Since Netanyahu's election, Yassir Arafat has threatened to declare a Palestinian state "with Jerusalem as its capital" if the new Israeli government does not meet his demands. The PLO leader announced his intentions in Aqaba on June 5, following a mini-summit meeting with King Hussein and Egyptian President Mubarak. A few days later, the Fatah "high committee," under Arafat's control, declared that "We have sacrificed tens of thousands of martyrs for the creation of the Palestinian state. No power in the world can stop it." In the final declaration of the recent Cairo summit, Arab leaders also declared support for Palestinian independence, The Palestinian concept is quite explicit, encompassing Gaza and all of the territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 war (and occupied by Jordan in 1948), without any Jewish settlements or enclaves. The location of the capital in Jerusalem is a key element of this vision.
For Arafat and the Palestinians, the results of the Israeli elections were a major shock. Before Netanyahu's victory, they were moving quickly to establish the trappings of sovereignty, ranging from a constitution to an international airport in Gaza. Rabin, Peres and Barak maintained some ambivalence on this issue, and the Oslo agreements do not go beyond autonomy. However, Meretz leaders such as Yossi Sarid stated that the process would inevitably lead to a Palestinian state in the permanent status negotiations. In the Labor Party, Yossi Beilin, who was the architect of the Oslo process, initiated the removal of the clause in the 1992 Labor Party election platform opposing Palestinian statehood. Beilin was already negotiating the terms of the final status arrangements with Abu Mazan, and had agreed to a Palestinian state (initially in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, with the addition of the Jordan Valley in another ten years). Now, all of this appears to be on indefinite hold, unless Arafat proceeds unilaterally, in violation of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (the Oslo agreement) and declares independence.
During the election campaign, Netanyahu warned against the "establishment of a terrorist Palestinian state adjacent to our heartland". The guidelines adopted by the new government rule out a Palestinian state "or any other foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River," while offering the Palestinians expanded self-rule and autonomy. After the waves of terrorism that killed over 200 Israelis, many Israelis who once supported the "two state solution" have changed their views and want to wait until the Palestinians have demonstrated the ability to block terrorism and manage its own affairs.
In addition to intense opposition from the new Israeli government, a unilateral Palestinian effort to create a state would also alienate the United States. Congress can be expected to immediately cut-off in financial support on which Arafat and the PLO have become dependent. The US government has repeatedly indicated that it does not want to see the creation of a Palestinian state under current conditions. Despite decades spent in pursuit of a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the US has viewed the prospect of Palestinian sovereignty "with caution", to put it diplomatically. Washington has consistently supported a combination of autonomy and confederation with Jordan, and many American analysts and officials expressed concern (in private, usually) that the policies of Rabin and Peres were going too fast and that Israel was creating the foundations of a Palestinian state.
For many years, defense and security analysts in Washington and Jerusalem have recognized that rather than creating stability, a Palestinian state could become the platform for violence and terrorism, not only directed against Israel but also against the US and the West. This attitude reflects the view that such a state would be prone to violence and civil unrest, and vulnerable to a takeover by Syria or by Islamic radicals and fundamentalists linked to Iran. These groups would pose a danger to American interests and to the stable and pro-western regimes in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. In 1970, the Palestinians (with Syrian assistance) sought to overthrow the Hashemite regime in Jordan, and a Palestinian state would revive this threat. Such a state could become allied with Iraq, Iran, Sudan, or Syria, greatly increasing instability in the Middle East.
THE FAILED STATE SYNDROME
There is also a possibility (perhaps probability) that a Palestinian state would quickly turn into a "failed state", similar to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, and, increasingly, Iraq and Algeria. These fragments of former states are ruled by feuding warlords and militias, who use violence and terror against each other, and against the civilian population, to intimidate and control them. In each of these cases, efforts to restore stability and some modicum of civil government and services have been painfully slow and in most cases, unsuccessful.
Besides destroying the lives of the citizens of these areas, failed states are also safe havens for international terrorists, drug barons, and criminal mafia. For over 25 years, the absence of a central government in Lebanon has been exploited by terrorists from all over the Middle East and the world. Neighborhoods in Beirut, Balbak, Sidon and all of Southern Lebanon (once known as Fatahland) are controlled by outside terrorist groups, including Palestinians and Iranians. In the absence of a central government, there are no police to which to turn for assistance, no health or educational system to speak of, and no central economy. In Afghanistan, the situation is even worse, and the chaos has allowed numerous Islamic fundamentalist groups to train and use the area as a safe haven, out of the reach of any system of justice.
In this environment, a failed Palestinian state would be a very dangerous and destabilizing addition to the Middle East. The early warning signs are already in evidence. In the short period in which Arafat and the PLO have controlled Gaza and the cities in Judea and Samaria, they have not demonstrated the inability to manage a modern and stable state. This problem goes beyond the corruption, lack of democracy and intimidation. Arafat's "police" (now reportedly exceeding 50,000) have failed to disarm Hamas, and various factions linked to Fatah and the PLO operate without central control. This presages the future division of the areas under PLO control into separate regions ruled by local militias and warlords.
As a result, Gaza and areas of the West Bank under Palestinian control are poised to become another Lebanon, and a haven for terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminal groups from all over the world. This is the scenario that most disturbs the US government. The Palestinians introduced many of the major forms of terrorism and violence that are found throughout the world today, including hijacking and suicide bombing.
If, despite the warnings from Jerusalem and Washington, Arafat goes ahead and declares independence, he is likely to gain some public support from the Arab states (most of which, in private, view the Palestinian state as a threat), idealists in Europe, and other Third World countries. However, this support is not going to come with any significant economic aid, and will not provide for new jobs or housing to make up for the end to American aid and Israeli cooperation. The Palestinians would come out severely weakened, and Arafat would also bear the diplomatic responsibility for bringing the Oslo process to an abrupt end. Israel would be free to make the closure and separation permanent, with proper physical barriers and patrols to prevent infiltration.
Like the Kurds, Chechnyans, Basques, Corsicans, and other ethnic and national minorities, the Palestinians may have to settle for less than sovereignty, at least for the time being. As long as the threat of terrorism and violence continue, the leaders of Israel, the US, Jordan, Egypt and many other countries will be united in opposing efforts to create a Palestinian state.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg is a Senior Research Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University