When the Palestinian Central Council last week postponed, once again, the decision to unilaterally declare an independent state, few Palestinians seemed disturbed. Palestinians, one may conclude, have grown too cynical to place any faith in what the Palestinian Authority promises, so they are not holding their breath for the new deadline, set for mid-November. What makes many of them take such dates lightly is not merely the long record of postponements but also the solid belief that the Palestinians would gain little if they went independent without first having an agreement with Israel. After all, the Palestinian Authority controls only small chunks of territory in the West Bank, and Israel would have the overwhelming upper hand if military conflict broke out between them. So how credible is the November deadline?
The last time the Middle East was in a similar situation was in 1973. For two years, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had set deadline after deadline to go to war to regain the Sinai if international diplomacy didn’t accomplish the task peacefully. By October of ’73, few people took him seriously, especially in the United States. The Sadat doubters believed that Egypt, and its ally, Syria, could not possibly win a full-scale war against Israel, and if they tried, their losses would be prohibitive. When on Oct. 6, Egyptian and Syrian armies rolled against Israeli forces in a seemingly suicidal war, their minds, and Israel’s, were quickly changed. Although Egypt and Syria had small hope of winning outright, they were willing to risk much to change an unacceptable situation on the ground. For similar reasons, the Palestinians will probably declare an independent state before the end of the year, if negotiations with Israel fall apart.
The muted Palestinian response to the latest deadline postponement, however, was not simply a function of cynicism. Palestinians always regarded a unilateral declaration of statehood as a last resort. The threat carried more weight when Benjamin Netanyahu was Israeli prime minister because he was unwilling to grant Palestinians a viable state through negotiations. Palestinians believed a unilateral declaration would win over the support of a sympathetic international community, thereby changing the status quo and favorably altering their bargaining position.
When Ehud Barak became prime minister, international perceptions of Israel changed but not enough to cost Palestinians international support. During Barak’s first months in office, when he seemed to move too slowly on peace talks, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat garnered sufficient international sympathy to gain promises of support on Palestinian statehood from the Europeans.
But the failed Camp David summit in July has created a different outlook. For one thing, the international community, and especially the U.S., continue to believe that a peaceful outcome remains possible in the short term. More important, Barak succeeded, more than any previous Israeli leader, in highlighting his willingness to make concessions and in portraying Arafat as less forthcoming. This was not merely a tactic. Many Israelis genuinely believed that Arafat went to Camp David not to make a deal, but to “pocket” Barak’s concessions, go home and then get some more concessions. How else could one explain the Palestinian leader’s refusal even to discuss a compromise on the Haram al Sharif-Temple Mount area of Jerusalem, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews?
The Palestinian reaction, ironically, was the mirror image of the Israelis’: It was Arafat who did most of the conceding at Camp David. In particular, he gave in on one of their most emotional issues, Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians saw little room for compromise on this issue: All settlements are illegal and must be removed. But Arafat reportedly accepted the idea that Israel could incorporate three-quarters of the settlers and their settlements. On the most passionate issue to Palestinians—the right of refugees to return to the homes they left in Israel in 1948—Arafat was reportedly willing to accommodate Israel’s insistence that most will not return, lest Israel lose its Jewish majority.
In short, Palestinians genuinely believed that Arafat went to Camp David to make a deal and agreed to tough compromises to get one, but once he did, Barak raised the issue of sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif-Temple Mount to make it impossible for Arafat to say yes. Thus, Palestinians were puzzled and distressed when the U.S. blamed them for the failure at Camp David.
What has become clear since Camp David is that both sides went to the negotiations to make a deal, and both moved a great deal closer to making one. But neither fully understood the other side’s religious and political passions on the issue of Jerusalem. One benefit of Camp David has been to force Palestinians and Israelis, for the first time, not only to come to terms with each other’s fears and concerns, but also to confront their own limits on Jerusalem. Public debate on this issue should have happened long ago, and it remains unclear whether such debate at this late hour will provide their leaders with new room for compromise. But the opportunity remains real: At no point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have the parties been closer to an agreement than today.
But the last mile is always the most difficult. It is even more so when it is lined with mines: A single violent attack by a fringe group could derail the march. But if the finish line is not reached in the next few weeks, two things are nearly certain: Barak will not survive as prime minister or he will lead a government with different priorities, and Arafat will declare his state unilaterally even if the costs are high. The best hope in reaching a deal soon is knowing that this alternative is much worse to both sides.