of Israel as a state was the supreme goal, all other considerations would have to be regarded as secondary.

Erekat’s fourth condition was “territorial contiguity” between the West Bank and Gaza. Provided that building a state is the aim, that too, is a minor problem that could be solved with an underground or over-ground passage through Israeli territory. After all, many states lack territorial contiguity, among them the US, Britain, France and Denmark. In 1947 the fact that East and East Pakistan were 1,000 miles apart, separated by a hostile Indian state, did not prevent India’s Muslims from accepting the deal offered to them by British imperialists.

When the British mandate ended in 1947 there was no Palestinian nation, in the universally accepted sense of the term at least in the Westphalian treaties, to claim a state of its own. In fact, all mandate and subsequent United Nations documents refer to “inhabitants” of mandate Palestine presented as Arabs, Jews, Druzes, Armenians, Bahais, Turks and numerous Christian denominations including Assyrians and Chaldeans. Today, however, a Palestinian nation is a reality shaped by eight decades of shared experience.

This newly shaped nation has its own culture, literature, music and world outlook which, though rooted in the deeper historic indemnities merging together, is distinct from its Arab and Israeli neighbors. The mass of Palestinians seem ready to make the transition from a cause into a state. However, their political establishment figures both in Fatah and Hamas remain prisoners of a strategy that belongs to the museum of lost causes.

Just or unjust reality today lacks the means for realizing the ideal that merchants of Palestine-as-a-cause offer.

Younger Palestinians, however, might wonder: What Ben Gurion would have said: accept a hard deal and get a state or cling to a cause and remain stateless?

This election is unlikely to answer that question.

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