Partition, pragmatism and missed opportunities between Israel and the Palestinians

The Palestinian national movement has long been accused of “never failing to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
November 25, 2015

Two scholars examine, from Jewish and Arab perspectives, the historic United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine on Nov. 29, 1947, which ultimately led to the creation of  the Jewish State of Israel.


The Palestinian national movement has long been accused of “never failing to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But how much have Palestinians really contributed to their predicament through a refusal to compromise? When and how might they have acted differently?

Of course, no people this large, territorially defined and with a well-established national consensus can legitimately be denied self-determination because they have made strategic mistakes. Basic human rights aren’t dependent on good judgment. If they were, who would ever really qualify?

In practice, however, human individuals and collectivities are not the objects of history. Rather, they are subjects with agency. Palestinians tend to speak as if they simply need to be “given” their rights. In reality, there’s much they need to do and not do, not to “earn,” but to actually secure, their freedom.

Core among the Israeli litany of supposed Palestinian “missed opportunities” is the rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan. If only the Palestinians had agreed, it is alleged, there would now be two states and would never have been a conflict, “Nakba” or refugee crisis.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is plainly not open to ending the occupation in the foreseeable future, it’s worth revisiting that decision — not because past errors mean Palestinians somehow deserve to live as noncitizens under foreign military rule and have their land colonized, but because it is important to forming a wise Palestinian policy.

No one can be sure how such a counterfactual scenario would have played out. The Jewish community had the military power to enforce the establishment of its state. The size and capabilities of the military forces meant that the combined Jewish forces were virtually certain to defeat not only the Palestinian, but also the collective Arab militaries. Many complex and contingent factors were always going to determine how far that success might run. But, that overall victory would fall to the Jewish community, even though it felt vulnerable and threatened, is evident even on paper.

It can’t be known whether Jewish groups would have found the proposed United Nations partition borders, and the status of Jerusalem as an international city, acceptable, even if the Palestinians had agreed to them, given that they had the objective military power to unilaterally alter that equation. To this day, Israel, most unusually, will not clarify what areas, precisely, it considers part of its national sovereign territory or not. It’s therefore questionable whether the partition borders would have been acceptable to the Jewish state in the long run, particularly given the way in which Israel has pursued settlements in the occupied territories.

Nonetheless, in hindsight, it would obviously have been wise, given the outcome of the 1948 war, and, even more, the subsequent decades, for Palestinians to have at least tried to secure what they could diplomatically. However, this wasn’t obvious at the time. To the contrary, all of their behavior indicates the Palestinians had radically different expectations. They didn’t believe a Jewish state in Palestine could be established over the objections of a vast majority of its inhabitants, and with the opposition of the surrounding Arab countries. And when the Palestinians who became refugees fled or were expelled, almost all of them believed they would return home in a matter of weeks.

Palestinian rejection of partition was also based on moral and legal arguments, particularly the objection to the U.N. disregarding the passionate wishes of the large majority of a small country, as Arabs were about 1.4 million of the 2 million residents of mandatory Palestine in November 1947, when the partition resolution was adopted. Even in the proposed Jewish state there would have been an Arab plurality, despite the proposed U.N. borders being gerrymandered in a geographical crazy-quilt in order to include a maximal number of Jews and a minimal number of Palestinians. Finally, the Jewish minority of about one-third of the population was going to be granted not merely 55 percent of the territory, but some of the choicest areas.

Although it plainly would have been wise for Palestinians in 1947-48 to at least try to accomplish as much as possible by agreeing to the U.N. partition proposal, it’s virtually unimaginable that any national group could have demonstrated the foresight and determination to accept what necessarily seemed to them profoundly unjust, indefensible and even, from their sincere point of view, actually rationally inexplicable. Palestinians obviously made a mistake, but, in all honesty, what community in its situation would ever have acted differently?

Insistence on a checklist of national demands (which has been constantly downgraded) has been a consistent feature of — and disaster for — the Palestinian movement. A pragmatic track record beginning in 1947 would have gained the Palestinian movement a tremendous amount of international legitimacy and sympathy without actually losing them any more than they have lost anyway by insisting on more than they could accomplish at every given moment.

In fairness, however, it should be acknowledged that the Palestinian national movement has had at least one moment of enormous pragmatism, characterized by a vast concession that most Israelis don’t even recognize as a concession at all. When the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel in 1993, after two decades of painful movement toward embracing a two-state solution, Palestinians made what, for them at least, looks like the mother of all concessions. By downgrading their national goal to establishing a state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, they effectively abandoned political claims on 78 percent of what they universally regarded as their country. Unfortunately, the peace process that this recognition initiated has not resulted in an end to the conflict or the occupation. 

There is no peace because both sides have made multiple proposals but neither has ever accepted the other’s terms. Israel’s effective PR machine has ensured its supporters have a strong narrative about Israeli peace proposals not accepted by the Palestinians. But few understand why the Palestinians turned them down. More important, most know nothing about the multiple Palestinian proposals rejected by Israel.

Palestinians would certainly have been well served historically, as they would today, by adopting a more pragmatic approach. Consistent overreaching has cost them dearly and never accomplished anything. But it’s hard to imagine a less pragmatic, or more overreaching, approach than Israel’s current policy of maintaining a de facto greater state that renders itself neither Jewish nor democratic, and hence not really “Israel” at all. Who is standing firm against partition now, and why?

Pragmatism, it would seem, can even become a victim of its own successes. Imagining oneself as either too weak or too strong apparently renders real pragmatism the most difficult of choices. All the more reason to adopt and protect it as a guiding national ethos.

David Myers and Hussein Ibish recently taught a course for the New Israel Fund in Los Angeles on the shared and diverging paths of Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism, as seen from their different points of view.
These essays, and other future teaching engagements, are the outgrowth of that course.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.

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