How the Palestinians Created Their Own Plight

Essay: Israel is not the one denying the Palestinians an independent state

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas / Getty Images
April 27, 2019

It is easy to forget that, in 1947, when the United Nations recommended the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, the international body also recommended the creation of an Arab state—what would today be a national home for the Palestinians. The idea was to partition the land into two separate entities—in other words, a two-state solution. Indeed, in 1988, the Palestine National Council described the partition resolution as what "still provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty." Yet at the time of the resolution, the Arabs—no one used the term "Palestinians" then—boycotted the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, which the General Assembly empowered to make recommendations about the future government of the territory, rejecting both the partition and a single, binational state. Then the Arabs completely, and unambiguously, rejected the General Assembly's partition plan, believing that, once the British left Mandatory Palestine, they would defeat the Jews and control the entire area. Of course the Arabs failed, despite the help of several armies. The Jewish state of Israel, established in 1948, endured, and the Palestinian Arabs, who could have had their own state, remained stateless.

Since then, the Palestinians have repeatedly turned down offers of statehood. First, they did not seek the West Bank when Jordan controlled it from 1949 to 1967. Only when the land was back in Israeli control following the Six-Day War did the Palestinians again call it disputed. Twelve years later, Israel worked to offer the Palestinians autonomy, which would have been a major step toward full independence, to no avail. Then in 2000 and 2008, Israel offered the Palestinians control of virtually all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Each time the Palestinians rejected the offer, even waging a violent uprising against the Israelis following the failure in 2000. One would be hard-pressed to find another national independence movement, beyond the Palestinian one, that has turned down formal offers of statehood in the territory they claim. Indeed, the Palestinians have, time and again, set new standards for stubbornness.

And yet, despite this history, most of the world seems to blame Israel for the Palestinians' situation. Just look at the recent wave of articles and comments assailing the Jewish state that followed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory earlier this month. Naturally, the New York Times led the charge, "reporting" that, with Netanyahu's reelection, Palestinian families see "no light at the end of the tunnel." In a front-page feature, the Times discusses how the Palestinians are despairing about the stalemate in the peace process. Importantly, the article notes that many Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority, or P.A., for the corrupt, ineffective regime that it is, and that at least some want to make peace with Israel. But look at how the Times portrays the general state of the peace process:

Palestinians have wanted to shake free of Israeli domination since the West Bank was first occupied in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. For more than a quarter-century they have waited for the United States-led peace process to deliver them a state of their own.

That is fair enough, but what is the very next paragraph?

But on the eve of Israel's April 9 elections, Mr. Netanyahu said he planned to begin applying Israeli sovereignty over West Bank land, which the Palestinians have long counted on for an eventual state. For many of them, his victory has pushed a two-state solution far beyond the already distant horizon, where it existed in the minds of Palestinian politicians.

So the Palestinians had some hope, according to the Times, until Netanyahu's victory less than three weeks ago. And now the peace process, which of course had been making such public progress over the last 10 years, is finally dead. This narrative is at best delusional, and at worst intentionally misleading. It omits the fact that, for decades, the Palestinians have repeatedly refused to compromise on any agreement that would acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, even if that agreement would also create an independent Palestinian state alongside it. Time after time, the Palestinians have shown that thwarting Israel is more important than realizing their own goals. Until the Palestinians care more about their own happiness than denying Israelis theirs, there will never be peace.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, contributed his own anti-Israel screed to the pile. Remnick writes that, through political cunning and ideological mettle, Netanyahu has "put an end to the two-state expectations raised by the Oslo peace accords." Furthermore, the Israeli premier has "not only extinguished any pretense of coming to a settlement with the Palestinians, he now entertains the idea of annexing the Jewish settlements on the West Bank … The political discussion in Jerusalem was once about trading land for peace; Netanyahu might now seek to trade the rule of law for annexation." Remnick also wrongly describes the peace process as making progress until Netanyahu destroyed the whole project in recent weeks. Again, the clear suggestion here is that Israel is solely, and to its shame, responsible for the Palestinians' current plight. This is just not true.

A discussion of animosity toward Israel would not be complete without mentioning the progressive wing of American politics. Enter Sen. Bernie Sanders, who this week called Netanyahu's government racist. "As a young man I spent a number of months in Israel, [and] worked on a kibbutz for a while. I have family in Israel. I am not anti-Israel," Sanders said at a CNN town hall event. "But the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who I think is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly." Sanders defined himself as "100 percent pro-Israel" and said the Jewish state "has every right in the world to exist, and to exist in peace and security and not be subjected to terrorist attacks" before dropping the r-bomb. "The goal is to try to unite people and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government," he said. Sanders's comments came two weeks after another Democratic presidential candidate, Beto O'Rourke, similarly called Netanyahu a "racist."

