Early in October 2001, George W. Bush became the first president of the United States to explicitly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state in the Middle East.
A long-sought-after demand of the Arab, Islamic, and European countries, the president's words must have come as music to the ears of Yasser Arafat, a.k.a. Abu Amar ("father of the builders"), chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority, head of the Fatah, and chief inspector of the Palestinian Liberation Army.
Finally, it seems, the PLO had convinced the Americans, too. With the subsequent floating of the bi-state plan of Saudi Prince Abdullah, the Bush initiative was given substance for a blueprint of a new state. For two generations now, after all, a separate Palestinian state has been considered the panacea of all problems in the Holy Land. Is a state of Palestine the elixir we are falling for?
The reality is that there already is a Palestinian state. It is a country where 54% of the population, including the queen, is Palestinian. Fully half of this nation's parliament is made up of Palestinian lawmakers and its chambers of commerce report even a higher Palestinian membership. Of course I am talking about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan whose capital, Amman, has more Palestinians than any other city in the world (with the exception of Detroit, maybe).
The Palestinians in Jordan live and prosper there as full citizens of that Arab kingdom. Anybody with regular contact with migr s from Jordan can hardly tell the difference between a "Palestinian" Jordanian and a "Jordanian" Jordanian. And, when King Abdullah II's half-Palestinian son ascends the Hashemite throne, the Palestinians will have their own king, too.
What the Bush initiative overlooks and the Saudi plan envisages, therefore, is not a Palestinian state but a PLO statelet, a kind of a personal fiefdom for patriarch Arafat and his aging cronies. Having grown old running from Baghdad to Beirut raising extortion money, Chairman Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Farouk Kaddoumi probably want to settle down in their own little neck of the woods and enjoy their ripe years with the wealth, prestige, and power accumulated during the heady days of terror and intrigue.
A PLO statelet, probably consisting of Gaza and most of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is unlikely to be the paragon of the "democratic and secular" ideal that the PLO Covenant (and Bush) calls for. If the PLO's eight-year rule in Gaza, Jericho, Ramallah and Jenin are any indication, a full-fledged state will resemble more a North Korean "People's Democracy" than a democratic republic.
Since landing in Gaza City after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat has kept an iron grip on his people by means of seven security services, two personal bodyguard outfits, and a whole phalanx of armed underground fedayeen. Journalists who have criticized the egregious graft and corruption of the leader's importehttp://christianactionforisrael.org/files/isreport/july02/d cronies have been imprisoned; the few judges who have passed verdicts against fedayeen vigilantism have been dismissed and threatened; local notables have been forced to withdraw from election campaigns against the PLO's leadership. In effect, the politics of the Palestinian Authority areas is a one-party totalitarian set-up whose only coherent opposition comes from Hamas which is, if anything, worse in its absolutist tendencies than the PLO itself.
Yet, while his grip on the ordinary Palestinians is firm, the chairman has seemingly been unable or unwilling to control the armed mobs that regularly roam the streets of PA cities and terrorize Palestinians and Israelis alike. The Palestinian street is, however, not the only arena where Abu Amar's mirage of inconsistencies is evident.
Arafat was fond of saying that he was a bachelor because he married "a girl called Palestine." In his advanced years, he yielded and married an adorable young woman named Suha. The chairman, however, has certainly kept his earlier pledge: His second wife seems to be the Palestinian economy. Few construction projects or new roads are approved in Gaza unless some PLO official gets a piece of the pie. Often enough, the minutest public-works program in the obscurest refugee camps has to be approved at the chairman's office. No wonder that the United Nations Development Program and the Norwegian aid agency have both found the PA to be one of the most corrupt and bureaucratic polities in the Middle East.
As for the millions of dollars that come into the PLO's coffers from generous Arab regimes, Palestinians working overseas, or the PLO's own extensive investments, nobody but the chairman knows the details (which are contained in a tiny black book that Arafat supposedly carries on his person at all times). How much of that revenue has benefited the third generation of refugees in the Khan Yunis slums is evident by the close to 60% unemployment rate in the 25-to-45 age group.
It is the threat of eastward migration of these unemployed and Hamas-tainted refugees that has Palestinian officials from the West Bank actually tacitly agreeing to Israel's rejection of any corridor between the two disparate wings of Arafat's dreamland. Relatively urbane, religiously more tolerant, and cosmopolitan, the West Bankers do not look kindly upon the backward Gazans descending on their sleepy cities and picturesque hillsides to preach Islamic radicalism in the name of a Palestinian state. Were a PLO state to come into existence with Gaza and West Bank as its two wings, the internal social fissures may be intense enough to eventually trigger a conflagration like the one that engulfed Pakistan's widely separated (geographically and psychologically) two wings in 1971.
WHAT KIND of stability, then, can the region expect from a state which is run according to Arafat's personal whims?
For starters, such a state would be an entity in the grand fashion of the post-colonial banana republics of the 1960s and 1970s where political absolutism, unchecked corruption, and fragile infrastructure gave rise to societal implosion. To that dangerous mix, in the case of a future PLO state, one must add the presence of thousands of unguided, unsupervised, gun-toting youth, the famed shabab, who prize AK-47s and rocket-launchers as the only symbols of manhood. All this political and economic malaise is further underpinned by a rage fueled by real and imaginary slights and regular provocative statements of bravado by unscrupulous leaders.
Externally, such a future state is but a respectable source of danger to its neighbors. Without having to expend energies on finding third-country bases, the PLO squads and Hamas irregulars will be able to terrorize Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and other countries with more impunity than ever before. Even today, the PLO's charter has only suspended, not rescinded, the plank about destroying Israel. Significant segments of the Palestinian nationalist elite have mocked the very idea of peace; among these nay-sayers are high-ranking members of the PLO, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's George Habash and Columbia University's Edward Said.
As for the secular militant groups, such as Abu Musa's Fatah Revolutionary Council or the Islamist groups such as Hamas, they simply will not recognize any Israel, peace or no peace. Between them the rejectionist groups hold sway on a large portion of the Palestinian population and even a larger part of the Palestinian imagination.
In a future PLO state, Arafat will have little choice but to accommodate these elements. Anyone who believes that giving him a state will make Palestinian malcontents give up their dream of a Palestinian homeland from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River is only deluding himself. It is doubtful that even if the chairman wanted to rein in these trigger-happy folks that he could: Arafat has been an utter failure, by intent or inability, in controlling his own Fatah stormtroopers; how can he be trusted to restrain the zealous and well-armed non-Fatah, non-PLO, non-nationalist elements in his backyard?
A PLO mini-state will intentionally leave the issues of Jerusalem and the 1948 refugees unresolved, thus giving continuous emotional fodder to the armed malcontents it will surely harbor within its sovereign borders. Internally unstable, externally dangerous, Arafat's independent fiefdom is an alluring goal that ultimately will create more problems than solutions. As sexy as the Saudi plan is, it is calculated to cash in on the crisis-weariness of a world that has had enough. The problem is that if the Abdullah plan is implemented, the world will come to realize that "it ain't seen nothing yet."
Those falling over themselves to find a messianic solution in Prince Abdullah's words may want to check into more durable and long-lasting alternatives, such as a Jordanian confederation or even the granting of full rights to the third generation of Palestinian refugees growing up in the various "brotherly" Arab countries.
As for the PA in Gaza and the West Bank, the status quo should suffice until Chairman Arafat and his cronies prove to the world that they are capable of behaving in a responsible, respectable, and restrained manner. Short of that, there is little reason to reward the PLO's duplicity and deception with a state of its own.The writer is a freelance journalist based in the United States.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post