Does the World Need a Weak or Failing Palestinian State?

By Aaron David Miller

Wall Street Journal

November 30, 2015


Henry Kissinger recently asked an intriguing and politically incorrect question: With the state structure weakened in several Arab states and having collapsed in others, with Iran and Islamic State rising, and amid general instability in the Arab world, why create another potentially weak, dysfunctional Arab state in Palestine?

A decade or so ago, when I was a Middle East negotiator, even posing such a question would have been considered a hostile act among peace advocates or, worse, would have been seen as shilling for Israeli right-wingers and neoconservatives.

But amid so much disorder in the Middle East, itís worth ponderingĖeven if there are several reasons to be cautious or openly skeptical about the prospects:

Negative trend lines: In the Arab world, several states are melting down (Syria, Libya, Yemen); polities are run by authoritarian kings, emirs, or generals (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar); and a few, such as Tunisia, are struggling to reform. The region will be unstable for years to come, thanks to widespread dysfunction and/or plain bad governance, lack of respect for human rights, systemic corruption, and the absence representative institutions. Maybe a Palestinian polity would be different, being nudged up against Israel, the regionís only democratic state (however imperfect). But the challenges are enormous.

Fractious Palestinian politics: The Palestinian national movement resembles Noahís ark: There are two of everything, split between Fatah and Hamas. That includes two statelets in part of the West Bank and Gaza, two constitutions, two sets of security services, and two visions of where Palestine is and what kind of state it should be. A stable state would require Hamas and Fatah not only to resolve these different visions but also to share power and accommodate those differences in a political system driven by dialogue, not violence. Even under the best circumstances, itís hard to picture Hamasís Islamist vision of Palestine reconciled with Fatahís more nationalist bent, particularly with Fatahís internal divisions. And there is little in the history of the Palestinian national movement or the Palestinian Authorityís governance style to suggest anything but disruptive politics, much less a smooth transition to functional statehood.

Lack of leadership: The quest and hope for a Palestinian Mandela or Sadat is understandableĖif a Western fantasy Ėgiven the leaders the Palestinian national movement has had. Yasser Arafat was and Mahmoud Abbas is a skilled politician; each, in his own way, is a product of and well-suited to his time. But neither has possessed both the incentive and the power to unite the Palestinian movement, rise above its self-destructive tendencies, and lead the Palestinian people to some version of their own promised land. Should such a leader emerge, it could make all the difference. At 80, Mr. Abbas has not groomed a successor, nor is one on the horizon. His death or incapacitation could easily create a power vacuum that would make the political situation even more unstable.

Of course, not creating a Palestinian state risks perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its attendant dangers. And letís be clear: Israelís occupation of the West Bank, and its doubts and opposition to Palestinian statehood on terms Palestinians seek, have heavily influenced the possibilities and prospects of such an outcome. Whether a Palestinian state would be a liability or asset depends heavily on the circumstances of its creation and on Israelís policies.

Mr. Kissinger raised his question at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Itís possible that a Palestinian state would be differentĖand set a new trend for good governance and stability in the Arab world. We can always hope. But the reality of the Middle East these days makes going with probabilities, rather than possibilities, a safer bet.