The Americans still don't get it: the Palestinian leadership, Fatah and Hamas, are not interested in a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they want all of Palestine, and are willing to shadowbox and dissemble and feint and bamboozle in order to defer the moment in which they must say "no,” for they will say "no,” to a realistic, historic compromise.
President Obama foolishly played into Palestinian hands when, early in his administration, he demanded that Israel freeze its settlement activity in order to shoe in a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (in abeyance since 2008, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas a generous two-state package and he rejected it). Abbas jumped on the gift horse and fell into step—no talks until there was a complete settlement freeze.
And when at last the Netanyahu government agreed to a one-year freeze, the Palestinians tergiversated and hemmed and hawed until the year was almost up before actually deigning to start talking. Naturally, no progress was achieved. And then the bell rang, the year was over, and Netanyahu refused to renew the freeze, despite a generous American package in return for a mere 90-day freeze.
Now the White House has announced that it has given up on persuading Israel to renew the freeze, throwing the ball back into the Israeli-Palestinian court—and the Palestinians will continue to link a resumption of the talks to a settlement freeze. Meaning, no talks anytime soon and Israel pilloried by the international community. Which, on both counts, is what the Palestinian leadership wants.
Successive Israeli governments, since 1967, should never have bowed to right-wing messianic pressures and launched the settlement enterprise in the core, hill country of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The enterprise has served the Palestinians well: It has tarnished Israel's image, framing the Jewish state as an expansionist, land-grabbing "imperial" power (no matter that the settlements were physically constructed by Palestinian laborers). And, more recently, it has served the Palestinians as an excuse for not joining a peace process that they feared might channel them toward a two-state settlement which they utterly reject.
And how do we know that they reject such a compromise? Because they say so, loudly and clearly to their own audiences, in Arabic, and occasionally, but more obliquely, to Westerners, who prefer not to hear what they are being told.
Hamas, the fundamentalist terrorist organization based in the Gaza Strip, has the virtue of relative honesty: the organization's constitution, or charter, of 1988 says that Israel must die and Islam, through jihad, will bring this about. Last month, Hamas's number two, Mahmoud al-Zahar, interviewed on Hamas's TV station, repeated the (anti-Semitic) credo: The Jews, because of their evil character, have been kicked out of every country hosting them, beginning with medieval Britain and France and ending, more recently, with Germany, and this is the fate that awaits them in Palestine as well.
And the supposedly secular Fatah party (note: captured failed suicide bombers from Fatah often spoke about the seventy-two virgins they hoped to meet up with in heaven), the main constituent of the PLO and of the Palestine Authority "government,” says the same thing but more subtly.
The Fatah's constitution from the 1960s, to be found on its website, is anything but subtle. It frankly calls for Israel's "disestablishment." And the PLO's "National Charter" of the 1960s, which the previous Palestinian national leader, Yassir Arafat, promised in the 1990s to amend and replace with a new charter, one which does not call for Israel's destruction, remains on the books—unreplaced. And Mahmoud Abbas, while saying "yes, yes" to two states, continues flatly to oppose the Clintonian formula of "two states for two peoples,” one for the Arabs and one for the Jews. Instead, he says, one for the Arabs, and the other for whoever lives in the territory of pre-1967 Israeli territory, while unwaveringly demanding that Israel accept the refugees' "right of return" and allow the return to Israel of the 1948 refugees and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. These number 4.7–7.5 million, depends who's counting. Such a return would mean that the territory of pre-1967 Israel would swiftly or gradually acquire an Arab majority. Meaning, no Jewish state. Not really a "two-state solution.”
So Abbas, like Arafat—who in December 2000 rejected President Clinton's formula for a two-state solution—focuses on, and deploys the red herring of, "settlements,” knowing that such a focus will indefinitely postpone discussion of the real issue, an agreement to establish a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish Israel. And the Netanyahu government, rejecting a settlement freeze, falls into the Palestinian PR trap—and the Obama administration is left with the equivalent of diplomatic scorched earth.
But not all is necessarily lost. Perhaps the time has come for Washington to put on the table an outline of a fair peace plan or how it envisions a final settlement, which will be, to be sure, no different in principle from the Clinton proposals (or "parameters") of 2000. If America applies the thumbscrews, perhaps the two sides will even respond, and the world will be a little wiser about what Abbas (and Netanyahu) really wants.