August 26, 2009

Preemptive Strike

The irony is stunning. Frustrated by perceived American inaction on Iran, Israel is keeping the military option open and pushing the threat on the West to advance its position. Leery of inaction from President Obama, Palestinians have launched their own preemptive war. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan to unilaterally create a de facto Palestine is impractical and dangerous, but it’s exactly what the Israeli/Palestinian conflict needs.

Though Fayyad informed American and Israeli officials beforehand, his bombshell still rocked London, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to meet with American and British officials. Fayyad announced from the West Bank, “The Palestinian government is struggling determinedly against a hostile occupation regime in order to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two year... This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly.”

Fayyad’s “proactive” mindset is sorely needed in Palestine. While Fatah officials have been able to dictate the time of negotiation, refusing to meet until settlements are frozen, Israel remains in control of the terms - a united Jerusalem complete with settlement growth, no or limited right of return for refugees, demilitarization, and recognition of a “Jewish State.” Palestine is incapable of altering these positions so long as it refuses to negotiate and reaching a compromise in final status talks is unlikely, given the fundamental nature of the issues. But threatening to pursue a state without Israel’s input is Palestine’s best hope of restoring the balance of power to a two-state solution.

“It is empowering to even think that way,” trumpeted a visibly energetic Fayyad.

Success is unlikely to come directly from the details of Fayyad’s 65-page plan; Israel, already aggravated by Fatah's convention, is seething. Fayyad's vision of Palestine includes an autonomous security force, independent public services, lenient tax laws to attract foreign investment, and infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza. For the latter to be possible, he called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Even more controversially, Fayyad claimed East Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Palestine” along with its historical sites in the Old City. The Ha’aretz bluntly if accurately observed Fayyad’s plan is “not so much a blueprint as a wish-list.”

Yet Fayyad was the perfect, perhaps only man who could deliver this speech. He’s the antithesis of extremism - Western educated, American approved, and lionized by Thomas Friedman. Denouncing him is infinitely harder than Islamic militants. Language like a “hostile occupation” appeals to right-wing elements, but is far more impressionable coming from Fayyad than Hamas. And Fayyad’s criticism stings too when he declares, “The state of Palestine would respect human rights and all its citizens would be equal.”

With President Obama due to reveal his own peace plan, Fayyad’s announcement is as much an attack against Israel as Obama, a warning not to soften on settlements, refugees, or Jerusalem, and the consequences if he does. Fayyad rejected Netanyahu’s attempt to compromise on settlements, though this didn’t stop a US official from saying, “We stated right from the outset what we want regarding the settlements, and we are getting close to getting this from Israel.”

But close won't be good enough for Palestinians. Back in London Netanyahu advocated natural growth - “normal life” - for settlements and refused any infringement of sovereignty in Jerusalem. Having previously squashed the right of return, Netanyahu demanded, “a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel. Recognition is the pillar of peace.”

These precise statements have bred Fayyad’s plan, which is basically the opposite of Israel's plan. Palestinians are willing to recognize the State of Israel, but not at the cost of their own state. Fayyad may not secure any of his policies outright, but their very existence puts unrelenting pressure on Israel to loosen its grip on the peace process. Finally the Palestinians are in command. Israel and America won’t like losing control, but Fayyad’s proposal will ultimately advance a two-state solution. Competition is good for innovation.

Fayyad’s explicit demands shouldn’t be underestimated either. His declaration is the latest attempt by Fatah to reassert itself and regain the power lost during its split with Hamas. Palestinians clearly distrust Israel to bargain fairly and have decided to grab what they can, believing such a strategy merely mimics Israel. Fayyad’s unilateral path to statehood is the hardest ball Palestinians have played and more powerful than any military resistance. If the situation remains frozen, Palestinians are increasingly likely to fulfill their threats.

Israel must realize it has more to gain in negotiations and everything to lose in Fayyad’s strategy. This is the essence of a preemptive strike.


  1. ...their only problem being that they won't get past page 5 of their "wish list" without aid.

    We've been even closer than this before. The PLO in September of 1993 weakly recognized Israel through accepting (S/RES/242) though the Israeli regime merely responded by recognizing PLO as the leadership of the "Palestinian people." Rabin effectively said that they wouldn't go so far as to agree to Palestinian statehood.

    To a large extent, they have an immediate disincentive to go so far as to ever recognize statehood or even allow an apparatus that would effectively function as one.

    If somehow Fayyad begins checking off items on his wish-list, Israel, instead of responding by a return to negotiations, is more likely to balance against this threat - real or perceived - with force.

  2. Of course Fayyad's proposal is unrealistic and Israel won't allow it, in the same way that Palestinians refuse to accept Israel's unrealistic demands. The West Bank is different from Gaza. Force against Fatah would unite the Palestinian cause and put more pressure on Israel. Fayyad poses a unique challenge and support from Arab states would increase the potency of his threat. Failure to compromise would result in a free-for-all, playing on Israel's greatest fear of an autonomous Palestine. Whether he succeeds or not, Fayyad has exerted tremendous pressure on Israel to alter its demands, which is what Palestinians needed most.