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The Rejection

Bleak conclusions from the history of a people.

The Palestinian People: A History
By Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal
(Harvard University Press, 608 pp., $45)

What are the Palestinians after? There are two basic interpretations of their actions in the past three years, which began with their rejection of the Barak-Clinton compromise proposals and the launching of the ongoing terroristic and guerrilla assault on Israel known as the Aqsa Intifada. According to one view, the Palestinians are conducting a rebellion against a repressive military occupation and their aim is to establish a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which comprise 22 percent of historic Palestine. According to another view, they aim to destroy Israel and replace it with a Palestinian Arab (and perhaps Islamic) state in all of historic Palestine, "from the river to the sea." In this view, ejecting Israel from the territories is merely a stage on the road to Israel's liquidation, which, like the ultimately successful Islamic assault on the medieval Crusader kingdoms, may take several centuries.

To judge from the declarations in English of their secular Fatah-dominated leadership, headed by Yasir Arafat, the Palestinians have strived since 1988 for a Palestinian state alongside Israel: the "two-state solution." To judge from the statements of some of these same Fatah leaders (including Arafat) in Arabic, and from the pronouncements by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they seek Israel's destruction and replacement by an Arab (or Islamic) state. Why the forked tongue of most of the Fatah leaders? Perhaps they really aspire to a two-state solution but feel that they must appease their people with rejectionist pronouncements, so as to assure their hold on the leadership and their room for maneuver in the continuous struggle against the rejectionists and the Islamicists in their midst. Perhaps, like the Islamicists, they really intend to destroy Israel but feel that they must dupe sympathetic Israelis and Western supporters of Israel who might be antagonized by a frank rejectionism.

There are also a very small number of Fatah-affiliated figures, notably Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who may genuinely desire a two-state compromise, and who say the same things in different forums and in different languages; but they carry little weight among the Palestinian public and leadership. Nusseibeh himself was recently dismissed by Arafat from his position as the PLO official responsible for Jerusalem, and his dismissal caused barely a ripple in the Palestinian press and the Palestinian "street."

In their new book, which is actually just a revision of a book that they published ten years ago, Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal write that their "central argument" is that "the creation of the Palestinian nation has been as much the product of events, acts, and institutions at the grassroots level as it has been the doing of top leaders." So let us attend to the grassroots: to judge by Palestinian opinion polls and street demonstrations, most Palestinians today do not seek only the liberation of the territories from Israel's occupation. They seek also the destruction of Israel. Palestinians interviewed in the streets of Ramallah and Jenin often say so bluntly. And the masses express their hatred of the Jewish state by supporting suicide bombings inside Israel proper, against buses, supermarkets, and restaurants. For the Palestinians, each suicide bombing represents a microcosmic assault on Israel's existence; and each street celebration following successful bombings (as followed Saddam Hussein's missile attacks on Israel's cities in 1991) testifies to the popularity of the method and the goal.

Kimmerling and Migdal point out that in the early and mid-1990s, before the Oslo peace process began to expire, opinion polls showed that the Palestinians largely supported a two-state solution. The writers believe that the Palestinians are not governed by an inherent, unshakable rejectionism. If conditions and developments are favorable, they will agree to a compromise; but if circumstances turn sour, as they have during the past few years, they will veer toward rejectionism. Like good liberals, Kimmerling and Migdal generally give Arafat and his colleagues the benefit of the doubt, dismissing their rejectionist assertions to Arab and Muslim audiences as so much posturing. They repeatedly and happily point to Arafat's more conciliatory declarations, as in his famous piece in The New York Times last year, in which he assured his readers that while he supports the Palestinian refugees' "right of return," he would take Israel's demographic concerns into account when considering its implementation.

But even Kimmerling and Migdal, to judge by their tone at the end of the book, are far from sanguine. Recent Palestinian actions, it would seem, have managed to jar even their liberal moorings. They conclude rather grimly:

At this writing, it is unclear whether the Intifada can truly be a war of liberation--liberating Palestinians not only from Israeli rule but from illusions about what the future holds for them. If the war of liberation can be a step toward internal reconstruction and acceptance of two states in historic Palestine, it will have succeeded. But if it leads only to the glorification of death and to the illusion that Israel, like the earlier Crusader state, will simply melt away, then it will do nothing but prolong the Palestinians' bondage.

