Political Animal


December 01, 2012 11:20 AM Dispatch from Ramallah

By Jesse Singal

A month ago I was in Israel and Palestine with some classmates. As part of the final “policy workshop” we must complete to get out of here with our shiny MPAs (estimated wage premium: +$3/year), we’re preparing a report on whether or not the two-state solution is still viable, and, if it isn’t, what alternatives U.S. policy makers should be pushing for. (The workshop is headed by former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who related a couple of depressingly telling stories from the trip in this recent piece he had in Foreign Policy.)

Like many American Jews, I had been to Israel before—not on Birthright, but as part of a lesser-known program designed to study the phenomenon of adolescent awkwardness by taking 14-and-15-year-old young Jewish science enthusiasts and sending them to Israel to be nerds. But it was very good to be back there, because now that I’m in my late twenties I obviously have more nuanced political views on the situation. And I was particularly interested in going to Ramallah, simply because it’s not a place a lot of Jews go to these days, and growing up as a Jew (even a liberal one) you don’t hear much about what’s going on on that side of the fence.

Once we got to Ramallah, a few of us were given a tour of parts of the Jordan Valley by Chris Keeler, an American working for the MA’AN Development Center. Chris, a very good guy who took our countless wide-eyed questions with aplomb, knows his stuff, so I emailed him to see if he’d be willing to chime in about the last few days in Ramallah. His email is after the jump, and you’ll notice that it doesn’t quite jibe with what you may have read in the big media outlets.

Despite the supposed significance of this week’s UNGA vote that led to the admittance of Palestine to the UN (observer status), there has been very little excitement in Palestine leading up to the vote. Certainly, receiving observer status in the UN is a significant victory for Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters; on Thursday night, as the results of the vote were announced, Palestinians gathered in the recently renamed Yasser Arafat Square in the center of Ramallah, waving flags and singing the national anthem.* Yet, for such a major step towards statehood, the Palestinian reaction was tempered. Many of the Palestinians I spoke to on Thursday night were on the streets to simply observe, rather than celebrate. Earlier that day, journalists entered one of the most popular coffee shops in Ramallah, looking for reactions from Ramallah-ites. Yet most Palestinians could not be bothered to look up from their games of cards.
The general apathy, outside of the few hardcore Fatah supporters, is a reflection of the true insignificance of this vote. Many Palestinians see the UN vote as yet another political distraction that will ultimately fail to end the occupation. Unending negotiations and repeated UN actions and resolutions have numbed many Palestinians to the political track. Futility in past political moves leaves Palestinians realistic about the significance of the vote.
Other Palestinians see the moves by Abbas as betraying the true Palestinian cause. Abbas’ recent comments about his right to return to his ancient village** (Safed, now in Israel) have led many to think that he has given up fighting for the rights of Palestinian refugees. They see the recent vote as another political move that has ignored the refugees.
Finally, many Palestinians have given up on the prospects of a two-state solution. With over 500,000 Israeli settlers throughout the West Bank, many Palestinians feel that a true Palestinian state would be impossible. These, typically younger, Palestinians regard the UN vote as a positive step down the wrong road. Pushing for a two-state solution, according to this group, is only distracting from the fight for equality within one state. The Israeli reaction—announcing the construction of 3000 more settler homes in the West Bank—is seen as proof that Israel is not interested in the creation of a Palestinian state.
These different groups have come together to create a general apathy surrounding the UN vote in Ramallah. Despite Al Jazeera images giving the sense that there are major celebrations in response to the new UN status, Ramallah has remained tepid. Most Palestinians see little evidence that this new development will lead to anything other than more disappointment. Yesterday, the day after the UN vote and the ‘major Palestinian celebrations’ Clock Square was quiet. The stage and screen were taken down unceremoniously and life returned to normal. Today, two days later, there is little talk about the UN. For most Palestinians, such political games mean very little as there is little chance the new status of the UN will end the occupation or improve their lives in any tangible way.
* Technically now named Arafat Square, all Palestinians I know still refer to it by its original name, Clock Square
** “I visited Safed before once. But I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” Abbas said, speaking in English from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • c u n d gulag on December 01, 2012 11:36 AM:


    Well, THAT was depressing...

    So, if not "The Two State Solution," what IS the solution?
    Or, are these two tribes destined to dance their dance of death, until they all kill each other?

  • PeakVT on December 01, 2012 12:06 PM:

    With over 500,000 Israeli settlers throughout the West Bank, many Palestinians feel that a true Palestinian state would be impossible. These, typically younger, Palestinians regard the UN vote as a positive step down the wrong road. Pushing for a two-state solution, according to this group, is only distracting from the fight for equality within one state. The Israeli reaction - announcing the construction of 3000 more settler homes in the West Bank - is seen as proof that Israel is not interested in the creation of a Palestinian state.

    It's good to see that some Palestinians have recognized their only way forward.

  • jjm on December 01, 2012 12:39 PM:

    to PeakVT: one state, perhaps. But how about a Palestinian state that followed the green line, and left those 500,000 Jews as a minority inside Palestine? Would that be a just outcome?

  • golack on December 01, 2012 2:45 PM:

    Americathon the movie...just look it up...

    One state wouldn't be tolerated--demographics would lead to a Palestinian majority. It was fear of the Arab majority that destroyed Lebanon--and the whole Cold War proxy thing, etc.

    jjm has a good idea, though I doubt the settlers would tolerate that.

    The sad thing is that the politics favor extremism. Rockets, bombings, assassinations (think Prime Minister of Israel), military attacks...lack of jobs, infrastructure, trade--and the need for a scapegoats.

