NEW YORK CITY – FEBRUARY 19 2018: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations (Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com)
Is a demilitarized Palestinian state acceptable to Palestinians?

The Palestinian Authority has sent the Quartet — the diplomatic body composed of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union that is supposed to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a proposal in response to the Trump administration’s plan for Israel to annex large portions of the West Bank. According to Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, the proposal was submitted “a few days ago” but was not discussed.

Based on Shtayyeh’s statements, the proposal was essentially a repackaging of the familiar terms of the Oslo peace process and it was most notable for the almost total lack of response it engendered. It does, however, raise some questions worth considering.

The most prominent question is in the familiar outline Shtayyeh put forth for his proposed Palestinian state. We’ve seen it many times, and it’s become a mantra over the years, a “sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarized” with “minor modifications of borders where necessary.”

When considering ideas about solutions, people naturally look for ideas that have significant support among the population. The two-state solution had considerable Palestinian support for many years. That support has been eroded into uncertainty by years of conflict, Israeli rejectionism, U.S. inaction, and official Palestinian ineffectiveness. But as we question the support for two states, it seems that no one has bothered to ask whether the Palestinian people support a “demilitarized state.”

On one hand, we can understand why those genuinely interested in a functional two-state solution would not want to kick this rock. A Palestinian state that could arm and defend itself would change the nature of the two-state vision in a way most Israeli Jews would unlikely be comfortable with.

On the other hand, it is a fundamental condition of the two-state solution that has been discussed for decades, and one that seems like it would be controversial for most Palestinians. After all, it means that, after 72 years of dispossession and 53 years of occupation, the Palestinian state would not only have no way of defending itself against that occupying power, it would be dependent on that very same occupier for the defense of its lands from any other external attack.

Even in the best-case scenario, that is a problematic concept. After all, a theoretical state of Palestine, even if it’s at complete peace with Israel, might have security issues with states that Israel is at peace with. Would Israel defend a Palestinian state against an ally?

More important, though, is the fact that such a condition means the State of Palestine would not be truly sovereign, as the ability to defend a country’s own territory is an integral condition of sovereignty. And depending on a neighbor whose entire history with Palestine has been one of conflict, dispossession, and occupation would seem likely to be unacceptable to Palestinians.

In June 2018, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research asked that very question. The response should not be surprising. 77 percent of Palestinians opposed the idea that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Just under 20 percent said they would support that idea. Even among Palestinian citizens of Israel, more than half oppose a demilitarized Palestinian state.

It is inconceivable that the Palestinian view on this point has changed in the past two years. The collapse of the relationship with the United States, the increasing anger over Israel’s plan to annex large parts of the West Bank, and the ongoing Israeli practice of withholding part of the taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in an effort to force a change in the Palestinian policy of giving stipends to the families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel (some of whom have assaulted or killed Israelis) have only reinforced mistrust and animosity.

Even though the prospect of a two-state solution, or any other solution, is pure fiction right now, this is not an academic question. The disconnect between the Palestinian negotiating position and the views of the Palestinian people is a fundamental problem that must be addressed.

This discrepancy has been evident over the years on the issue of Palestinian refugees, and it causes more problems than people realize. Back in the late 1990s, as U.S. President Bill Clinton was pressing Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to agree to the Camp David II summit, Palestinians in and outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were becoming increasingly agitated over rumors that Arafat was going to agree to give up the refugees’ right of return. Arafat tried to reassure Palestinians that he would do no such thing, but he painted a more accommodating picture for the Americans and Israelis.

Things have not changed since that time. Negotiations have continued under the assumption that Palestinian refugees would never return to what is now Israel in any significant numbers, while the right of return has remained perhaps the central concern for the Palestinian national movement. The same is happening now regarding the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Naturally, we’ve seen Israeli policies shift over many years, with policy ideas once thought beyond the pale becoming mainstream and even official policies. For example, over decades, Israel went from refusing to discuss a two-state solution, to accepting it officially, and then on to annexation, as it is proposed today. It is a given that no Israeli government would ever press forward with a policy that was opposed by a greater than three-quarters supermajority of the population as the Palestinians are being asked to do.

Nor would any U.S. or European government press Israel to do such a thing. That is due in part to the warm relationship Israel enjoys with those bodies, but it is also a pragmatic decision; it makes no sense to ram an agreement through that features conditions that one side is so overwhelmingly opposed to. Even if the deal can be concluded, it would only lead to continued instability and conflict. Yet that is exactly what the Palestinian Authority is agreeing to.

Right now, of course, they are merely doing so as part of a political gesture. They are surely aware that this proposal would gain no traction in Jerusalem or Washington. The whole point of the Trump plan was to supersede the Oslo two-state vision. They are not going to consider that very plan again.

It was also unclear whether the Palestinian Authority or the Palestine Liberation Organization submitted the plan to the Quartet. The reporting seems to indicate it was the PA, which is not authorized to conduct negotiations on behalf of the Palestinian people. Only the PLO can do that, which would give the United States the technicality it would need to argue that the proposal be ignored.

The lack of representation for the Palestinian people could not be more apparent. When the prime minister is trying to commit to a position that such an overwhelming majority of his people oppose, there is no basis for negotiation. The need for representative leaders should be axiomatic. And those leaders must be representing the Palestinian people’s desires, not the positions that Israel and the U.S. define as acceptable. Negotiations between any parties cannot possibly produce results under any other conditions.

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