“What if” is a fascinating game. It forces you to use your imagination, think round a subject, probe possibilities, consider options.
On July 11, 2000. Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat, met at Camp David under the chairmanship of US president, Bill Clinton. Their declared aim was to reach agreement on all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians – a so-called final status settlement. The summit ended on July 25 without a settlement.
What if the negotiations had proved successful? TV archives would hold pictures of Barak and Arafat shaking hands, backed by a beaming Bill Clinton – and we could be marking July 25, 2015 as the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.
What sort of Palestine would it have been?
No official records exist of the final position of the two parties, and the unofficial accounts differ in important respects. So some guesswork and a little creative imagination are called for.
An agreement would probably have been on the basis of the final set of recommendations (known as the “Clinton Parameters”) formally put to the two principals in January 2001. Israel accepted the plan in principle, the Palestinians did not.
What if they had done so? Well, a sovereign state of Palestine would now control 97 percent of the West Bank plus a Gaza Strip larger by roughly a third, to compensate for the 3 per cent of the West Bank absorbed into Israel. Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, all of which would have passed into Palestinian hands, and Palestinian territory on the West Bank would be contiguous, with no cantons. The West Bank would be linked with Gaza by both an elevated highway and an elevated railroad running through the Negev.
Sovereign Palestine would have as its capital a new municipality – Al Quds. The boundaries of Jerusalem would have been re-drawn. Al-Quds would incorporate Arab neighbourhoods previously inside Jerusalem’s boundaries, together with adjacent regions such as Abu Dis, el-Azaria, Beit Jala, Anata and A-Ram. In the Old City the Palestinian state would have religious autonomy over the Temple Mount, while the Muslim and Christian quarters, though also autonomous, would remain under formal Israeli sovereignty.
The new Palestine would by now have become home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, all with the right of return to the Palestinian state. Those returning would have received reparations from a $30 billion international fund set up specifically to compensate them.
How different might the events of the past fifteen years have been?
There would, of course, have been no second intifada – which means there would have been no sudden increase in terrorist attacks inside Israel, and therefore no need for Israel’s security fence or wall.
Yasser Arafat maintained a firm grip on Palestinian politics. What he said for Arab consumption differed pretty radically from his public utterances in English, or his stance on the world stage. For example, Arafat had told an Arab audience in Stockholm in 1996, ‘We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion… We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.’
Arafat’s colleague Faisal al-Husseini was even more explicit. He described the Oslo process as a ‘Trojan Horse’ designed to promote the strategic goal of ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ – in short, replacing Israel with Palestine.
Fully aware of Arafat’s real agenda, Hamas would have had little incentive to oppose a settlement approved by him. So there would have been no take-over of Gaza by Hamas, and therefore no indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli citizens and no Israeli response in the form of operations Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense or Protective Edge. There would have been no naval blockade of Gaza by Israel. Accordingly, there would have been no “freedom flotilla”, and no Mavi Marmara incident – no death of nine Turkish citizens, and perhaps no freezing of Turkish-Israeli relations in consequence.
There would, of course, have been no need for any attempt to secure recognition by the United Nations for a sovereign Palestine, for by now Palestine would have long been a fully-fledged UN member. Palestine would have followed Serbia into membership (they joined in November 2000), and beaten East Timor (September 2002).
Would the new sovereign Palestine have become a base for terrorist attacks on Israel, in pursuit of Arafat’s stated long-term aim – or would shorter-term political and economic realities have exerted their logic? Would self-interest have dictated that the fledgling state co-operate industrially, commercially, economically, militarily, even culturally, with its nearest, flourishing neighbor?
By now, would Palestine be thriving under mutually advantageous treaties not only with Israel, but perhaps also with Jordan and Egypt? In fact, would a sovereign Palestine by now be cultivating a prospering economy and be well on the way to becoming part of the developed world? Who may say? It is certainly a possible scenario.
One school of historical thought tends to reject “what if” hypotheses. It maintains there is a sort of inevitability attached to major historical events regardless of possible minor variations. On this reading, Arafat’s death in 2004 would have resulted in Mahmoud Abbas being elected President of Palestine, but his attempt to form a national unity government would still have foundered on the Fatah-Hamas split. Hamas would still have taken over Gaza, and subsequent events would not have been very different. With the objective of ousting Israel entirely from the Middle East, the rockets would still have been fired, Israel would have had to respond – and we might well have found ourselves pretty much where we stand in July 2015. That is another, if overly pessimistic, possibility.
But only consider the wasted opportunity of that 2000 Camp David negotiation, and all the avoidable death and destruction over the past fifteen years, both Palestinian and Israeli. So felicitous a concatenation of circumstances from the Palestinian point of view is unlikely to present itself again in the foreseeable future. The political wheel has turned.
So we are unable to wish a sovereign Palestine “Happy 15th Anniversary”. Fifteen years ago the Palestinian leadership, not for the first time, signally failed to recognize this truth, expressed so felicitously by William Shakespeare:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune:
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”