The fantasy of a Palestinian state will always have an edge on the reality of Israel.
A decade ago, I wrote an op-ed on the election of Mahmoud Abbas to the Palestinian presidency following the death of Yasser Arafat. It ran under the headline “From Strong Man to Good Man.” Mark that one down in the annals of lousy political judgment.
Maybe it’s because I had recently spent some years working in Jerusalem—watching up close as Arafat bombarded Israelis while bamboozling Westerners—that I felt optimistic about the Palestinian future. Maybe it was because I was too taken with the promise of Arab democracy, and with the notion that those elevated to power through a ballot wouldn’t rule by the bullet.
Or maybe I was simply impressed by Mr. Abbas himself, with his grandfatherly mien and progressive rhetoric. “We need clean legal institutions so we can be considered a civilized society,” I heard him say at one well-attended rally in Ramallah, just a day before the election. Also: “We won’t allow any illegal weapons.” And: “We need to make the law the leader in this country, and nobody can be above the law.”
That sounded about right: rule of law; a clampdown on violence; an emphasis on institution building; the end to the toxic cult of personality. All that was needed was a leader who would implement the change, along with the people who would accept it.
But Mr. Abbas was not that leader. And Palestinians were not those people. A year after Mr. Abbas’s presidential victory, Hamas won a parliamentary victory.
People who are in the business of making excuses for Palestinians—and the apologists are legion—sagely explained that the vote for Hamas wasn’t a public endorsement of a terrorist group sworn to Israel’s annihilation, but rather a vote against the corruption of Fatah, Mr. Abbas’s party. As if the two propositions could not both be true. As if Palestinians were unaware of Hamas’s intentions. As if a vote against venal officialdom palliated a vote for violent ideologues.
So it has been with the rest of Mr. Abbas’s serial fiascoes over the decade, culminating in his failed bid last week to force a vote in the Security Council over Palestinian statehood. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, leaving Mr. Abbas in charge and giving him a chance to make something of the territory. Gaza dissolved into civil war within months. In 2008, Israel offered Mr. Abbas a state covering 94% of the West Bank, along with a compensatory 6% of Israeli territory and a land bridge to Gaza. Mr. Abbas never took up the offer.
Last March, President Obama personally offered Mr. Abbas a U.S.-sponsored “framework” agreement. Again Mr. Abbas demurred. The following month, Mr. Abbas signed a “reconciliation” pact with Hamas. War came by summer.
Now Mr. Abbas has moved to have “the state of Palestine” join the International Criminal Court, chiefly in order to harass and perhaps arrest Israeli military officers and politicians spuriously accused of war crimes. The gambit will fail for the simple reason that two can play the game.
So why does Mr. Abbas persevere?
Because, as the late Fouad Ajami knew so well, the pleasures of dreaming are better than the labors of building, just as the rhetoric of justice, patrimony and right is so much more stirring than the fine print and petty indignities of compromise. Mr. Abbas consistently refuses a Palestinian state because such a state is infinitely more trivial than a Palestinian struggle. Becoming is better than being. So long as “Palestine” is in the process of becoming, it matters. Once it exists, it all but doesn’t. How many times will some future president of an established Palestinian state get to visit the White House?
This explains why a Palestinian state—a reasonably peaceful and prosperous one, at any rate—is deeply in Israel’s interest. And why no Palestinian leader will ever accept such a state on any terms. After the endless stream of Palestinian rejections—from the 1947 U.N. partition plan to the “Three No’s” of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution to Arafat’s refusal to make a deal at Camp David in 2000, one begins to sense a pattern. Palestine can never hope to compete with Israel except in the sense that the fantasy of Palestine will always have an edge on the reality of Israel.
Over a beachfront lunch yesterday in Tel Aviv, an astute Israeli friend had the following counter-fantasy: What if Western leaders refused to take Mahmoud Abbas’s calls? What if they pointed out that, in the broad spectrum of global interests, from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea, the question of Palestinian statehood ranked very low—on a par with, say, the prospect of independence for the Walloons? What if these leaders observed that, in the scale of human tragedy, the supposed plight of the Palestinians is of small account next to the human suffering in Syria or South Sudan?
In that event, the Palestinian dream palace might shrink to its proper size, and bring the attractions of practical statecraft into sharper focus. Genuine peace might become possible.
Don’t hold your breath.
Deputy editor, editorial page, The Wall Street Journal.
Bret Stephens writes “Global View,” the Wall Street Journal’s foreign-affairs column, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013. He is the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, responsible for the international opinion pages of the Journal, and a member of the paper’s editorial board. He is also a regular panelist on the Journal Editorial Report, a weekly political talk show broadcast on Fox News Channel.
Mr. Stephens joined the Journal in 1998 as an op-ed editor and moved to Brussels the following year, where he wrote editorials and edited a column on the European Union. He left Dow Jones in January 2002 to become editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, a position he assumed at age 28. At the Post he was responsible for the paper’s news, editorial, international and digital editions. He also wrote a weekly column.
Mr. Stephens returned to the Journal in late 2004 and has reported stories from around the globe. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he is the winner of a South Asian Journalists Association award for his writing on the Kashmir earthquake (2006), the Breindel Prize for excellence in opinion journalism (2008), the Bastiat Prize for his columns on economic subjects (2010) and the University of Chicago’s Alumni Board of Governors Professional Achievement Award (2014). In 2005 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Mr. Stephens was born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico City. He has an undergraduate degree, with honors, from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s from the London School of Economics. He lives in New York City with his wife Corinna, a music critic, and their three children.
Write to email@example.com