Beyond the Israeli elections 2009:
The reality of Palestinian hostility to Israel

Published: 8 March 2009
Briefing Number 236

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Summary and context: Israel has “swung to the right”. It’s a “vote against peace with the Palestinians”. This is how many commentators outside Israel have interpreted the results of the Israeli general election of February 2009.  What they ignore is the real facts of Palestinian politics.  The Palestinian leadership and Palestinian society simply do not display attitudes which are necessary for making peace with Israel. 

One of the most energetic and articulate analysts of Palestinian politics is Professor Barry Rubin, head of Israel’s Global Research in International Affairs Center (the Gloria Center) at  Rubin has the gift of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth writing style, as well as vast knowledge of the Palestinian and wider Arab political landscape.  He has recently published an article outlining what these Palestinian attitudes are. With Prof Rubin’s permission, we publish his article in full here, as Beyond Images Briefing 236, together with some brief background comments from us. 

Rubin paints a sobering picture of Palestinian hostility to Israel. He explains that the conflict is not about territory but about unending Palestinian rejection of Israel nationhood, among the Palestinian mainstream.                

Not all commentators would agree with Rubin’s assessment.  Some find his writings too pessimistic and uncompromising. But the trouble is that most Western analysts prefer to ignore the thinking of analysts like Barry Rubin completely.  Their calls for a two-state solution are based on wishful thinking. They create unrealistic expectations. And by underplaying Palestinian rejection, they naturally point to Israel in a one-sided way as the primary obstacle to peace.  Regrettably, following the 2009 elections, that trend is growing.

Professor Barry Rubin writes:

Israelis across the spectrum don’t believe the Palestinians want coexistence

What is the most important theme of Israeli politics, policy and thinking today? It is pretty simple, but you will rarely see it explained in much of the world.

Most Israelis believe that the Palestinians don’t want to make a comprehensive peace with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state.  Hamas doesn’t want it; the Palestinian Authority (PA) is both unwilling and unable to do it.  Israel faces a hostile Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah, and various Islamist movements which all want to destroy it.  In addition, it cannot depend on strong Western or international support in defending itself.

Therefore it is not a moment for Israel to make big concessions or take big risks.  Peace is not at hand.  The priority – even while continuing negotiations and trying to help the PA to survive – is defense.

That’s what the people who voted for Labour or Likud or Avigdor Lieberman, Kadima or Shas or National Union or Jewish Home or United Torah Judaism believed.  [These were the main parties contesting the Israel general election of 10 February 2009, and they reflect a range of political stances, from left to right and religious to secular – Beyond Images].  More than 85% of Israelis voted for parties that hold that basic conception, while that concept itself is the product of a very serious assessment of very real experience.  And that – whatever differences they have – is beyond any definition of ‘left’ or ‘right’.

How the world has misread the Israeli elections, and Palestinian attitudes

In contrast, what is the main theme in the international arena, when evaluating the elections? The right in Israel is against peace, Israelis moved to the right in this election, hence Israelis are against peace.

To make such a leap, it is necessary to avoid talking about the herd of elephants in the room: Palestinian politics.  If anyone looked beyond the most superficial level of English language interviews by PA leaders trying to make propaganda points, the conclusion is unavoidable that there is no possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace for years to come.  This is regardless of who is Israel’s leader or anything within reason, or somewhat beyond reason, that could be offered.

The package of ideas held within Palestinian society
Here are some tips which prove the point:-

Attitudes on the Fatah Central Committee: Analyse the Fatah Central Committee’s membership and the viewpoints expressed by the group’s top leaders. [Fatah is the Palestinian secular nationalist faction, which controls the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank – Beyond Images].  The number who can be called moderates ready to accept and implement a two-state solution stands at about 10% of them.

Mahmoud Abbas’ views: Mahmoud Abbas [the President of the Palestinian Authority – Beyond Images] is weak.  He has neither charisma nor an organised base.  While relatively moderate, he will not give up the demand for all Palestinian refugees to be able to live in Israel, something that is acceptable to no potential governing party in Israel.  He is sick and probably will not last in office much longer.  He has made no attempt to transform Palestinian political thinking or to provide an alternative vision of peace for his people.    

