Humpty Dumpty Palestine

Even if the United Nations grants Palestine statehood this September, it's far from looking -- or acting -- like a real, functioning state.

In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the original organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism -- will either succeed in gaining new status as a nonmember U.N. observer state, or win a General Assembly resolution supporting Palestinian statehood.

But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause; their nationalism and attachment to Palestine cannot be easily broken or undermined. Just consider the Jews in the diaspora, whose attachment and yearning for the Land of Israel survived centuries of rootlessness, persecution, and even genocide.

Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.

Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. The current unity gambit between Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas (the organizational embodiment of a Palestinian Islamist nationalism) only highlights those divisions, which are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is. No U.N. resolution can overcome the reality that it will be hard to put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again.

The first piece is Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians live in political and economic limbo. Here Hamas rules uneasily but supremely. The Israeli blockade, recurring war, restrictions on movement, and absence of real opportunity for economic growth have reinforced a sense of separateness and despair. Gazans are certainly part of the Palestinian family, and they will claim to lead its nationalist vanguard (the first Intifada started there, but Gazans are cut off and seen by West Bankers as less-sophisticated country cousins ill-suited for leading the national movement). How many Palestinians from Gaza have ever risen to positions of leadership in Palestinian national politics? Even Yasir Arafat, the world's most famous Palestinian -- and Gaza resident -- wanted it known that he was born in Jerusalem, whether it was true or not. As long as Hamas is in charge, Gaza will retain its provincial character and move in its own direction -- more traditionalist, more Islamist, and more oriented toward Egypt.

Second, in the West Bank, 2.6 million Palestinians comprise the closest thing to a Palestinian statelet. But here, the PLO doesn't so much rule as preside with the indulgence of the Israelis who still control a large portion of West Bank territory, expand settlements at will, and determine who and what gets in and out. Paradoxically, an improved security situation, some economic growth, and responsible governance and institution-building by Fatah's leadership have produced remarkable stability that has worked to preserve the status quo. The West Bank is hardly in a pre-revolutionary state, and both Abbas and the Israelis have a stake in keeping it that way. Still, tensions within Fatah -- driven by a generational divide, resentment over corruption, and opposition to the Palestinian Authority's (PA's) lack of respect for the rule of law -- abound; and Hamas waits patiently to increase its own leverage. Should Abbas resign or retire, Palestinians in the West Bank would be left with no recognizable national figure to guide the PA, further exacerbating division and dissension.

Third, in East Jerusalem, almost 300,000 Palestinians (roughly 38 percent of the city's population) are an anomaly. Not Israeli citizens, but permanent residents, these Palestinians worry constantly about losing their residency, their daily lives made harder by the separation barrier. They do receive Israeli state benefits, such as health care and education; and they pay taxes for it, though their share and quality of those benefits are hardly equitable to those of Israelis (yet still much better than what West Bankers and certainly Gazans receive). Palestinians here have learned to adjust and to survive -- a great many even to prosper. They resent Israeli restrictions and discrimination; and most would want their own state if it were well-governed. But many Palestinians here are worried that they would lose their right to speak freely under a PA-controlled Palestinian state and are concerned about governmental corruption and lack of respect for human rights.

Fourth, there are 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees -- with roughly a third, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, in 58 recognized camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO was itself in diaspora, these communities held greater sway. Even now, however, they continue to limit and even block what the PLO can do and what it can concede on the issue of right of return -- the Palestinian claim that refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in what is now Israel -- during any negotiations with the Israelis. For all practical purposes, these communities represent a lost world; their options and future are grim. In the absence of a solution, they too will go their own way, vulnerable to radicalization and a continuing source of pressure on host governments. Nor has the Palestinian national movement -- unlike the Zionists -- been able to marshal the power of wealthy and influential expatriates in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.

Even without adding in the fifth piece -- the 1.3 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and want to remain so (though treated equitably) -- the consequences of these divisions are profound. No national movement can become a successful state without a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society, centralization of resources, and a coherent strategy. Rooted in the West Bank, the PLO lacks all these things. It cannot mobilize the people of Gaza or East Jerusalem; it cannot command their loyalties through money, show of force, or successful diplomacy, let alone marshal those in the diaspora.

And as long as Hamas has the power to trigger a military conflict with Israel through the use of high-trajectory rockets and missiles, Fatah will always be at the mercy of events and never really in control. Finally, President Abbas does not have the kind of legitimate and broad mandate he needs to negotiate a solution to the issues of refugees and Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians.

An Israeli government less than committed to a meaningful two-state solution -- such as the one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- would look at the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty as just another reason to be complacent and believe that no conflict-ending solution is possible. Even a government that was serious about a settlement would ask serious questions about making concessions to a Palestinian president who doesn't control all of the people or guns of Palestine.

The fact is, it isn't the Israelis who have a demographic problem; it may actually be the Palestinians who simply cannot marshal enough control over their disparate parts to harness their people power into an effective strategy. Any Israeli government -- even one that was serious about negotiations -- would try to develop separate approaches to deal with these divisions: a military/security policy toward Gaza; a co-optation strategy toward the West Bank; and a border-security approach toward the diaspora.

