Analysis from Israel

Reuters has finally noticed what Israeli papers have been reporting for a while: West Bank refugee camps are seething. And unlike in the past, when most of the anger was aimed at Israel, “These days most of the wrath is aimed at [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas himself and his failure to keep his promises.” Western observers are watching anxiously, Reuters says, because they fear an eruption of violence. But they ought to be watching for another reason: Nothing casts more doubt on the wisdom of the West’s drive for Palestinian statehood now than the PA’s treatment of the refugee camps over its 22 years of existence.

The case for Palestinian statehood makes obvious sense in the abstract: Palestinians need a state where they can promote their people’s welfare, just as Jews need a state where they can promote their people’s welfare. It’s not that Israel did nothing for the Palestinians during its decades of governing the territories. Palestinian life expectancy jumped by 50 percent under Israeli rule, infant mortality plummeted by more than two-thirds, literacy rates and living standards skyrocketed, and so forth. Indeed, every hospital and university in the West Bank was built by Israel, as were most of those in Gaza.

Nevertheless, there are many things Israel didn’t do, and the refugee camps are Exhibit A. Granted, Israel left the camps intact mainly because its one attempt to provide refugees with better housing back in the 1970s elicited such brutal opposition from the PLO–which threatened to kill refugees who accepted the offer–that it backed down. But regardless of the reason, the refugee camps are precisely the kind of open sore that Palestinian statehood is theoretically supposed to solve.

In reality, however, the PA has done nothing for the refugees. More than two decades after the PA’s establishment, the refugees’ schooling, healthcare and welfare allowances are still provided and funded wholly by UNRWA, the UN agency created especially for this purpose. Or, to be more precise, by the Western countries that fund most of UNRWA’s budget. Nor has the PA moved a single refugee into better housing. And this isn’t because Israel has somehow prevented it from doing so; most of the refugee camps are located in Area A, the part of the West Bank under full Palestinian control. It’s because the PA has no interest in doing so. As one resident of Balata, a refugee camp near Nablus, complained to Reuters, “The president [Abbas] hasn’t visited even once”–despite being in the 11th year of his four-year term.

Moreover, this neglect is quite deliberate: The PA doesn’t see the refugees as citizens to be served, but as a weapon aimed at Israel. They are kept in miserable conditions for the express purpose of creating sympathy for the Palestinian demand that they all be relocated to Israel, thereby eradicating its Jewish majority. And you needn’t take my word for that; as I’ve noted before, Palestinian officials have said quite openly that the refugees will never be granted citizenship in a Palestinian state–not even those already living in the West Bank and Gaza, the putative territory of this state.

Most of the arguments for creating a Palestinian state have long since proven false. The idea that such a state would bring peace to Israel, for instance, has been disproven not only by the upsurge in terror from every bit of territory Israel has handed over to Palestinian control to date, but also by the PA’s utter unwillingness to recognize that Jews have any right to a state even within the 1967 lines.

Similarly, the idea that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the main source of Mideast instability has been amply disproved by the meltdown of several Arab countries over the last few years, none of which had anything to do with Israel or the Palestinians.

But even with all those theories disproven, the basic desire one Balata resident expressed to Reuters–“We want dignity, we want better lives”–understandably resonates with most Westerners. And many believe this alone is sufficient justification for demanding Palestinian statehood now.

Except that a Palestinian state won’t provide that either, as the past 22 years have shown. The refugees will still be deprived of better lives, ignored by their own government, stuck in squalid refugee camps, dependent on Western charity for their healthcare, welfare and schooling, and subject to all the abuses of Abbas’s dictatorial government. As one Balata resident commented, “We don’t let the Palestinian Authority in because they will take us, torture us.”

In other words, Palestinian statehood now won’t solve a single problem, but assuredly will create a lot of new ones. If you doubt that, just consider the three wars Israel has fought with Hamas-run Gaza in the 11 years since it unilaterally withdrew from that territory. As long as Palestinians refuse to accept the Jewish state’s right to exist, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would almost certainly produce constant warfare just as the Gaza withdrawal has. And a Palestinian state at war with Israel will inevitably be a failed state, given the combination of Israeli military strength and Palestinian economic dependence on their larger, wealthier neighbor.

Thus, instead of continuing to push for the imminent creation of a Palestinian state, the West would do better to focus on the hard, slow work of educating Palestinians to come to terms with Israel’s existence. Demanding that the PA finally dismantle those refugee camps and take responsibility for their residents off UNRWA’s hands would be an excellent place to start.

Originally published in Commentary on November 3, 1016

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Israel’s do-over election performed a vital service for democracy

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

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