To Sanders and O'Rourke, Israel's leader is mainly a racist for how he treats the Palestinians. The clear implication is that Israel is at fault for the Palestinians having poor standards of living and no state—never mind the fact that the Palestinian Authority has effective independence to govern in the West Bank, and that Hamas, a terrorist organization, has total control over the Gaza Strip. If Sanders and O'Rourke really wanted to help the Palestinian people, they would point their fingers at the Palestinian leadership, not Israel.

Too many influential voices in the West, especially but not exclusively on the political left, spend their time absolving the Palestinians of any wrongdoing and paint Israel as some demonic entity. In so doing, while portraying Palestinians as helpless victims, they deny the Palestinians agency, or the ability as human beings, with free will and the capacity to reason, to make their own decisions. The Palestinians are incapable of driving events, according to this anti-Israel (and really anti-Palestinian) narrative, for all responsibility lies with the Jews.

This view is wrong for biological reasons—Palestinians are in fact sentient beings who can think for themselves—but also for historical ones. Palestinians have made deliberate decisions that left them stateless. Just look at what Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, recently told P.A. TV. Erekat explained that, in 2008, Israel offered the Palestinians even more territory than the full area of the West Bank and Gaza, agreed to take 150,000 Palestinian refugees, and proposed for Jerusalem that "what's Arab is Arab, and what's Jewish is Jewish"—in other words, the best deal realistically possible for the Palestinians. And yet, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, who serves in the same role today, rejected the offer. So do not expect the Palestinians to accept a deal—any deal—now. Until the Palestinians accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state on what they deem Muslim, Palestinian land, and until the Palestinians realize they cannot destroy Israel and control all of its territory, they will never get a state.

The Palestinians could learn a lesson from the Jewish Zionists who created Israel. In seeking a state in Palestine, the Zionists used shrewd diplomacy and went about painstaking work over decades to reach their goal. They were visionaries grounded in hard-nosed realism who not only made moral, emotional, and historical arguments for their case, but also appealed to the brain, showing those leaders with the power to help them why supporting the Zionist cause was in their interests. Take the Soviet Union, which, contrary to popular belief, was as important as the United States in passing the partition resolution. Zionist diplomats, such as Eliahu Sasson, observed that the Soviets sought to counter the British in the Middle East, and therefore could view the establishment of a Jewish state as a means by which to eject Britain from the region. Moreover, as Martin Kramer notes, Zionist leaders, recognizing the importance of Soviet support for their cause, labored extensively to convince Moscow that, despite not being communist, they were kindred spirits that valued progressivism and collectivism.

And then, when the United Nations proposed its plan, thus endorsing the Zionist goal, the Jews took what they could get. Sure, the proposal gave them less land than they wanted—much of which was desert—and Jerusalem was to be an international zone surrounded by Arab territory. But national independence movements do not reject offers of statehood—except the Palestinians.

The point is that the Zionists did not have maximalist goals and were very practical. Moreover, they adapted to changing circumstances and deftly navigated the waters of high diplomacy with the world's great powers. Simply put, the Zionists put in the legitimate work to make their dream become reality. The Palestinians have not, seeking grand declarations of statehood at the U.N. without the prerequisite efforts to give them true legitimacy, which include negotiating with the Israelis. Meanwhile, the Palestinians, unlike the Zionists, make only crude, emotional pitches for statehood, motivated at their core by hate rather than aspiration. They do not show foreign leaders why a Palestinian state would help them, or the world more broadly. Even the Jews, who have much stronger legal, historical, and religious ties to the land of Israel, did not focus on the treatment they received during 2,000 years of exile while pushing for a Jewish state in the 1930s and 1940s. And then of course there is the Palestinian corruption, incitement, and terrorism, none of which makes for a promising state. If the Zionist approach to achieving statehood was a graceful ballet, the Palestinian one is a bomb hidden inside a teddy bear: a brute approach masquerading as a heartfelt plea for justice.

The Palestinians could take a few notes. So too could the media and anti-Israel politicians, who only perpetuate the conflict by giving the Palestinians a pass on accepting responsibility for their own stateless plight.