November 20, 2019

The State of Play

September 13 has come and gone and we are, thankfully, without a Palestinian state – one that Yasser Arafat threatened to create even if it meant a unilateral declaration on his part. That he has backed away from this action – and persuaded a number of reluctant PLO leaders to go along with him – is cause for some cheers. Perhaps only two cheers are merited, and those for not very long.

Almost from the day that negotiations at Camp David broke off this past summer, foundering over Jerusalem, Arafat has been traveling the world meeting with heads of state – in Europe, the Arab countries, the U.S. – and trying to rally support. Their message to him though, has been remarkably clear: Hold off or you will be abandoned both politically and economically. The potential loss of funds we have to assume was particularly telling. Added to this were the political pressures at home – national aspirations of many Palestinians accompanied by militant demands from Hamas and some of the more intractable PLO leaders. Nevertheless, Arafat prevailed, and the September 13 date was set aside.

He has opted for a short-term delay – two months – which seems both sensible and politically smart. By mid-November the American elections will be over, at which point the acting president of the U.S. will have about six weeks before Clinton departs the White House. His successor will be in motion, searching for advisers, putting together a cabinet, looking towards his inauguration speech and probably grabbing some much needed holiday after an exhausting campaign. If no agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has been reached (and it seems unlikely that the issue of Jerusalem will be resolved within this limited time) America’s role is likely to be somewhat muted.

Israel will be caught up in its own political crisis come mid-November. Prime Minister Barak’s fate will probably have been decided. He will either have been forced to disband the Knesset because of a no-confidence vote from that body and be in the midst of an uphill election campaign, fighting for his political life, or caught uneasily in a national unity alliance with the Likud bloc on his right along with several other secular parties to his left.

Meanwhile, Israel will be divided, caught in a secular-religious conflict that plays itself out in the political arena. Not the most auspicious time to deal with a unilateral declaration of independence from the Palestinians.

There are, of course, some probable mitigating factors. There is nothing quite like a declaration of statehood from the Palestinians to bind together all Israelis, sealing over political cracks and divisions. And the consequences of such an act on Arafat’s part would all but lead to a quick and firm response from Israel. An incipient guerrilla war could follow, both sides suddenly in a no-win position, and with the additional recognition on Arafat’s part that he is both mortal and not in the best of health.

Of course it may take just such a rush towards the brink before Israel and the PLO can contemplate the notion of concessions on Jerusalem. That unpalatable choice may then look more appealing than its alternative.