What is at stake in Palestine: a third intifada and the parade of horribles

As the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially East Jerusalem, is balanced on a knife edge and could erupt at any moment into a new explosion of violence or even a third intifada, it is crucial to review what is at stake for all parties should such a catastrophic turn of events occur. Far too many actors and commentators are casually viewing the present extremely dangerous situation, and even welcoming the prospect of a third intifada or the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, or are calling for less dramatic but also extraordinarily dangerous scenarios. So, before this goes any further, let us be clear exactly what is at stake.

A third intifada would undoubtedly follow the pattern established by the relationship of the end of the first intifada to its beginning, and of the second intifada to the first; which is to say, that this process has meant ever-increasing levels of violence, death and religious fanaticism on both sides. There are fantasists who dream of a return to the long gone era of “people power” which characterized much of the first intifada. There is absolutely no question that the first intifada, especially in its early stages, was a particularly effective and praiseworthy instance of Palestinian resistance to occupation, probably the most successful mass Palestinian political action in modern history. However, it occurred in a circumstance in which heavily organized political parties, let alone with armed militias, were really not present in the occupied Palestinian territories. The PLO was in exile in Tunis, and Hamas did not exist at all when the first intifada erupted spontaneously. By the end of it, the PLO was back in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood had formed its political and paramilitary wings in Palestine, i.e. Hamas, in an Israeli-encouraged effort to split the Palestinian movement between nationalists and Islamists (a plot that has worked only too well).

The situation now is entirely different: even if a third intifada were to emerge spontaneously as a consequence of popular outrage about one thing or another, it would inevitably and almost immediately be commandeered by existing, well organized and funded political parties with large armed militias. This is what distinguished the second intifada from the first, and as a consequence the second intifada was militarized and much more ideological, especially in terms of religious fanaticism. The consequences of the first intifada were almost entirely positive across the board. The consequences of the second were disastrous for the Palestinian people and national movement.

I think there can be no serious, honest doubt that no matter how much people might wish for a return to the grassroots spontaneity and largely nonviolent character of the first intifada, in reality there is no going back because any such momentum will inevitably be successfully hijacked by a variety of political and armed groups who simply weren’t present in the occupied territories in 1987. Therefore, the only reasonable expectation is that any third intifada will be more militarized, bloody, brutal and disastrous than the second, just as the second was than the first. I simply cannot see any basis for engineering a reversal of this pattern.

For the Palestinians, this strongly suggests that any third intifada would be even more disastrous than the second. Anyone calling for a third intifada without realizing this is a dangerous fool playing with fire, and anyone calling for it who does realize its actual consequences is a dangerous extremist. One of the most probable outcomes of any third intifada would be the ascendancy for the foreseeable future of Islamist organizations and the recasting of the Palestinian national movement as an Islamist cause, which would almost certainly spell the death of the dreams of Palestine and peace. I doubt that the Palestinian national cause could, as a practical political agenda, survive such a grotesque mutation.

It is clear that many on the Israeli right wing, and also quite probably in the present Israeli cabinet, might also welcome the emergence of a third intifada, hoping that it would allow them to crush the Palestinian Authority, cancel any prospect for peace negotiations, and reinforce both the occupation and the settlement agenda with a renewed vigor and brutality. This explains the extraordinary and calculated provocations in recent days centered around East Jerusalem that have added so much fuel to the fire.

Such an attitude is at least as dangerous for the future of Israel as it is for the Palestinians. A third intifada would not only be a security calamity for Israel, and undoubtedly be more dangerous than the second, it would probably constitute an end to any prospects of not only peace with the Palestinians, but of reconciliation with the Arab world and ensure that Israel remains in a state of war for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it could well mean that Israel has squandered the last opportunity to divest itself of the occupation in a rational, workable manner, rendering what has become the de facto Israeli state neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense and developing and entrenching an apartheid character especially in the occupied territories. In the long run it could prove a blow from which both the Zionist and the Palestinian dreams and projects can never recover.

There are some Israelis and Palestinians, and their supporters, who stop short of yearning for a third intifada, but who urge the dismantling of the PA. In both cases, such an idea is the height of political irresponsibility.

For Palestinians, the dismantling of the PA would mean a return to the most direct kinds of occupation, the loss of any prospect of building state institutions and the squandering of Prime Minister Fayyad’s extraordinary plan to actually build Palestine on the ground, the loss of any serious ability to conduct diplomacy, and probably the loss of any real prospect of statehood. Were the PA to be dissolved or collapse, obviously the door would be open for Hamas (which is currently focused on preventing women from immodestly riding on the back of motorcycles) to export its rule in Gaza to the West Bank, which is no doubt what most of the people who call for this really desire. We can then look forward to the political, economic and social conditions in Gaza spreading to the entire Palestinian territories, except where direct Israeli military occupation precludes this.

