They’ve rejected every peace initiative. Their no-show this week in Bahrain should be the last
This week’s U.S.-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain on the Palestinian economy will likely be attended by seven Arab states—a clear rebuke to foreign-policy experts who said that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as Israeli territory would alienate the Arab world. Sunni Arab states are lending legitimacy to the Trump administration’s plan, making it all the more notable that the Palestinian Authority itself refuses to participate.
The conference’s only agenda is improving the Palestinian economy. It isn’t tied to any diplomatic package, and the plan’s 40-page overview contains nothing at odds with the Palestinian’s purported diplomatic goals. Some aspects are even politically uncomfortable for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given all that, the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to discuss economic opportunities for its own people, even with the Arab states, shows how far it is from discussing the concessions necessary for a diplomatic settlement. Instead it seeks to deepen Palestinian misfortune and use it as a cudgel against Israel in the theater of international opinion.
This isn’t the first time the Palestinians have said no. At a summit brokered by President Clinton in 2000, Israel offered them full statehood on territory that included roughly 92% of the West Bank and all of Gaza, along with a capital in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority rejected that offer, leading Israel to up it to 97% of the West Bank in 2001. Again, the answer was no. An even further-reaching offer in 2008 was rejected out of hand. And when President Obama pressured Israel into a 10-month settlement freeze in 2009 to renew negotiations, the Palestinians refused to come to the table.
After so many rejections, one might conclude that the Palestinian Authority’s leaders simply aren’t interested in peace. Had they accepted any of the peace offers, they would have immediately received the rarest of all geopolitical prizes: a new country, with full international recognition. To be sure, in each proposal they found something not quite to their liking. But the Palestinians are perhaps the only national independence movement in the modern era that has ever rejected a genuine offer of internationally recognized statehood, even if it falls short of all the territory the movement had sought.
The best example is Israel itself, which jumped at a 1947 United Nations proposal for a Jewish state, even though it was noncontiguous and excluded Jerusalem and much of its present territory. The Arab states rejected the proposal, which would have also created a parallel Arab country.
India and Pakistan didn’t reject independence because major territorial claims were left unaddressed. Ireland accepted independence without the island’s six northern counties. Morocco didn’t refuse statehood because Spain retained land on its northern coast.
While there have been hundreds of national independence movements in modern times, few are fortunate enough to receive an offer of fully recognized sovereign statehood. Including 1947, the Palestinians have received four. From Tibet to Kurdistan, such opportunities remain a dream.
Several lessons must be drawn from the Palestinians’ serial rejection of statehood—and this week, even of economic development. First, the status quo is not Israeli “rule” or “domination.” The Palestinians can comfortably turn down once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because almost all Palestinians already live under Palestinian government. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, they’ve enjoyed many of statehood’s trappings, particularly in foreign relations. Israel undertakes regular antiterror operations, but that’s different from overall power. For instance, the U.S. doesn’t “rule” over Afghanistan.
Second, statehood and a resolution to the conflict is not what the Palestinians truly seek. This is what economists call a “revealed preference”: To know what consumers truly want, look at what they choose. The Palestinians have repeatedly chosen the status quo over sovereignty.
Finally, throw out the assumption that when Palestinians reject an offer, it stays on the table and accrues interest. If offers will only improve with time, the Palestinians have an incentive to keep saying no.
The Palestinian Authority cannot be forced to accept a peaceful settlement, and Israel doesn’t wish to return to its pre-Oslo control over the Palestinian population. But rejectionism, culminating this week in Bahrain, must have consequences.
For more than 50 years, the future of Jewish communities in the West Bank—and the nearly half a million Jews who now live there—has been held in limbo pending a diplomatic settlement. While the authority rejects improved hospitals, port arrangements and employment centers, many of the benefits for Palestinians could still be achieved by locating them in parts of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction. But to do that, the question mark over these places, which include all of the Jews living in the West Bank and a much smaller number of Palestinians, must be lifted. Washington should support Israeli initiatives to replace military rule with civil law in these areas, normalizing their status. The Palestinians’ no-show in Bahrain should end their ability to hold development and growth hostage.