    The West Bank needs to be shining city on the hill. There needs to be trust building exercises between the "settlers" and the Palestinian population. And new settlements have to stop, old ones can not longer expand, and in the two state solution, they would be in the Palestinian state--with the right to move to Israel if they so wish.

    Perhaps a confederation of states? A super-state court system to ensure the rights of the minorities in both Israel and Palestine. Yes, it could just break down along partisan lines--but at least initially there could be hope that all people will be treated fairly. Killing someone now for some real or perceived old grievance will not be tolerated. Commissions established to develop workable programs for both states to help deal with the difficult issues--and both states will have to accept unless rejected by 2/3 majority of their representative bodies....(ok, so maybe nothing will ever get done...)

    ...hey, at least it's more than Mitt proposed ;)

  • mandana on December 01, 2012 6:26 PM:

    golack has some good ideas.
    But will islamist's antipathy to any other belief system, including that of judaism, ever be eliminated? Can global islamic community ever learn that their global jihad, that of annihilating all other belief systems and making every human a Muslim is just plain imperialism?
    While Palestinians have become pawns in the game among global imperial powers and need to be rescued and given a land where they will be free, and prosperous, will Arab imperialism wearing the mask of Islamic Utopia ever be stopped in its tracks and learn to really cohabit the world with other people?
    I hope these things will happen and the world can become a more livable place. But what are the chances?

  • Doug on December 01, 2012 7:33 PM:

    The original document behind all this, the Balfour Declaration, envisaged a single state consisting of Arabs and Jews. That state was to be called Palestine and consisted of what is now Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories. There was no expectation that Jews would ever be anything but an overall minority, although there obviously would be places where they were in a localized majority.
    The idea of a single state was never tried. During WWI, the British backed an Arab revolt against the Turks. That revolt was led by Sheik Hussein and he was promised advancement for his clan after the war. He was to become the King of the Hejaz (part of present-day Saudi Arabia), with his eldest son as heir and his next son, Abdullah, as King of Iraq.
    Abdullah was chased out of Iraq by a local sheik who then became king of Iraq. Britain, partly in an effort to bolster Abdullah's father who was fighting Ibn Saud for control of Arabia at the time, split its' Palestinian mandate into two parts - Palestine and Trans-Jordan (just as the name says), made Abdullah the king of the latter and reduced "Palestine" by 2/3s.
    In the now reduced Palestine, some Arabs became worried that NOW Jews might become a majority in the entire country. Other Arabs were frightened that as more Jews entered Palestine and modernized it, they (the Arabs) would lose their influence over their co-religionists. The two Arab groups combined to prevent further Jewish immigration through protests, boycotts and riots. This group also assassinated any Arab leaders supporting Arab/Jewish coexistence.
    After WWII, when Great Britain handed its' mandate back, the UN came up with idea of setting up a "cantonized" Palestine; three areas where the Jews were in the majority and another three where it was the Arabs who were in the majority. Jerusalem was to be shared. The Jews accepted the UN plan, the Arabs rejected it.
    When fighting broke out the Jews managed to gain control of the areas that made up pre-1967 Israel; a state larger in area than the one devised by the UN. I have no idea why the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza didn't set up their own indpendent "Palestine", but they never did. Maybe because they felt that to do so would "recognize" the rights of the Jews to Israel, I don't know.
    I do know that Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa were forced from their homes of centuries and had to emigrate to Israel. The Palestinian Arabs were cooped up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by those who called themselves their allies. That's not the term I'd use. I still don't know why the West Bank wasn't made an integral part of Jordan, although I imagine it had something to do with the last sentence in my previous paragraph.
    I support Israel's right to exist. but until that right to exist is recognized by more Arab countries than Egypt, I don't see how this mess can even move forward, let alone be solved.
    (sorry abouth the length)

  • Crissa on December 01, 2012 7:47 PM:

    Doug, if anything, you've written on why Israel doesn't have the right to exist: Because it doesn't recognize the rights of Arabs to live in Palestine except as refugees.

    I'm not sure I buy that. But you're pretty convincing.

  • TCinLA on December 01, 2012 10:31 PM:

    The Balfour Declaration meant nothing to the British, other than it was a sop to the Rothschilds for them to continue financing Britain in the First World War, as Britain was in 1917 nearly bankrupt. The reason the Balfour Declaration meant nothing is because the British imperialists and the French imperialists had already decided to sell out everyone they had manipulated into supporting them in return for future agreements, in the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, and Balfour knew it.

    You might want to review the manner in which the 1948 war was waged, Doug, because it turns out that most of your Zionist "heroes" were doing pretty much the same thing they had watched the Germans do on the Eastern Front in World War II. Can you say "ethnic cleansing" and "war crimes"? I knew you could. The Jews were entirely willing, 4 years after the Holocaust, to do exactly what had been done to them.

    The Likud was founded by admirers of Mussolini, who were willing to ally with the German SS before the war to work against the British.

    Any claim of "moral superiority" the Jews in Israel claim to hold is easily refuted by any examination of the facts, rather than the Jewish propaganda.

  • zandru on December 02, 2012 11:26 AM:

    Mr Keeler's description of the Palestinian reaction to the UNGA vote is at odds with what Juan Cole reports:


    Israel would really like it for the Palestinians to give up and settle into apathy. Israel's whole strategy revolves around "crushing" the people of Palestine: not only by killing, maiming and starving them, but by breaking their spirits, destroying all hope and aspiration for better lives.

    By writing that this most-desired status has already been reached, Mr Keeler helps his Israeli overlords cause it to be true. Look how many formerly-liberal writers here have now given up any hope that the injustices in the self-proclaimed "Holy Land" ever be alleviated. Well, they don't care anymore, so why should we?