If it looked like the forces of diplomacy, rather than the forces of history, might dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps these various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle could be worked out and addressed. But today, with no sustainable negotiations on the horizon, that does not appear to be the case. A Palestine in pieces does not bode well for a conflict-ending solution, and no paper resolution or upgrade in status in New York this month will change that.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


The Wars America Doesn't Talk About

A disturbing triumphalism over the Libya intervention has emerged amid the conspiracy of silence over the bloody mess in Afghanistan.

Last month was the deadliest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the ten years of the war there, with 67 killed, nearly half of them Navy SEALs in the downing of a Chinook helicopter -- the deadliest single incident in this, the longest war in American history. More promisingly, it was also the first month since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that not a single U.S. soldier was killed there.  

And yet these startling facts received almost no notice: the president never mentioned them, Congress was silent. When it comes to these drawn-out conflicts, both American political parties are increasingly determined to say nothing at all.

The silence is especially striking among the Republican political establishment, on whose watch these wars were launched. At last week's debate of the 2012 presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, Afghanistan rated barely a mention. It came up only twice, once when libertarian Ron Paul complained that it costs "$20 billion a year" to provide air-conditioning for U.S. troops in the wars and demanded that the U.S. pull the plug, and a second time when the Utah politician-turned-diplomat Jon Huntsman urged a complete withdrawal: "This is not about nation-building in Afghanistan. This is about nation-building at home," he said. "We've got to bring those troops home."

The response? Loud applause from the audience, and a brief protest from former senator Rick Santorum. The frontrunners were resolutely silent, including ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- the same Mitt Romney who as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 vowed not only to bolster the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan but to wage what amounted to an extensive nation-building campaign as well.

And Democrats, if anything, are even more resolutely determined both to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq as quickly as possible -- and to avoid talking about it before they do. President Obama's calculation here seems purely political; how else to explain the deadline of September 2012 -- just a couple months before the presidential election, rather than a couple months after, as his generals recommended -- for U.S. troops to officially "end" the surge he began last year to much-disputed effect? In Iraq, a similar calculus seems to be taking effect; Obama, the New York Times reported a few days ago, is now prepared to allow just 3,000 or 4,000 troops to remain after the end of this year, down from the approximately 50,000 still there now -- and far below the 10,000 said to be under consideration until recently.

At the same time that silence reigns over these two long-running conflicts, America's foreign policy elite is falling in love all over again with a new model of war, one that supposedly beckons with modest investment, no boots on the ground, and a convenient narrative of freedom toppling dictatorship. Yes, I'm talking about Libya. 

For even as dozens of American soldiers were being killed in Afghanistan, August was also the dramatic breakthrough in the nine-month-old, NATO-assisted Libyan revolution, when AK-47-wielding rebels charged into the capital of Tripoli and, aided by precision-guided Western missiles dropped from the sky, toppled the Gaddafi regime that had terrorized and overwhelmed them for the last four decades. Members of Congress, even those who had been criticizing the intervention weeks before, were eager to talk about this war, as was the Obama White House, which touted it as a model of the kind of regime change -- without American boots on the ground -- it would prefer to undertake.

"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis for legitimacy for this but will also provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor, told me and a colleague recently. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."

In other words: Here's a war that works. And by the way, did we mention how different we are than George W. Bush, pushing regime change at the barrel of an American gun?

For many liberals, this is a long-awaited vindication of their own deeply held beliefs in the need, at least occasionally, for a form of internationalism that allows for the possibility of armed intervention and a just war. Bush and his neocon-driven foray into Iraq on a false pretext had seemed to discredit, once and for all, the exercise of such American power; Libya, maybe, sort of, brings it back.

But it's hard not to see the perils in this way of thinking. "When did you drink the Kool-Aid?" a friend asked a longtime human rights activist, after listening to him make the case for the democratic bona fides of the Libyan rebels, never mind the rounding up of dark-skinned Africans taking place in Tripoli or the other acts of vengeance sure to follow.

I was in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the American invasions that swept tyrannical regimes from power. I remember all too well the initial -- but sadly fleeting -- euphoria that greeted the disappearance of the police state. I walked through the jail cells and torture chambers of Basra with former prisoners who showed me how they had worked, and listened as a tearful doctor recounted the way Saddam's men had forced them to cut off the ears of military conscripts who deserted. In Afghanistan, I met brave women who had immediately returned to working in school as teachers after years of whispering their lessons to young girls in underground classrooms banned by the Taliban. These are scenes achingly similar to those playing out today in Libya, ruled by the bizarre dictates of Muammar al-Qaddafi for four decades. But freedom isn't the only story there.  Ending the war, really ending the war, and making a new peace never happened in either Afghanistan or Iraq -- that is the unfinished business that keeps American soldiers there.

Which is why I keep thinking of Tim Hetherington, a journalist who died covering this short Libyan war.  A couple years ago, Hetherington made a powerful documentary, Restrepo. It offers harrowing portrait of a team of American soldiers fighting to keep their outpost in Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley. At the end of the movie, after all the heart-thumping patrols and bloody mistakes, the dead comrades mourned and the piles of discarded ammunition littering their mountain aerie, a chilling sentence scrolls across the screen: The U.S. military withdrew from the Korengal a year later. In other words, it was all in vain.

John Moore/Getty Images