The Palestinians: Between Insurgency and Statehood

Boaz Singer and Scott Lasensky
Scott Lasensky Visiting Fellow - Israel Institute of National Security Studies

July 27, 2000

Returning home from two weeks of intense negotiations, for both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat the stakes have never been higher, and the risks have never been greater. The Palestinians in particular came face to face with a sobering realization while sequestered at Camp David; they found themselves poised precariously between two identities, insurgency and statehood. Although the Camp David talks have ended, the inescapable march of history is forcing the Palestinians once and for all to choose which identity they will carry forward.

With all eyes on a dwindling hourglass, and an accelerated calendar, the Palestinians would be well advised to reach a framework agreement now that will lead to the realization of a Palestinian state later this year and formally end the conflict with Israel, while deferring all pending issues to future peaceful negotiations.

This road would be rewarded with closer ties to the United States and increased financial assistance from Washington and the international community. Any unilateral action to declare statehood would be disastrous for Arafat and all Palestinians, not only in terms of the political and economic support they will lose from the United States but because of the changing dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Knowing your opponent’s strengths

Both before and during the Camp David summit, Palestinian officials frequently signaled that independence must be “taken,” not “granted.” By suggesting that a second Intifada, or uprising, could accompany a unilateral declaration of independence, Palestinian leaders are still relying on an insurgent mentality even as they move toward a nation-state reality. So the question remains: Who will emerge from the failed Camp David summit, Arafat the insurgent or Arafat the statesman?

One thing is clear: If the “State of Palestine” enters the international lexicon in a hail of gunfire, the Palestinian leadership will have committed its gravest mistake. It will have chosen to play to Israel’s strengths.

A unilateral declaration of statehood would give Israel greater freedom to respond legitimately under the realpolitik rules that remain influential in a world of nation-states. With the Palestinians leaving Camp David with an independent state in one hand but no diplomatic settlement in the other, statesman Arafat has everything to lose.

Since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Arafat’s greatest strategic and political asset has been his movement’s existence as a hybrid entity caught between a national liberation movement and a territorial nation-state. For seven years, Arafat has leveraged this indefinite and shifting identity to influence Israeli, American, European and Arab will to the fullest extent.

By pivoting between an insurgent and a nation-state mentality, the PLO/Palestinian Authority has sought to maximize every aspect of its asymmetrical relationship with Israel and the state-dominated environment that defines the Middle East. It has used every possible mechanism, be it insurgency, popular uprising, diplomacy, dependency?legitimate or not?to further Palestinian goals.

Barak’s goals

Aware that a drift toward violence is possible, Barak entered negotiations seeking a diplomatic agreement while also seeking to foster a series of political-military conditions favorable to Israel?regardless of the summit’s outcome. In this respect, Barak’s goal was threefold. First, the international community must believe that Israel would have been willing to painfully compromise while the Palestinians remained belligerent. Second, the Israeli public must be convinced that in the event of Palestinian violence, Israel would have no alternative other than to resort to force. Third, the Palestinian leadership would need to provide Israel with sufficient reason to respond to hostile behavior with effective military force.

With the negotiations at Camp David now over, it seems Barak has nearly achieved the first two elements. To many observers (including, it seems, President Clinton), the Palestinians were uncompromising in the face of a generous and courageous Israel. Barak’s domestic situation is even more promising, with significant public support already in favor of decisive Israeli retaliation in the event of a confrontation, and with the ever increasing possibility of a national unity government.

The third element remains Arafat’s choice. If the Palestinian leadership decides to pursue the violent path to state formation, then they will unwittingly (though not uncharacteristically) play into Israel’s hand.

The asymmetry with Israel that served Palestinian ends so well until now is fading, and it is hard to tell if the Palestinian leadership fully appreciates this. Despite the hopes of some Palestinian leaders, a renewed Intifada is not an option.

Symmetry in statehood

The young stone-throwers with whom Israel had such a difficult experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now adults with families. Many are members of a hierarchical, rigid (some would say corrupt) bureaucracy known as the Palestinian security services. If Arafat decides to spontaneously “realize Palestinian sovereignty,” he will no longer hold the moral high ground with children throwing stones.

With any new round of violence, the Israeli army will not face children but a military force of 35,000 under-equipped legitimate targets. In response to this increased symmetry, Israeli determination, commitment, cohesiveness, will and tactical expertise should not be underestimated or misperceived.

If the physical realization of Palestinian sovereignty is to succeed it needs to be accompanied by the psychological realization that sovereignty is a game of nation-states, not insurgencies. And if Arafat intends to become the recognized and legitimate leader of the 21st century’s newest state, he needs to understand the symmetry of statehood and the consequences it entails.