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A ‘very good question’ in Mideast conflict

Smoke rose after an Israeli airstrike in August during the summer’s conflict with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.EPA/file 2014

At a panel on the Mideast conflict two years ago, then-Representative Barney Frank asked the late Leonard Fein, a left-leaning critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why it was that if the Palestinians truly desired a two-state solution, they had continued to reject Israeli offers of a Palestinian state in return for peace. "That," replied Fein, "is a very good question."

With the Palestinians' decision to enlist the United Nations to impose terms on the Israelis despite objections by the United States, the question remains not only a very good one, but the proverbial elephant in the room. Why, indeed, is it that the Palestinians rejected Israel's offer for an independent Palestinian state comprised of virtually all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and a capital in East Jerusalem in 2000, in 2001, and then again in 2008? After all, acceptance of any of those peace deals would have resulted not just in an end to the settlement construction that the Palestinians assert is the obstacle to peace, but the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis from the West Bank. What inference is a reasonable person to draw from that rejection?


In his memoir, former President Bill Clinton described Yasser Arafat's rejection of the Palestinian state offered by the Israelis at the end of his second term as tragic. In her memoir, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes the even more favorable offer made by Israel in 2008, and the high hopes that the United States had that, at long last, the Palestinians would accept the state that had been offered them in return for peace. "In the end," Rice writes, "the Palestinians walked away from the negotiations. . . . Had [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] expressed a willingness to accept the extraordinary terms he'd been offered, it might have been a turning point in the history of the intractable conflict."

The answer to the "very good question" posed by Frank, and the reasonable inference to be drawn from the history of Palestinian rejectionism, is not a particularly happy one. It is that Israel's proposals for an independent Palestinian state have come with a condition that the Palestinian leadership has regarded as a deal-breaker: a permanent end of the conflict, and a commitment to accept Israel's existence. By contrast, the Security Council end-game sought by the Palestinians is an end-run around any such condition; it would impose on the Palestinians no obligation to end the dispute.


This is not by chance. As Abbas knows, the Palestinian street opposes any end of conflict with Israel that fails to bring about its disappearance. Even before the summer's war between Israel and Hamas, a public opinion poll showed that fewer than 30 percent of Palestinians supported a two-state solution — a West Bank/Gaza state living in lasting peace with Israel. Almost two-thirds told pollsters that "resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated." And this past September, 80 percent of Palestinians polled said that Hamas should continue to fire rockets at Israel, with Hamas, recognized by the United States as a terrorist enterprise, receiving an 88 percent approval rating, compared with only 36 percent approving the considerably more moderate Palestinian Authority government led by Abbas.

None of this is new, and none of it comes as a surprise. In May 2009, not long after spurning the "extraordinary terms" described by Rice, Abbas told the Washington Post that he was in no hurry to make peace with the Israelis, and that he refused even to negotiate with them. Rather, Abbas preferred to wait, hoping that international pressure on Israel would force it to capitulate without any corresponding obligation on the Palestinians' part to agree to live in peace. "Until then," Abbas told the Post, "in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life."


The Palestinians' argument that UN intervention is necessary because they cannot otherwise obtain a state represents a dearly-held narrative that has been adopted wholesale in certain quarters. Sadly, however, it is a narrative that is tough to square with what has actually occurred.

Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council, is an attorney in Boston.