On December 30, 2021 Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, was on the phone to Russian president Vladimir Putin. They discussed, among other matters, “the latest developments in the Palestinian cause.” On January 11 Abbas was in Sharm-el-Sheikh in Sinai, meeting Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. According to the Egyptian spokesman, Sisi stressed “the steadfastness of Egypt’s support for the Palestinian cause”.
What is the “Palestinian cause” to which Putin and Sisi, along with the UN, the US, the EU and many world leaders offer their support? As reiterated time and again, it is the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine on territory, attacked and occupied by Jordan and Egypt in 1948, that Israel overran during the 6-Day War in June 1967. In other words, the two-state solution to the perennial Arab-Israel dispute.
But within the Palestinian body politic that is not the agreed definition of their cause. A large swath of Palestinian opinion shares the vision of Hamas and supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, to say nothing of the Iran-supported jihadist groups within the Gaza Strip and beyond. Hamas, founded in 1987, initially took its lead from the pronouncement back in 1970 by Yassir Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO): “Our basic aim is to liberate the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River…. The Palestinian revolution’s basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it.”
Hamas broke with Arafat completely over the Oslo Accord of 1993. On 5 September 1993, shortly after the terms were announced, Hamas issued its Leaflet 102 condemning both the agreement and the PLO leadership: “We will therefore insist on ruining this agreement, and continue the resistance struggle and our jihad against the occupation power… Arafat’s leadership is responsible for destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”
That disagreement is so basic that it has ensured the two main Palestinian political groups – Hamas and Fatah – have remained at each other’s throats for decades. All attempts at reconciliation have proved fruitless. Another effort is under way hosted by Algeria, but that is not likely to prove more successful.
Hamas believes that the only effective way to achieve the desired outcome is through continual conflict and terrorism. Any pause in the battle must be temporary and provide a tactical advantage. The PA, however, continues to follow the Arafat strategy. At the Oslo meetings in 1993 and 1995 Arafat decided to woo world opinion by supporting the two-state solution overtly, with the covert intention of using that support as a first step toward eventually overthrowing Israel. Not long after the conclusion of Oslo 2, he held what was intended to be a secret meeting with Arab leaders in a Stockholm hotel. To his embarrassment, both his tactical plans and his strategic objectives were leaked to the Norwegian daily, Dagen. Among much else, he told Arab leaders that the PLO intends: “…to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state.”
Following Arafat’s death the PA, and its new leader Mahmoud Abbas, took their lead from his prospectus. A determined effort was made to win over world opinion to the idea of establishing a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed before the 6-Day War in 1967 – that is, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Pressing for a Palestinian state within those boundaries inevitably meant acknowledging that a sovereign Israel existed outside them. This is the pill that Hamas and like-minded rejectionists find impossible to swallow. They refuse to recognize that Israel has any right at all to exist on “their” land, not even as one step toward its eventual destruction. Hamas never supported Abbas’s effort to gain recognition within the UN for the “State of Palestine”, because the state for which Abbas sought recognition was less than the whole.
So while there is a consensus in Palestinian thinking about a utopian future, there is none about “the Palestinian cause”. Opinions begin at the Hamas position and move on to what Mahmoud Abbas described in 2011 as “the Arabs’ biggest mistake” – the united Arab rejection of the UN partition plan of 1947. An unrealistic minority would seek to undo that rejection and fight to reduce Israel’s borders to the territory originally agreed by the Jewish Agency – a narrow coastal strip running along part of the Mediterranean, plus Tiberias and the Negev. Another fanciful minority would seek to establish a single independent democratic state, an idea promoted in the Palestine Arab Congresses held between 1919 and 1928.
Abbas is on record in 2018 as favoring a three-way confederation of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine. In a confederation, states retain their sovereignty but agree to collaborate on certain security, defense, economic or administrative matters, appointing a joint central authority to coordinate the arrangement.
On January 16 Abbas cancelled a meeting of the Palestine Central Council scheduled for later that week. Reports suggested “tensions and differences among Palestinian officials and factions”. In short, confusion reigns within the Palestinian establishment, not about the vision, but about how to reach it. Eliminating Israel and acquiring the whole of Mandate Palestine from the River to the Sea may be the dream, but it is not the “Palestinian cause” as perceived and supported by much of world opinion. While endorsing the idea of a sovereign Palestine, most world leaders also affirm their strong support for a sovereign Israel within internationally recognized borders – a proposition unacceptable to a significant proportion of Palestinian opinion. Unless or until there is a sea-change, the only foreseeable outcome is endless conflict.