Speaking for myself, Palestinian behavior during the past three years has provided the unhappy ground for a serious re-examination of my own political assumptions. But, to be completely candid, it is not just the experience of the past three years that has provoked this reconsideration. I have spent the past twenty years studying the hundred years of Zionist-Palestinian conflict. At first I focused on the revolutionary events of 1948. Later I began to study the decades before and after the establishment of Israel--and this research, in conjunction with recent events, has left me profoundly unhopeful.

I have come away from my examination of the history of the conflict with a sense of the instinctive rejectionism that runs like a dark thread through Palestinian history-- a rejection, to the point of absurdity, of the history of the Jewish link to the land of Israel; a rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish claims to Palestine; a rejection of the right of the Jewish state to exist. And, worse, this rejectionism has over the decades been leavened by a healthy dose of anti-Semitism, a perception of the Jew as God's and humanity's unchosen.


The Palestinian national movement, since its inception in the 1920s, has viewed the struggle against Zionism as a zero-sum game: if the Jews win, we are lost. In 1934, when David Ben-Gurion told the Cambridge-educated Musa al-Alami, a moderate notable who was assistant attorney general of Mandatory Palestine, that Zionism was bringing progress and prosperity to the Arabs, Alami replied that he would sooner Palestine remain "impoverished and barren for another hundred years" than see Zionism succeed. Palestinian leaders and preachers, guided by history and religion, have traditionally seen the Jews as an inferior race whose proper place was as an abased minority in a Muslim polity; and the present situation, with an Arab minority under Jewish rule, is regarded as a perversion of nature and divine will. As Sheik Sulayman al-Taji, a leading Palestinian notable, declared in a poem in 1913: "Jews, sons of clinking gold ... are the weakest of all peoples and the least of them." And Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian national leader during the 1930s and 1940s (in effect Arafat's predecessor), often cited The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a guidebook to history.

More recently, in its founding charter or "Covenant," which was composed in 1988, Hamas (which today commands the support of about one-half of the Palestinians and probably a far greater proportion in Gaza and the refugee camps) described "the Jews" as "an instrument of evil"; and it ascribes the outbreak of the French and Russian revolutions, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the eruption of World War I and World War II to Jewish machinations. The "Covenant" posits the destruction of Israel as the organization's main political goal, and jihad as its method. Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) pamphlets during the first intifada, from 1987 to 1991, regularly described the Jews as "sons of apes and pigs."

For Arafat, the Jews are a curio, the caftaned, bearded worshippers of his childhood, seen making their way to the Wailing Wall, heads bowed, eyes averted, through the Arab markets of the Old City. The Palestinian National Charter, the platform of the PLO, calls for the dismantling of "the Zionist entity." Though the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s committed itself to annulling the relevant clauses, it is unclear whether they have in fact been permanently revoked. Nothing more revealing was said at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 than Arafat's response to President Clinton's effort to persuade him to compromise over Jerusalem's Temple Mount (Al-Haram al-Sharif, the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). Arafat said: "What temple? The Jews had no temples there. It's a legend." Arafat--and this is common fare in sermons in the mosques of the West Bank and Gaza--was denying that the Jewish people had any historic connection to Jerusalem and, by extension, to Palestine.

The Palestinian and pan-Arab rout of 1948, the nakba or "catastrophe," and the continuous defeats that Israel has since inflicted on the Arab world, as Kimmerling and Migdal rightly perceive, are seen by most Palestinians (and probably by most Arabs and Muslims) as a basic violation or disruption of the "cosmic order," something humiliating and unfathomable. Arafat likes to compare himself to Saladin (who was also the hero of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad), the Muslim Kurdish general who defeated the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Arafat continuously speaks of "planting the Arab flag on the walls of Jerusalem" as Saladin did in 1187. That act symbolized the destruction of the Crusader state--and Arafat's use of the phrase is understood by his Arab listeners to refer to the destruction of the Zionist "kingdom." The "cosmic order" can be restored only by the liquidation of Israel, an alien, infidel implant on sacred Muslim soil, and the return (al-awda) of the refugees to their patrimony.

