Mideast Briefing: The Fayyad Statement

JERUSALEM – New reports must be read with care, especially in our region. Often, events that did not even take place—such as the Jenin “Massacre” of April 2002, which even Fatah now concedes never happened—fire the imagination of the media.

Sometimes the opposite is true: significant developments are barely reported. For those of us trying to understand the convoluted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, events that drop off the media radar screen can be as important as those the media obsesses over.

Such was the surprising statement by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that Jews would be welcome to remain in the future Palestinian state. In fact, this may be the only new statement made by any side in the current debate over settlements.

On the Fourth of July, at the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Fayyad told the audience that "the kind of state that we want to have, that we aspire to have, is one that would definitely espouse high values of tolerance, co-existence, mutual respect and deference to all cultures, religions. No discrimination whatsoever, on any basis whatsoever…. Jews, to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine, will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel.”

Appearing first in the Aspen Daily News, the story grabbed a few headlines in the Israeli press and faded quickly. Is it significant? The statement certainly marks a change in the Palestinian rhetoric that is conveyed in English. It would be even more meaningful if stated in Arabic, but an authoritative government source tells AJC that "to the best of our knowledge this has yet to be repeated in any language, let alone Arabic."

The idea has no traction now because its flaws are obvious. A PA government based on tenuous popular support and unwilling to test this support in elections has little credibility to offer guarantees of any kind. Worse, some of the Jewish settlers most likely to choose to remain in the Territories are extreme nationalists, who do not hesitate to engage in violent hooliganism when it suits their purposes. Furthermore, given what we know of Palestinian attitudes toward religious, ethnic or ideological minorities, leaving a large, active Jewish minority in their state seems at best an exercise in extreme optimism, and at worst a recipe for unending violence, Israeli intervention and the collapse of peace.

Nevertheless, ideas can take on a life of their own in the Middle East. From a Palestinian perspective, this one may be a game-changing strategic move.

One of the primary obstacles to Palestinian statehood has been the profound distrust of Palestinian intentions felt by the vast majority of Israelis, fueled by the Palestinians' own rhetoric and behavior over the past 17 years of peace negotiations. Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank brings a majority of the Israeli population into range of Palestinian home-made rockets. After the experience of Sderot, where rockets still land intermittently, there is little sympathy on the part of Israelis for proposals that could make the entire country into the "Gaza periphery," placing so many of us, our families, our industries and our only international airport in the line of fire.

In the case of Gaza, Israel demonstrated it was capable of withdrawing settlements, but one lesson of that withdrawal has been a sober recognition of what it would mean to withdraw entire cities that lie along and beyond the Green Line—a wave of 300,000 internally displaced refugees. And needless to say, the Hamas takeover in Gaza after that withdrawal stokes Israeli fears over how a further painful withdrawal on a far larger scale would be interpreted by the Palestinian side.

And finally, it is hard for Israelis, even those who reject the settlement project, to stomach a Palestinian "right" to a state that has been ethnically cleansed of its Jews. The Palestinian national movement has insisted on this nearly from the start, demanding a state emptied of Jews and where the sale of land to Jews carries a death penalty. Such an attitude arouses deep suspicion among Israelis.

In the face of these three pillars of distrust that complicate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank—security concerns, more Jewish refugees, and disgust at the demand for a Judenrein Palestine—Fayyad's comparison of Jewish citizens of Palestine to the Arab citizens of Israel could have important ramifications. A commitment to protect Palestine's Jewish citizens suggests that the same government might show a similar commitment to preventing terror groups from striking at Israel from Palestinian territory. In allowing Jews to remain behind as Palestinian citizens, Fayyad also makes easier the question of Jewish resettlement in Israel, turning a forced evacuation into a choice that does not necessitate state compensation.

A serious repetition of Fayyad's statement in both Hebrew and Arabic would dramatically shore up the credibility of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership in the eyes of Israelis, possibly allowing their government to take greater risks for the sake of compromise.

Only time will tell if the statement in Aspen was more than a polite response to an American audience. The Palestinians suffer from a credibility gap which, if overcome, would dramatically strengthen their negotiating position. Yet both the media and the Palestinian leadership have allowed Fayyad's remarkable statement to fall by the wayside of political discussion. This seems a shame most of all for the Palestinians, who stand to gain much by reversing their current policy on this issue.

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