The absence of an alternative, moderate Palestinian leadership: There is no moderate alternative Palestinian leader in Fatah or elsewhere.  Are there those
who voice a moderate two-state solution position and who advocate coexistence? Yes - there are some, but they have no organisation or power whatsoever.  Moreover, they say so almost exclusively in English to Westerners and not to their own people.  To express anything equivalent to Labor, Kadima, even Likud, positions [in terms of accepting the principle of self-rule side-by-side for two peoples – Beyond Images] is to risk your life.

The Palestinian culture of hostility to Israel and to compromise: Schools, mosques, media and other institutions controlled fully or partly by the PA daily preach that all Israel is Palestine, Israel is evil, and violence against it is good. Hardly the most minimal steps have been taken to prepare the Palestinian masses for peace.  For example, no one dare suggest that a Palestinian nationalist movement might want to resettle Palestinian refugees in Palestine, not Israel; or that Israel and Bill Clinton made a good offer in 2000 and it was a mistake to reject it.  Or a dozen other points necessary as a basis for real peace.

Palestinian opinion polls: Palestinian public opinion polls consistently show overwhelming support for hardline positions, and for terrorism against Israeli civilians.

The historical narrative concering all the land of Palestine: An unyielding historical narrative still predominates that the whole land between the Jordan River and the sea is and should be Arab Palestine. 

Hamas power: Of course, Hamas governs about 40% of the West Bank/Gaza Palestinians and opposes Israel’s existence explicitly. The PA and Fatah do not vigorously combat the Hamas worldview, except perhaps for the idea of an Islamist state.

Conciliation among Palestinian factions, rather than peace with Israel: On the contrary, Fatah and the PA put a higher priority on conciliation with Hamas rather than peace with Israel.

The dispute is not about territory, but about rejection of Israeli nationhood: This conflict is not continuing because there is a dispute about the precise boundary line between Israel and the Palestinian state. It is going on because the Palestinian leaders – all of them – are either unwilling or unable to accept Israel’s permanent existence, the end of the conflict, the abandonment of terrorism, and the settlement of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state [And it is also going on because there are hardly any self-styled campaigners for the Palestinian people in the wider world who are willing to confront them with the changes which they need to make for peace to happen – Beyond Images]   

The PA’s public attacks against Israel over Hamas:  What should have been happening recently is that the PA sent delegations around the world to announce it was the sole legitimate government of the Gaza Strip, that Hamas seized power in a coup and murdered Fatah people in cold blood [see Beyond Images Briefing 198, 15 July 2007], that Hamas is an extremist terrorist group, and that the PA demands the international community restore its own rule in the area.  Instead, the PA sent delegations around the world to blame Israel for every problem, and tried to negotiate a deal with Hamas without requiring any change in that organisation’s policy or goals.

There is no real peace process, only a peace recess…..

None of the above arguments can be refuted. Literally none of these points – except for the barrier posed by Hamas’s rule over Gaza – is really understood by most governments, academics or journalists.  Nevertheless, if you add all these factors together it’s clear that whoever governs Israel the PA is incapable of making comprehensive peace.  There is no peace process, but rather a long-term peace recess.

There’s nothing left or right about the above analysis. Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak know these things.  [And we believe that most Israeli academics of differing persuasions also accept this analysis of the current state of Palestinian thinking. They  therefore consider that the declaration by Israel of the outline of a future solution is the most that can be expected to be achieved in the coming years, rather than an actual, implemented solution – Beyond Images].  Equally, this analysis doesn’t mean that Israel cannot work with the PA on such matters as (i) stability, (ii) economic well-being for the Palestinians, (iii) blocking terrorism, or (iv) keeping Hamas out of power in the West Bank.     

There is a Palestinian partner for these four issues, but not for a comprehensive solution ending the conflict forever in exchange for a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.  As we learned in the 1990s, with the peace process and more recently with disengagement, Israel’s actions – no matter how conciliatory and concessionary – cannot make peace when the other side is unwilling and unable to do so.  It’s time for the rest of the world to learn this fact.

Some key related Beyond Images Briefings
‘Moderate Palestinian leaders believe in a two-state solution….’
Beyond Images Briefing 227, 25 December 2008

‘Recognising Israel as a Jewish state? Mainstream Palestinian leaders refuse to do so’ Beyond Images Briefing 226, 8 December 2008

2008: Israel offers to pull out of 93% of the West Bank, plus give 7% more land – Palestinians say no (Beyond  Images Briefing 225, 5 December 2008)