Some of this story can be found in Kimmerling and Migdal's book. But the almost unrelenting rejectionist message of Palestinian history is routinely blunted by soporific padding.The prettification begins on the book's cover, which shows a photograph of Palestinians demonstrating beneath an unfurled red, black, green, and white flag; the demonstrators are almost all smiling or resolute women and children, barely a male among them, and of course no guns, no bombs, no hate-filled faces.

Rather idiosyncratically, Kimmerling and Migdal point to a peasant revolt in Palestine against the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali in 1834 as the moment when the Palestinian people was born. The peasants (and the townspeople) refused to supply the Egyptians with the conscripts that they demanded. Within months, the rebels, who did not demand independence or "Palestinian rights" (if pressed to identify their "national" affiliation, they surely would have said they were Ottoman subjects, or "Arabs," or perhaps "residents of the Province of Syria"), were crushed, leaving no "national" values or tradition as a heritage. But Kimmerling and Migdal have it that this was the first of the succession of revolts against foreign occupiers--against the British from 1936 to 1939 and against the Israelis from 1987 to 1991 and from 2000 to 2003--that were to be the main expressions of Palestinian nationalism.

In focusing on 1834, Kimmerling and Migdal are implicitly denying that the Palestinian people was born in large measure as a response to Zionism. Most serious historians point instead to the 1920s and 1930s as the time when the Arabs of Palestine began thinking of themselves as a people separate from those of Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan (though, to be sure, they still regarded, and continue to regard, themselves as part of the wider Arab umma or nation), with a separate political destiny, and began to push for Palestinian independence and statehood. Between 1920 and 1935, Palestinian "nationalism" was propounded in a narrow circle of educated upper-class and middle-class families. During the revolt of 1936- 1939, the national idea spread from the urban upper classes to much of the countryside, though--to the embarrassment of Palestinian nationalists--many villages refused to participate in the uprising, and many Palestinians, especially in late 1938 and 1939, helped the British and the Zionists to crush the revolt.

Since then, the Palestinians have indeed forged a collective identity and a separate history, which most historians view as necessary components of nationhood. Each Palestinian rebellion has been more popular and more massive than its predecessor, mirroring the spread of a national consciousness. The nakba of 1948 and the refugeedom that followed constitute the fulcrum around which Palestinian national identity and purpose have crystallized. But this is not quite the whole story. The reach of Palestinian nationalism, at least in past decades, deserves to be viewed with a measure of skepticism. For most of the conflict with Zionism and Israel, most "Palestinians" have cared far more about their family, their clan, and their village than about some remote construction called "nationalism" or "the nation."

It is worth recalling that one of the reasons for the Zionist and Israeli success, before 1948 and since 1967, has been the excellent intelligence garnered from the thousands of Palestinians willing to spy against their own (and this holds true also for the two intifadas); and another reason has been the willingness--no, the eagerness--of Palestinians to sell land to Jews, both in Palestine before 1948 and in the territories since 1967. Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were built by tens of thousands of local Arab laborers.Despite the undoubted dedication of hundreds of contemporary suicide bombers, there is no reason to view the Palestinians as latter-day Vietnamese, who successively battled and beat the powerful Japanese, French, and American empires; or as latter-day Serbs, who for centuries beat off Ottoman and Germanic conquerors. I cannot see Serbs constructing homes for Albanians in Kosovo.

Palestinian nationalism developed peculiarly. It was influenced by the development of the national movements in the neighboring countries (particularly Syria and Egypt), and like them it emerged partly in response to the overbearing European imperialism to which it was subject; but it also developed as a response to the neighboring challenge of that other, more successful nationalist enterprise with which it competed--I mean Zionism. And this competitor repeatedly beat the Palestinian national movement over the head, and humbled and humiliated it, ultimately displacing more than half the Palestinians from their homes. (The vast majority of them, however, remained inside Palestine: in this sense, most of the Palestinian "refugees" are not refugees at all.) Then, in 1967, in a war provoked by the Arabs, Israel proceeded to conquer the rest of the land of Israel and then some.

