Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud Party conference



In this Aug. 9, 2017 file photo, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at his Likud Party conference, in Tel Aviv, Israel. With a slew of corruption scandals closing in on him, Netanyahu is increasingly dropping what remains of his statesmanlike persona in favor of nationalist rhetoric popular with his base. By cozying up to conservatives, anti-migrant voices, and West Bank settlers, Netanyahu appears to be trying to reframe the corruption allegations as an ideological witch-hunt.

Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Why Israelis Should Hope the Palestinian National Movement Is Not Dead Yet

| Sep. 20, 2017


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on September 18, 2017. The translation was provided by the author.

Two prominent Palestinian academics, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi, recently published a fascinating article, a powerful self-indictment, which essentially argues that the Palestinian national movement is nearing its end. Both authors served in the past as advisors to Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and the article, while not official, does reflect important trends in Palestinian thinking. Two weeks earlier, Newsweek published a lengthy article entitled "How Israel Won the War and Defeated the Palestinian Dream," which makes a similar argument.

Agha and Khalidi maintain that Arafat's absence and Abbas' opposition to the "armed struggle," have left the Palestinian national movement not only without its father and leader, but the very ideology on which it was based from the earliest days and even its very raison d’être. The Palestinians did succeed in attaining various achievements in the struggle against Israel, but most were lacking in practical importance and were even "fake," e.g. the upgrading of their status in the United Nations to that of an observer state. Moreover, the Palestinian Liberation Organization never became a true governing party, ceased, over the years, to truly represent the Palestinians and is now even at risk of losing its status as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. Consequently, "the Palestinian national movement…(has been) a liberation movement not doing much liberating, locked in a fruitless negotiating process." The Oslo Accords, they believe, were the height of the Palestinian movement, but also the beginning of its demise. Bottom line, the Palestinians must adapt to a new and less conducive regional and international situation.

Agha and Khalidi present numerous explanations for the Palestinian decline, inter alia, the absence of successors to Abbas who have the stature and public standing required to make peace, as a result of which he remains the last slim hope for a diplomatic solution; Palestinian loss of faith in the negotiations with Israel; hardening of Israeli positions; Palestinian diplomatic initiatives which did not succeed, including the repeated threats to dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA) and attempts to establish diplomatic facts in the UN; and the deterioration in Abbas' public standing, due to the "fruitless" negotiations, his consistent opposition to the use of violence, security cooperation with Israel, and the evolution of the PA into an authoritarian entity with one-man rule.

In typical Palestinian form, even Agha and Khalidi fail to note Arafat's and Abbas' responsibility for derailing the dramatic peace proposals put forward by Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Ehud Olmert. They similarly do not acknowledge that the fundamental Palestinian approach from the conflict's earliest days, of everything or nothing at all, has been their undoing and truly left them with nothing, i.e., that the Palestinians themselves bear the primary responsibility for the demise of their national movement and the loss of the opportunity to establish a state of their own. There is, apparently, a limit to what one can say publicly.

Ostensibly, we should be pleased. In the 70th year of our national independence, after more than a century of bitter conflict, we "won," and if the Prime Minister does not drown in a sea of corruption, he will be able to crow all the way to the polling stations. His campaign slogan is clear: the Palestinians were defeated—and on my watch.

The truth, of course, is much more complex. The fate of the Jewish national movement is inextricably linked to that of the Palestinian national movement and there is no way to get around this. Indeed, the ostensible “victory” will leave us with a binational state and endanger the future of the entire Zionist enterprise. It is rare that history allows us to see a preview of coming events, but a binational reality has long gone from a potential future nightmare, to a bitter present. A present which is played out daily on our TV screens, with the terrorism which has become a self-evident part of our lives, the defense establishment’s repeated fears of renewed waves of violence, this time during the upcoming holidays, the demographic trends underway and the brutalization of public discourse.

Already today—not in some distant and vague future, the product of the feverish imaginations of defeatist leftists—over 40 percent of the combined populations of Israel and the West Bank are not Jewish. The Zionist movement never provided a precise definition of the concept of the "nation-state of the Jewish people," certainly not in percentages, but it is clear that a state in which less than 60 percent of the population is Jewish, will not remain as such for long. Moreover, had it not been for the disengagement from Gaza (the "expulsion" according to the hard right, the "beginning of the redemption" to those who believe in the sanctity of the People of Israel, rather than the Land of Israel), there would have already been an Arab majority.

The radicalization of the political spectrum and growing strength of the right, notwithstanding, polls demonstrate that a clear majority are strongly opposed to a one-state binational solution. Public discourse should thus be directed away from the Palestinian issue, to the battle to save the future of the Zionist enterprise and to this end, the means of keeping the two-state solution alive pending the conditions for its realization. Regardless of Israeli policy, the prospects of a final settlement are meager, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, a variety of measures could be undertaken today to keep the two-state solution alive, such as the transfer of additional territory from area C to the Palestinians, so that a truly autonomous region can be created; steps to both build trust and strengthen Palestinian society, for example, new construction permits in Kalkilya and other Palestinian areas; and above all, a halt to settlements outside of the "blocs" and provision of incentives to settlers to begin "coming home," even without a final settlement.

The radical right wing in the coalition thwarts all such ideas today, but we have had different governments in the past, which have presented dramatic peace initiatives, and we will have them again in the future. It gets harder with the passage of years, but the alternative is a binational state and an end to the Jewish national movement. In the end, hopefully in the not too distant future, both circumstances and simple self-interest will prevail over messianic ambitions.

Reports of the demise of the Palestinian national movement are probably premature. For our own sake, let's hope so. In any event, it is essential that we ensure that a Palestinian requiem does not become a Zionist swansong.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck."Why Israelis Should Hope the Palestinian National Movement Is Not Dead Yet." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 20, 2017.