Several years ago, I wrote that the Palestinian problem wouldn’t be resolved, at least in my lifetime. Now, I have even less time left — and the problem’s resolution has become even more unlikely. I came to this conclusion after a brief recent visit to Ramallah, the capital of Palestine. I was invited by Nasser Al Kidwa, president of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, to the inauguration of the Arafat museum. Ramallah itself has grown almost three times in about 10 years since my last visit as India’s special envoy for the Middle East. Five-star hotels and restaurants dot the city. The people are prosperous but there is deep unhappiness with continued Israeli occupation. Some persons have permits, which enable them to travel in and out of Ramallah through Israel, but most people are confined to Ramallah.
The inauguration was well attended. Kidwa has done a commendable job in collecting Arafat memorabilia. Unfortunately, Hamas declined to part with some of Arafat’s belongings from his office-cum-residence in Gaza city. Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize medal and certificate couldn’t be traced, but the Nobel committee was prompt in sending a certified copy.
The museum itself is a simple, elegant building. It describes Arafat’s life and the Palestinian struggle. The most riveting feature is the recreation of the extremely modest lodgings in which Arafat spent the last three and a half years of his life during the siege by the Israelis who surrounded the place with tanks and soldiers. The Palestinians remain convinced he was poisoned by Israel.
I travelled to Ramallah and in transit, read newspaper stories about a post-Mahmoud Abbas scenario. Abbas has been president of Palestine for over 11 years. He’s unable to hold elections because of Gaza’s siege and other constraints. Abbas is 80 but appears in good health. He reportedly wants to retire, but without elections, doesn’t have a clear way. Hence, the speculation; the Turkish press spoke of Mahmoud Dahlan as Abbas’s successor. Dahlan was once the chief intelligence officer and a favourite of Arafat; he now lives in the Emirates, said to enjoy his hosts’ support. Israel is believed to be favourably disposed towards Dahlan. Abbas is strongly opposed to Dahlan.
The Israeli leadership, especially its present prime minister, is loathe to the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Benjamin Netanyahu publicly embraced a two state solution but his concept of the Palestinian state is restrictive. The Israelis are greatly comforted by the deep split in the Palestinian national movement since 2007, when Hamas revolted, threw PLO out of Gaza and declared independence, that is, independent of PLO. All efforts towards reconciliation have failed.
Life for Gazans eased when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Cairo, but it is extremely difficult now with the Sisi government determined to exterminate the Brotherhood — of which Hamas is a subsidiary. Hamas is believed to be ready for reconciliation and join the PLO, which it would dominate, but the latter is unwilling unless Hamas accepts certain conditions. The ideological and political distance is almost unbridgeable; there are also clashing personalities and interests.
The Israelis are thrilled with Donald Trump’s victory. Naftali Bennet, an important member of the Israeli cabinet, rejoiced; in his words, this means the end of the two state solution. This doesn’t mean a “one state” solution. No Israeli will ever agree to one state in which both communities live as citizens of a single country, with common rights. Most Israelis are not unhappy with the status quo. Violence by Palestinians has greatly diminished. Israel’s economy is flourishing. Netanyahu had a frosty relationship with Barack Obama, who was forthright in condemning illegal settlements. Israel is now worried about Obama taking initiatives during his remaining Presidency. The French have been canvassing support to set a time frame for the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN. Obama could support the French initiative. He could also support a Security Council resolution, declaring all the settlements illegal.
Netanyahu rejected the French proposal, which the Palestinians naturally embraced. But Obama might do something now. Moderate Israelis are considering returning to the road map which President Bush had concocted and the Quartet — USA, Russia, EU, UN — had endorsed. Palestinians and Israel had accepted this, the latter with 14 provisos. However, some Palestinians don’t rule out another intifada.
But all these ideas are “no go” as long as the Palestinians don’t reconcile among themselves. For that, a miracle has to happen — and it’s unlikely, even in a land whose history is replete with miracles.