Most national movements grow up in antagonism to neighboring nationalisms, and usually in conflict over borderlands. But in Palestine it was the whole of the homeland that was exclusively claimed by both peoples. It is difficult to think of any comparable case in modern history. There is little wonder, then, that the Palestinian national movement matured as a rejectionist enterprise; indeed, that the rejection of Zionism and all that it embodies has defined its essence. Rejectionism, like the drive to return to "the Lost Garden," as Kimmerling and Migdal put it, is built into the Palestinians' identity (what the authors call "Palestinism"). Perhaps the wonder is that Zionism overcame its own initial denial of the Palestinians and ultimately accepted their presence in, and the colegitimacy of their claim to, Palestine.

It is worth noting, at this point, a major asymmetry in the evolution of the Jewish national movement and the Palestinian national movement. The Zionists, too, at first sought sovereignty over the whole of the land. As one early Zionist, Ze'ev Dubnow, put it in October 1882, the first year of Zionist settlement in Palestine: "The ultimate goal ... is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these two thousand years.... The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland." But over the decades the Zionists came to recognize that the land was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Arabs who devised their own collective identity and began to resist the Jewish influx. Following the start of the Arab Revolt, the Zionist movement formally accepted--in 1937, in response to the Peel Commission recommendations--the principle of partition, meaning a division of Palestine between its two communities. And in 1947, the movement accepted both the principle of partition and the specific United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which, positing the establishment of two states, awarded the Zionists some 55 percent of Palestine (most of it in the Negev desert) and the Palestinian Arabs some 40 percent.

Between 1949 and 1967, Israel existed quite happily without the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (And one day, if peace is ever achieved on the basis of a two-state solution, it will exist quite happily without those lands again.) The 1967 war, with Israel's conquest of vast territories, conjured up the possibility--and, for many Israelis at the time, the temptation--that Israel might permanently incorporate the West Bank and Gaza. This was the premise that sired the expansionist settlers' movement. But the years between 1967 and 1991 may be seen as a deviant period, a turbulent parenthesis in Zionist history. By the early 1990s, primarily under the impact of the first intifada, the Israelis reverted to their old acceptance of partition. This underlay the Rabin-Peres policy during the Oslo process and Barak's proposals at Camp David in 2000. And this acceptance of the necessity (and also the justice) of partition is still true of most of Israel's Jews, though many Palestinians suspect that Israelis secretly desire a "Greater Israel," much as many Arabs believe that Zionism was and remains ultimately bent on establishing a Jewish "kingdom" stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, as prefigured in the Bible.

The shift in Zionist ideology from an ideologically pristine demand for all of Palestine to a sober acceptance of partition was not paralleled in the development of the Palestinian national movement. This asymmetry has underpinned the conflict since the 1930s. And the peculiarity of Palestinian nationalism has not been restricted to its ends. It has also characterized its means. It is not that Palestinian Arabs, or Arabs in general, are naturally terroristic or more terroristic than other peoples; but the Palestinian national movement has always lived under one foreign ruler or another, and so the violence to which it has regularly resorted has always been illicit and non-conventional. Until the mid-1990s, the Palestinians never had anything resembling an army. To give vent to their anger and their frustrations, and to further their ambitions, Palestinian violence against the Zionists, the British, and their fellow Arabs had always admixed (morally acceptable) guerrilla warfare--attacks on occupying foreign soldiers--with (morally repugnant) terrorism--attacks on unarmed civilians.

