Why Won’t the Palestinians Negotiate?

Palestinian Statehood and the Lessons of Oslo

The U.N. deliberations are theater. There can be no avoiding direct negotiations.

September 23, 2011

By Fouad Ajami. Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

‘U.N. 194″ is the slogan of the campaign to grant the Palestinians a seat at the United Nations, to recognize their authority as the 194th nation in that world body. This is the Palestinians’ second chance, for there was the session of the General Assembly in 1947 that addressed the question of Palestine, and the struggle between Arabs and Jews over that contested land.

A vote took place on the partition resolution that November and provided for two states to live side by side. It was a close affair. It required a two-thirds majority, and the final tally was 33 states in favor, 13 opposed, 10 abstentions, and one recorded absence. Israel would become the 58th member state. The Palestinians refused the 59th seat.

Arab diplomacy had sought the defeat of the resolution, and the Palestinians had waited for deliverance at the hands of their would-be Arab backers. The threat of war offered the Palestinians a false promise; there was no felt need for compromise. The influential secretary-general of the Arab League, the Egyptian Azzam Pasha (by an exquisite twist of fate a maternal grandfather of al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri), was to tell a talented, young Zionist diplomat, Abba Eban, that the Arab world was not in a compromising mood. “The Arab world regards the Jews as invaders. It is going to fight you,” he said. “War is absolutely inevitable.”

For the Zionists, the vote was tantamount to a basic title to independence. But the Jewish community in Palestine had won the race for independence where it truly mattered—on the ground. Still, theirs was a fragile enterprise.

Britain, the Mandatory Power in Palestine since the end of World War I, had wearied of the Zionists, of the Arabs, and of the whole sordid burden of adjudicating their competing claims. The British Empire was broke and looking for a way to reduce its burdens. In August 1947, it had given up India, the Jewel of the Crown, and stood aside as a wave of cataclysmic violence between Hindus and Muslims provided a shameful end to a long imperial dominion. It was no use shedding blood and treasure in Palestine, and Pax Britannia was eager to pass the problem onto the U.N.

Nor were matters clinched for partition, and for the cause of a Jewish state, in the American councils of power. President Harry Truman was indecisive. He drew sustenance from the Bible and the cause of Jewish statehood tugged at him, but he was under immense pressure from a national security bureaucracy that had no sympathy for the Zionist project. An accidental president who had come to the presidency after the death of FDR, he lacked the self-confidence a crisis of this kind called for.

His secretary of state, Gen. George Marshall, was dubious of the idea of partition, fearful that a war would break out over Palestine that would require the intervention of American troops. Truman stood in awe of Marshall, regarded him as one of the “great commanders of history.” Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was more antagonistic still. There were oil interests in the Arab world, and a big strategic position in the region to protect.

The voting at the U.N. was messy. In the end, all American doubts were swept aside, and the United States opted for partition, lobbied for it, and was joined by the Soviet Union. Britain abstained. The tire magnate Harvey Firestone secured Liberia’s vote for partition. The Philippines hesitated but cast a favorable vote. India had hinted that it was in sympathy with partition but in the end chose not to run afoul of the sensibilities of its own Muslim population. Rumor had it that the delegate from Costa Rica sold his country’s vote for $75,000.

“The partition line shall be nothing but a line of fire and blood,” Azzam Pasha warned. And history would vindicate him. Six months later, with Britain quitting Palestine without even a ceremonial handover of responsibility, war would break out.

But the scenarios of doom for the new Jewish state were not to be fulfilled. Israel held its own. And the Palestinians who had bet on the Arab cavalry riding to the rescue were to know defeat and dispossession. Their cause was subsumed under a wider Arab claim, mandatory Palestine was to be divided—there was the new Jewish state, Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Egyptian control over Gaza. The victory of Israel two decades later in the Six Day War reunited the land and, ironically, gave the Palestinians a chance to release themselves from pan-Arab captivity.

“We need to have full membership at the U.N. We need a state, a seat at the United Nations,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared last week in Ramallah as he launched this bid, in defiance of American wishes. Thus state-building would be bypassed, and the Palestinians, in a familiar pattern of their history, would place their faith in deliverance through the indulgence of others.

But were the Palestinians to look at their history, they would come to recognize that the one break that came their way happened in 1993, through direct negotiations with Israel. The peace of Oslo that secured them their national authority, that brought Yasser Arafat from his Tunisian exile to Gaza, was a gift of direct diplomacy. Arafat was looking for redemption; he had bet on Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990-91 and lost the financial support of the Arab oil states. Israel, for its part, had just elected a war hero, a stoical, determined man, Yitzhak Rabin, as its leader, and he had campaigned on the promise of getting “Gaza out of Tel Aviv.”

True, the ceremony of reconciliation on Sept. 13, 1993, had taken place on the South Lawn of the White House, Bill Clinton nudging Arafat and Rabin together for that reluctant handshake. But the Americans were giving away the bride long after the couple had eloped.

A generation after that handshake, the lesson of that accord remains unaltered. There can be no avoiding the toil and the exertions of direct negotiations. The deliberations at the U.N. are only theater, just another illusion.

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