Ever since Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech in 2009, in which he declared himself ready to work toward a demilitarized Palestinian state, his defenders in the United States have justified the collapse of any dialogue with the Palestinians in terms of Israel’s understandable caution. “There is no partner for peace,” we hear again and again, which suggests a number of things at once.
First, that the Fatah leadership is disingenuous about recognition of Israel, and that even if Mahmud Abbas and his Ramallah brains-trust are moderate in their means, their ends remain maximalist. The proof is their unwillingness to recognize Israel as “a Jewish state,” or (what is often assumed to be the same thing) renounce the Palestinian right of return.
Second, even if the Fatah leadership is sincere about recognition, or would compromise on the modalities of return, it cannot be trusted to hold on to power, not with Hamas dogging them. Given a free election—so the argument goes—Hamas would win again, as in 2006. (Just look at how Islamists now triumph in Egypt!) The only hope for peace is some kind of interim solution, in which we all build slowly toward a more peaceful future, a generation or two from now.
Raise the question of continuing Jewish settlement in the territories and you are brushed aside: if there is no partner, how can one expect restraint in The Promised Land; it is not really theft when they are trying to kill you, right? We’ll redraw the border when we have to, when we do have a partner. Until then, don’t blame us.
Now, one can reconsider the right of return, the plausibility of negotiations, etc., in ways that would be more reassuring, but let’s give Netanyahu’s government the benefit of the doubt. Let’s even ignore the settlements for a moment. Can fair-minded people really point to anything the Israeli government has been doing in its governing of Palestinians that undermines the chances for peace—I mean, the very peace Israel says it wants a generation from now, when presumably Palestinian society has “matured” politically and conditions have ripened?
The answer, sadly, is perhaps the most indicting data to come out in recent years, revealed this past week. Israel has stripped as many as a quarter of a million Palestinians of residency rights over the past generation—but not just any Palestinians. These are mainly the sons and daughters of West Bank and Gaza families who have gone abroad to study for more than seven years, many earning advanced degrees.
Take a moment and let this sink in. More than anything, Netanyahu is implying that peace cannot happen until there is economic and social development in Palestine, so that its leaders can reflect the more nearly liberal ideals and commercial interests that make living next to Israel a positive virtue—a nation of Salam Fayyads, so to speak. (This is not a pipe-dream; you can keep up with developments in Palestine’s private sector by reading the Portland Trust’s Palestine Economic Bulletin.)
But if this were a sincere desire on Netanyahu’s part, his government would roll out a red carpet for Western-trained Palestinian talent to return to the cities of Palestine, build businesses, homes, and nurture global networks. It would not simply want the 250,000 to come back. It would invite tens of thousands more of Palestinian entrepreneurs from Amman, where Palestinian families have over $12 billion in bank deposits and are eager to invest.
It is not simply settlers who create facts, after all. Palestinian professionals and businesspeople create facts, too. But unlike the settlers, the latter facts are a gain for peace and reciprocity. The only justification for holding back the economic development of Palestine, by starving it of its most educated and cosmopolitan people, is that you don’t really want peace at all.
What you do want is that Palestinian élites will leave, and the Palestinian state will be founded in Jordan, with the toppling of the Hashemite regime; what you want is the Land of Israel, and that Palestinians who are left will be your hewers of wood and carriers of water.
And here is the real challenge to Americans who say they are Israel’s friends, want peace, but are skeptical of a peace process. Can AIPAC, or Eric Cantor, explain why a doctor who earned her degree in Michigan, or a business consultant who graduated Wharton, should not be permitted to build Palestine, implicitly helping to figure out a reciprocal future with Israelis? Some of a quarter of a million people are waiting. It is long past time to put up or shut up.