Of course, the Palestinians throughout their history have been weak--and guerrilla warfare and terrorism are the weapons of the weak. But at the deeper level of traditions, habits, and abilities, unconventional warfare suits them (witness the very poor performance of the PLO regular formations, with tanks and artillery, against the invading Israeli Defense Forces in southern Lebanon in June 1982). And in this sense the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, are in sync with radical Islam's more general assault on the West--of which Israel, the "little Satan," is but a bridgehead in its region--and are natural participants in the age of terrorism that is upon us. (Myself, I have no doubt that there are elements among them, as there are among their Saudi and Afghani brothers, that will resort to chemical and biological weapons if they ever lay their hands on them.)

Moreover, the Palestinian national movement has always been characterized by undemocratic political structures and social norms. The establishment of a democracy has never been a major goal of the movement. In part, this has been due to the conditions under which Palestinian nationalists have usually labored (in secrecy and underground). But even more important have been historical and cultural factors. At no point in their history have Palestinian nationalists ever been able to look back in time or to look sideways around themselves--at neighboring Arab countries--for models of democratic practice or aspiration. (Indeed, to the deep chagrin of the more enlightened among them, the only democracy the Palestinians have ever witnessed has been the Jewish society that flourished alongside them. Modern Islam abhors democracy.)

Palestinian society, when starting out early in the twentieth century on its march toward statehood, was governed by several dozen notable families that enjoyed largely feudal relations with the mass of the country's peasants and urban poor. (Arafat and the PLO did not emerge from these rural and urban poor classes.) The first and second intifadas have had almost nothing at all to do with the old notable families, who have preferred to keep their peace, and to continue to make money, under Israeli occupation--just as they abstained from leadership roles when it actually came to sacrifice and fighting, as in 1936-1939 and 1947-1948. But the tradition of non-democratic behavior by those wielding the gun still prevails.

There is something deeply troubled about the present condition of Palestinian society. Even some Palestinians believe this, and occasionally say so. The rubble-strewn streets of the Palestinian cities, the continued subsistence of most Palestinians on donations from the international community, and above all the readiness of so many young Palestinians to become suicide bombers and the popularity of these suicide bombers within the Palestinian community: these are all signs of a sickness of the soul. A significant cause of this malaise is, of course, the triumph of Zionism and Israel, the agents of the Palestinian dispersion in 1948 and of the Palestinian subjugation since 1967; but that external cause is not the only cause.


After dealing with the allegedly decisive events of 1834, Kimmerling and Migdal, more realistically, move on to the years of British rule in Palestine, and the social and economic developments that underlay the emergence of Palestinian nationalism. They look at the struggle for primacy between the coastal, Western-looking, modernizing towns of Jaffa and Haifa and the traditionalist, more Islamic hill centers of Nablus, Jerusalem, and Hebron. They devote a chapter to the revolt of 1936-39, in which the Palestinians, under Husseini (who, characteristically, fled to Lebanon in 1937), tried to eject the British, or at least to persuade them to halt Zionist immigration and development. They provide an inadequate chapter on the nakba, the collapse of Palestinian society in 1948 under the hammer blows of the war of their own making--which the Palestinians then and subsequently, in a metaphysical spin, viewed as "an immense conspiracy and ... a monumental injustice" against themselves. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the Palestinian national movement has been the Palestinians' view of themselves as perpetual victims of others--Ottoman Turks, British officials, Zionists, Americans--and never to appreciate that they are, at least in large part, victims of their own mistakes and iniquities. In the Palestinian Weltanschauung, they never set a foot wrong; their misfortunes are always the fault of others.

The inevitable corollary of this refusal to recognize their own historical agency has been a perpetual Palestinian whining--that, I fear, is the apt term--to the outside world to save them from what is usually their own folly. And the whining, more often than not, has been accompanied by mendacity. Thus it was in September and October 1936, half a year into the Arab Revolt, when they secretly appealed to the monarchs of the Arab states to save them from British suppression by issuing a call to the Palestinians to "graciously" halt their rebellion. Thus it was in April and May 1948, when they pleaded for the Arab states to invade Palestine and save them from the Jews (whom they had attacked between November 1947 and March 1948). Thus it was in September 1970, when they called upon the Arab world to save them from the Hashemite regime in Jordan, which they had just assailed and tried to subvert. And thus it is today, when Arafat and his minions, having unleashed terror on Israel's cities, desperately appeal to the West and to the Arab states to save them from Israel's wrath.

