Shakespeare, as ever, puts the thought most felicitously:
“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.”
On 11 July 2000 Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat met at Camp David under the chairmanship of the United States president, Bill Clinton. Their purpose: to reach an agreement on all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians – a so-called final status settlement. The summit ended on 25 July. If the negotiations had proved successful, we might have marked Wednesday 25 July 2012, as the twelfth anniversary of the founding of an independent, sovereign 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 is called for.
To start with, we must assume that an agreement would have been on the basis of the final set of recommendations that the Clinton team put together, following the formal conclusion of the Camp David meeting. The three leaders met again in the White House that December, and once more in Taba in January, and the plan (known as the “Clinton Parameters”) was formally put to them. Israel accepted it in principle, the Palestinians did not. Let us suppose that they had done so.
If they had, sovereign Palestine would now control 97 per cent of the West Bank plus a Gaza Strip larger by roughly a third, to compensate for the 3 per cent of the West Bank annexed by Israel. Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements on the West Bank, all of which would have passed into Palestinian hands, and Palestinian territory on the West Bank would be contiguous,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, and Al-Quds would incorporate the Arab neighbourhoods that had previously been inside Jerusalem’s boundaries. It would also encompass adjacent regions such as Abu Dis, el-Azaria, Beit Jala, Anata and A-Ram. The Palestinian state would have religious autonomy over the Temple Mount. The Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City would also be autonomous, though remaining under formal Israeli sovereignty.
The new Palestine would by now have become home to many hundreds of thousands of refugees, all of whom would have 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 twelve years have been? Let’s speculate.
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 wall or fence.
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. Hamas would have had little incentive to set itself up against an Arafat-approved settlement, because the organisation would have been fully aware of his real agenda. 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’, that is, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean − in short, replacing Israel with Palestine.
So there would have been no take-over of Gaza by Hamas, no indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli citizens, no Israeli response in the form of Operation Cast Lead, and 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 ill-fated attempt to secure recognition by the United Nations for a sovereign Palestine, for by now Palestine would have long been a fully-fledged, and no doubt active, member of the United Nations. 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, financially, militarily, even culturally, as closely as possible with its nearest, flourishing neighbour? 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? But it is a scenario as likely as any other.
Thinking about it, one’s over-riding feeling must surely be a sense of the pity of it all. Consider all the avoidable death and destruction over the past twelve years, both Palestinian and Israeli. And what a wasted opportunity. 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. The second intifada, Hamas’s seizure of power in Gaza, internal Palestinian rivalries, even the popular triumphs of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – all have resulted in a political atmosphere quite different from the heady days of 2000.
So we are unable to wish a sovereign Palestine “Happy 12th Anniversary”. Twelve years ago the Palestinian leadership, not for the first time, signally failed to recognize that “tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” But the future need not be quite as bleak as Shakespeare predicts. Tides have a habit of turning. Let us hope that, next time, those in charge of Palestinian affairs have the courage to seize the opportunity before it is, yet again, too late.