For Israel, it would mean a return to full and direct rule over millions of Palestinians, and ensuring that not only a third, but an endless and increasingly ghastly series of intifadas are inevitable, with all the consequences outlined above and probably far worse. If Israel deliberately precipitates this, it will be setting itself up to be dealing with forces far beyond its control or its comprehension for generations to come. It will be inviting and making virtually inevitable a broad-based religious war for which it is clearly unprepared and whose outcome will certainly be catastrophic for most if not all parties. I doubt that either the Israeli or the Palestinian national projects can survive such an appalling but all too realistic scenario.

Finally, there are those Palestinians and their supporters who stop short of calling for either an intifada or the dismantling of the PA, but who are currently wasting their time by calling for the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas. This is a ridiculous idea on several grounds.

First of all, the political future of Abbas and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as well as the Hamas leadership in Gaza should, and really as a practical matter can only, be decided by the Palestinian people through elections. Fortunately, these elections have been agreed to for January of next year, which, in effect, is only a few weeks away. The PA continues to insist that the January elections, to which Hamas agreed in Cairo but which it now wishes to delay or perhaps cancel, should take place as scheduled. Any delay that does occur will be a consequence of pressure from Hamas and some Arab states, and it would be silly to blame the PA leadership for not holding elections when it is the only party that wants to hold them on schedule as agreed. Calling for a sitting president to resign in October when elections are scheduled for January doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It particularly doesn’t make sense given the predictable consequences of any such action, even if it were otherwise justified. I would note that none of the parties and commentators calling for Abbas to go are giving any thought to what would happen then. There is no working or effective mechanism under Palestinian law for the replacement of a president other than an election (unlike, for example, Lebanon, which went without a president for several months a few years ago as you will recall), which is why Abbas has remained in power even though his elected term of office expired some months back. Without a president, which is what Palestinians would almost certainly be left with if he were to resign, diplomacy would either cease or simply revert back entirely to the PLO, whose chairman is… Mahmoud Abbas.

Moreover, administration and self-government in the West Bank would cease since there would no longer be a president for the prime minister and his cabinet to report to. This is, as one immediately suspects, a roundabout way of calling for the dismantling of the PA altogether. Otherwise, Abbas’ critics would be focused on ensuring a result they want in the January election, and that the election takes place as scheduled, rather than calling for some kind of unworkable resignation. As usual, some people are emoting, but they are not thinking, and others are engaging in cynical demagoguery.

The role of the Prime Minister cannot be over-emphasized. Ever since his reappointment for a second term, many different forces have been agitating for Fayyad’s removal, including in the aftermath of the Fatah Party Congress in Bethlehem. It was, therefore, no surprise to see some efforts to preposterously blame him for the mishandling of the Goldstone report even though his office would not be directly or centrally involved in any such decisions. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s position is more vulnerable than the President’s, and it is essential that he not be forced out of office in one way or another.

A third intifada is the least likely and most dangerous eventuality in the present circumstances, but is a frightening possibility. The dismantling of the PA or the forced resignation of Pres. Abbas (which probably amounts to the same thing) is only slightly less unlikely and slightly less dangerous. However, the third potential eventuality in this parade of horribles, which is the eventual removal of the Prime Minister, is both readily imaginable and would be devastating to the ability of the Palestinian Authority to lay the groundwork for independence and the practical as well as the political and diplomatic end of the occupation. Fayyad has recognized that ending the occupation doesn’t simply mean engineering Israeli withdrawal, but also must mean effective Palestinian self-government, which requires a major state and institution building project such as the one he laid out in his government program released a few weeks ago.

Everyone — Palestinian, Arab, American, European and Israeli — who is interested in a real peace agreement being developed and realized in the coming years has a major stake in seeing Fayyad’s program thrive. It is therefore imperative that his role is not sacrificed in order to extract other parties from their political difficulties. Any sensible person can readily see that a third intifada should be avoided by all means, but there are less dramatic scenarios at stake that can also have exceptionally negative, and possibly fatal, consequences. Anyone — Israeli, Arab or Palestinian — who is calling or working for the realization of any of these three exceptionally dangerous potentialities — a third intifada, the dissolving of the PA/ resignation of Abbas, or the removal of Fayyad — must bear the full responsibility for their consequences.