Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of October 1, 1998
Arafat hasn't honored his obligations up to now, and he can be expected to be only worse if and when he has his state.Yes, the Palestinians have a flag, a national assembly, ministries serving their people's needs from cradle to grave and even a security force which looks more like infantry than police. But to claim that there is no difference between this and a state, as Meretz MK Yossi Sarid and the rest of the "Palestine Now" crowd repeatedly does, is a dangerous mistake.
The differences between the PA's current status and a Palestinian state are considerable and have far-reaching impact on the stability of the region and the possibility of an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. A sovereign Palestinian state can enter into military alliances and has full legal control on its airspace and offshore waters. And it can exercise this sovereign control to effectively box in the Israeli Air Force and significant parts of the Mediterranean shore while it imports weapons and military personnel.
The prospects of an Iraqi outpost within walking distance of Israel's major population centers is chilling. With so many claiming that a Palestinian state is inevitable, there is a natural tendency to succumb to the temptation to understate the seriousness of a Palestinian state, much as terminally ill patients engage in self- denial in order to cope with the inevitable horror they face. But Israel's condition is far from terminal.Recognizing the meaning of a Palestinian state for what it is, is the first critical step toward addressing the challenge.
I would prefer to be optimistic about a state. Some Palestinian leaders willingly accept the kinds of limitations which all responsible Israelis justly require with regards to demilitarization. "We don't need the army," Fatah Hebron Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) representative Jamal Al-Shobaki told me this week. "We need bullets to solve the internal problems but not an army to make war with any country in the world.... We are a very poor state. If we want to build an army we need money and we don't have money for school, roads and health."
How about defense pacts with Iran and Iraq? "I think that if we reach for real peace we don't need any special relations with those countries," Al-Shobaki explained. "We live very close to the Israelis. We can't tell Saddam or Iran to attack Jerusalem when at the same time Palestinians and Israelis live together in Jerusalem. The same goes for Tel Aviv/Jaffa or Haifa or anyplace else."
BUT IT WOULD be a mistake to extrapolate, as many "Palestine Now" advocates do, from one conversation. "Jamal is a friend of mine," Arafat's official spokesman Marwan Kanafani, told me. "He has an intellectual opinion concerning the economy and armed forces - military expenditure and the priorities of our budget. All the PLC members have the right to say whatever they want and none of their opinions are similar." So much for that.
But can't this problem be overcome by a well-written final status agreement between the PLO and the Jewish State? To even think that this can be solved by fine legal script flies in the face of the disillusioning reality of the five-year Oslo process. Arafat hasn't honored his obligations up to now and, if anything, he can be expected to be only worse if and when he has his state and has determined that he has exhausted the "olive branch" stage.
And while the Palestinian state may be declared in conjunction with a solidly written Palestinian-Israeli treaty, the existence of that state will not be conditional on that pact. No. Arafat isn't going to go on television and unilaterally tear up the treaty. He will "react" to Israeli "violations" - real or imagined. And given the Oslo experience, it is reasonable to expect that many in the world community will find it convenient to accept Arafat's interpretation. Judging by the Clinton administration's Herculean efforts to avoid recognizing Palestinian violations of Oslo these past years, American indifference - or self-denial - can be expected as well. Even Leftist segments of Israeli society may defend, as they do today, Arafat's stand.
"The people live with the corruption in this government, unfortunately," Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah in the West Bank, told me recently, "because they concentrate on the political issues." There's no reason to expect a Palestinian state to be any less corrupt than a Palestinian autonomy. The alternative of crises with Israel to internal reform will be more tempting than ever.
If Israel today feels it is in a thorny situation facing a Palestinian autonomy, this is child's play as compared to the challenge presented by a Palestinian state. While declaring Oslo "dead" might earn the scorn of the world, recognizing the same of a treaty with a sovereign Palestinian state would mean the end of any semblance, however tenuous, of peace.
(c) Jerusalem Post 1998
Aaron Lerner is director of Independent Media Review and Analysis.