Aaron David Miller
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
September 12, 2011 - 12:00am

In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the original organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism -- will either succeed in gaining new status as a nonmember U.N. observer state, or win a General Assembly resolution supporting Palestinian statehood.

But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause; their nationalism and attachment to Palestine cannot be easily broken or undermined. Just consider the Jews in the diaspora, whose attachment and yearning for the Land of Israel survived centuries of rootlessness, persecution, and even genocide.

Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.

Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. The current unity gambit between Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas (the organizational embodiment of a Palestinian Islamist nationalism) only highlights those divisions, which are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is. No U.N. resolution can overcome the reality that it will be hard to put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again.

The first piece is Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians live in political and economic limbo. Here Hamas rules uneasily but supremely. The Israeli blockade, recurring war, restrictions on movement, and absence of real opportunity for economic growth have reinforced a sense of separateness and despair. Gazans are certainly part of the Palestinian family, and they will claim to lead its nationalist vanguard (the first Intifada started there, but Gazans are cut off and seen by West Bankers as less-sophisticated country cousins ill-suited for leading the national movement). How many Palestinians from Gaza have ever risen to positions of leadership in Palestinian national politics? Even Yasir Arafat, the world's most famous Palestinian -- and Gaza resident -- wanted it known that he was born in Jerusalem, whether it was true or not. As long as Hamas is in charge, Gaza will retain its provincial character and move in its own direction -- more traditionalist, more Islamist, and more oriented toward Egypt.

Second, in the West Bank, 2.6 million Palestinians comprise the closest thing to a Palestinian statelet. But here, the PLO doesn't so much rule as preside with the indulgence of the Israelis who still control a large portion of West Bank territory, expand settlements at will, and determine who and what gets in and out. Paradoxically, an improved security situation, some economic growth, and responsible governance and institution-building by Fatah's leadership have produced remarkable stability that has worked to preserve the status quo. The West Bank is hardly in a pre-revolutionary state, and both Abbas and the Israelis have a stake in keeping it that way. Still, tensions within Fatah -- driven by a generational divide, resentment over corruption, and opposition to the Palestinian Authority's (PA's) lack of respect for the rule of law -- abound; and Hamas waits patiently to increase its own leverage. Should Abbas resign or retire, Palestinians in the West Bank would be left with no recognizable national figure to guide the PA, further exacerbating division and dissension.

Third, in East Jerusalem, almost 300,000 Palestinians (roughly 38 percent of the city's population) are an anomaly. Not Israeli citizens, but permanent residents, these Palestinians worry constantly about losing their residency, their daily lives made harder by the separation barrier. They do receive Israeli state benefits, such as health care and education; and they pay taxes for it, though their share and quality of those benefits are hardly equitable to those of Israelis (yet still much better than what West Bankers and certainly Gazans receive). Palestinians here have learned to adjust and to survive -- a great many even to prosper. They resent Israeli restrictions and discrimination; and most would want their own state if it were well-governed. But many Palestinians here are worried that they would lose their right to speak freely under a PA-controlled Palestinian state and are concerned about governmental corruption and lack of respect for human rights.

Fourth, there are 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees -- with roughly a third, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, in 58 recognized camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO was itself in diaspora, these communities held greater sway. Even now, however, they continue to limit and even block what the PLO can do and what it can concede on the issue of right of return -- the Palestinian claim that refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in what is now Israel -- during any negotiations with the Israelis. For all practical purposes, these communities represent a lost world; their options and future are grim. In the absence of a solution, they too will go their own way, vulnerable to radicalization and a continuing source of pressure on host governments. Nor has the Palestinian national movement -- unlike the Zionists -- been able to marshal the power of wealthy and influential expatriates in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.

Even without adding in the fifth piece -- the 1.3 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and want to remain so (though treated equitably) -- the consequences of these divisions are profound. No national movement can become a successful state without a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society, centralization of resources, and a coherent strategy. Rooted in the West Bank, the PLO lacks all these things. It cannot mobilize the people of Gaza or East Jerusalem; it cannot command their loyalties through money, show of force, or successful diplomacy, let alone marshal those in the diaspora.

And as long as Hamas has the power to trigger a military conflict with Israel through the use of high-trajectory rockets and missiles, Fatah will always be at the mercy of events and never really in control. Finally, President Abbas does not have the kind of legitimate and broad mandate he needs to negotiate a solution to the issues of refugees and Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians.

An Israeli government less than committed to a meaningful two-state solution -- such as the one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- would look at the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty as just another reason to be complacent and believe that no conflict-ending solution is possible. Even a government that was serious about a settlement would ask serious questions about making concessions to a Palestinian president who doesn't control all of the people or guns of Palestine.

The fact is, it isn't the Israelis who have a demographic problem; it may actually be the Palestinians who simply cannot marshal enough control over their disparate parts to harness their people power into an effective strategy. Any Israeli government -- even one that was serious about negotiations -- would try to develop separate approaches to deal with these divisions: a military/security policy toward Gaza; a co-optation strategy toward the West Bank; and a border-security approach toward the diaspora.

If it looked like the forces of diplomacy, rather than the forces of history, might dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps these various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle could be worked out and addressed. But today, with no sustainable negotiations on the horizon, that does not appear to be the case. A Palestine in pieces does not bode well for a conflict-ending solution, and no paper resolution or upgrade in status in New York this month will change that.


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