Kimmerling and Migdal move briskly through the resurrection of the Palestinian national movement in the 1960s, under the PLO and Arafat; and Palestinian life under the post-1967 Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza; and the Palestinian failure to oust the occupier by means of violence in the 1970s and 1980s; and the start of the peace process, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the first intifada of 1987-1991. Finally they arrive at the Oslo process, examining "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong."

Back in the 1990s, during the Oslo years, many Israelis shared a sense of cautious optimism. It was not that the terrorists had packed up and gone into retirement; indeed, in four attacks over an eight-day period in February and March 1996, Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers slaughtered more than forty Israelis and injured about two hundred in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and embarrassed the peacemaking Labor-led government so grievously that Shimon Peres lost the elections that spring to the Likud's inexperienced Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, it appeared that the majority of Palestinians had at last chosen a different course. After a hundred years of saying no to every proposed compromise, their leadership seemed to have bowed to the judgment of reason and history, and agreed to join with the Israeli government led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in a process of conciliation that was leading, it seemed inevitably, to a settlement based on the partition of the land into two states.

There had been the American-engineered Middle East peace conference in Madrid, in 1991; the election in 1992, for the first time in fifteen years, of a conciliatory, Labor-led coalition government in Israel; the secret negotiation and then the very public signing on the White House lawn of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, in which Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO recognized Israel's "legitimate and political rights." There followed a series of bilateral negotiations and agreements that resulted in Israeli withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip and the main towns of the West Bank; these were handed over to the PLO leadership, which was allowed to return from exile in Tunis. Arafat set up the self-governing Palestinian National Authority, and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, at peace with and alongside Israel, seemed merely a matter of time--perhaps five or six years, as the core of the Oslo Agreement, the Declaration of Principles, envisioned. There were joyous celebrations in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah and Nablus and Jenin and Tulkarm, and solid if quieter satisfaction in Tel Aviv. As Kimmerling and Migdal remind us, more than 70 percent of the Palestinians and Israelis supported Oslo.

But then came the spoilers, the fundamentalists from both camps--the Hamas and Islamic Jihad knifemen and shooters and bombers, active since 1991, and, from the Jewish side, Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Kiryat Arba who in 1994 slaughtered twenty-nine Muslim worshippers at the al-Ibrahimiya Mosque (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, and Yigal Amir, the Bar-Ilan University law student and settlements groupie who in 1995 shot Yitzhak Rabin in the back and killed him. Goldstein's rampage ignited suicide bombings, and Rabin's death crippled the Israeli peace camp.

Palestinian terrorism steadily drove the Israeli public rightward, undermining its willingness to compromise and curbing the government's ability to make concessions. The continued growth of the settlements, the daily humiliations of the continued semi-occupation, and the absence of visible economic benefits ate away at the Palestinians' apparent rejection of rejectionism. Inevitably, scheduled IDF withdrawals from further chunks of territory were postponed, as were further rounds of peace talks; and each delay further embittered a segment of one public or the other. With his coalition falling apart, Rabin's successor Peres was forced into early elections, which Netanyahu won. Netanyahu spent his three years in power fending off Arab and American efforts to re-start the peace process; and this diplomatic freeze was in small part to account for the stillbirth of the Clinton-Barak peace initiative of 2000.

Kimmerling and Migdal's analysis of what went wrong with Oslo is excellent, insofar as any analysis that does not give sufficient weight to Arafat's basic rejectionism and duplicity can do the trick. They accurately pinpoint the problem at the heart of Oslo, which rendered it unacceptable even to the segment of the Palestinian public and leadership that seemed sincerely willing to reach a two-state compromise: the chronological asymmetry in its implementation and in the respective fulfillment of expectations. Kimmerling and Migdal call this asymmetry the "frontloading" and "backloading" of benefits, by which they mean that Oslo obliged the Palestinians, immediately upon signing in August-September 1993, to deliver the recognition of Israel and its legitimacy--this was always the Palestinians' chief negotiating asset--as well as to assure Israel's security against terrorism. In contrast to this "frontloading," the agreement obliged Israel only to deliver segments of territory and slices of sovereignty to the Palestinians over a five- to six-year period. The main Palestinian demands--for full sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a solution to the refugee problem--were all "backloaded," that is, deferred to some point after the five- to six-year interim period, subject to a successful conclusion of the "final status" negotiations. And so the major Palestinian political aspirations remained largely unmet in the crucial years between 1993 and 1999.

