The Palestinians still stateless after all these years

The Palestinians still stateless after all these years

THIS week Israelis celebrate and Palestinians mourn the war of 1948 that created a state for the Jews but resulted in the flight of a large portion of Palestine”s then Arab majority. After 60 anniversaries the fate of the two sides is as lopsided as ever. Israel is not just an established state but a dynamic and prosperous one. By contrast, the lot of the Palestinians is wretched (see article). The state they were promised under the UN partition plan of 1947 remains tantalisingly beyond reach, even though almost every government in the world, including those of America and Israel, claims to support the creation of such a state in the West Bank and Gaza.

How to explain the perpetuation of this conflict as the generations pass by? The contending answers fill a thousand libraries. Both sides have a stubborn narrative of righteous victimhood, each promoted eloquently by its respective posse of indignant partisans. To many outsiders in the West the interminable squabble is so familiar that it is becoming merely tiresome: a sad, stuck, tribal quarrel from the 1940s that seems impossible to resolve and so might as well be ignored.

This feeling of baffled impotence is a danger. The world has a moral obligation to help the Palestinians. But self-interest is at stake as well. However tired people in the West may be of Palestine and its woes, this cause electrifies millions of Muslims and helps to stir the global jihad. If it is soluble at all, it can certainly never be solved without the full attention of America, the only country which Israel really trusts and that has the power to coax or coerce it into territorial compromise. That is why most of this decade has been wasted: a distracted or uninterested George Bush claimed to believe in Palestinian statehood but did nothing serious to bring it about, failing even to slow Israel”s colonisation of the West Bank.

America”s next president must not repeat this mistake. But if America is a necessary part of the solution in Palestine, it is not sufficient. The Palestinians must play their part too. They desperately need an effective and pragmatic leadership capable of negotiating and implementing a peace based on partitioning Palestine into two states. Yet their leaders are more divided than ever. The pragmatists led in the West Bank by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah are not effective. The rival Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip is extremely effective but says it does not believe in a permanent peace based on partition.

Top marks for consistency, zero for sense

Sixty years ago, too, the Palestinians refused partition and ended up stateless. If rejecting partition was a mistake then, it is a bigger one now that Israel”s population has increased eightfold. To say that Israel should never have been created and must be dissolved is not only utterly unrealistic; it is also to propose correcting one injustice by perpetrating another.

And yet this remains Hamas”s formal position. True, its leaders hint that if Israel gave up all the territory conquered in 1967 it would earn a long-term truce, which just might one day become permanent. But that hinted future possibility is not a wager Israelis are likely to take. Meanwhile, the longer Hamas claims to reject the very idea of Israel”s permanence, the easier it is for Israel to dig into the West Bank and the harder it is for America to believe in, let alone press for, a breakthrough to peace. The Hamas retort is that Yasser Arafat”s Oslo talks achieved little for the Palestinians. Wars got them less.

After generations as history”s losers, the Palestinians deserve a better future. But they can help themselves by putting history behind them and coming to terms, as the Israelis say they already have, with the obvious. A peaceful future is possible only with two states, not just the one.