Kimmerling and Migdal attribute this asymmetry to the imbalance in power between the two sides: Israel was simply much more powerful than the Palestinians and, given the condition of the occupation, was able to dictate terms. But there was also an internal logic to the asymmetry that the authors too readily ignore. The recognition of Israel's legitimacy was a necessary initial component of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement; it was built into the very act of agreement. By starting to negotiate and to reach agreement with Israel, the Palestinians were effectively delivering the recognition that Israel desired. So it was an asset that the Palestinians had no way of preserving until some later time, when it could be traded for more territory or more sovereignty. (But, defying integrity and logic, the Palestinians tried to do just that when they repeatedly promised, and failed until 1995 to deliver, the "final" nullification of the Palestinian National Charter's clauses calling for Israel's extinction.)

Moreover, decades of Palestinian guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and deception had persuaded the Israeli leaders that they could take nothing on trust, and that the Palestinian leadership would have to demonstrate a willingness and an ability, over an extended period of time, to honor agreements and to curb their killers; and it was in the years from 1993 to 1998 that the Palestinians were meant to prove this purpose. Only then could Israel complete the handover of territory and the acknowledgment of sovereignty.Kimmerling and Migdal occasionally refer to the Palestinian terrorism of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s, but they say not a word about Arafat's performance in violating almost every agreement that he ever signed, starting with those concluded in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Lebanon and Jordan. (The PLO repeatedly made and unilaterally broke commitments to honor the integrity of these host countries.) Nor does Arafat's astonishing record of mendacity earn a mention anywhere in this book.

Kimmerling and Migdal assert that Oslo had pulled "the veil from the myth that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than the destruction of Israel." But this is, at a minimum, naive. They fail to address the possibility that Oslo, from Arafat's perspective, may have been a giant act of duplicity. He told a Muslim audience in a Johannesburg mosque in 1994 that he was willing to play along in order to win concessions but without ever intending to sign a final peace treaty that recognized Israel's permanent legitimacy and permanent boundaries.

Kimmerling and Migdal also fail to address adequately the issue of the "right of return," which is central, I think, to a proper understanding of Palestinian politics and purposes.Through Oslo and the negotiations of 2000, the refugee issue was left untouched; but publicly and privately all Palestinian spokesmen insisted on Israeli acceptance of the "right of return"--meaning the right of the refugees and their descendants to return to their places in the territory that became the state of Israel in 1948. Some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1948, and the United Nations has more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees on its rosters (comprising those still living from among the 700,000 and their descendants). The Palestinians claim that the true number is closer to five million.

Israeli spokesmen, equally adamantly, insist that there can be no return of refugees from 1948, and that Israel can never concede the "right of return," anchored in U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (which also offered the alternative of "compensation" to those not wishing to return). The concession of such a "right" would inevitably lead to the creation of an Arab majority in Israel. Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. Most Israelis, including Ehud Barak, regard the Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" as a euphemism for the desire to destroy Israel. So long as Arafat and his colleagues insist on a "right of return" as a necessary component of a peace settlement, there will be no peace settlement--because, as Barak put it, Israel is unwilling "to commit suicide." Israel has a population of fewer than five million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs. A mass return would give the Arabs a demographic edge almost instantly--and the Arab birth rate is far higher than the Jewish birth rate.

Kimmerling and Migdal are aware of the centrality of the "right of return" in the Palestinian ethos. They write that "[the right of return] has been the fundamental building block of Palestinism." A full return to "the Lost Garden" has "continued to be accepted as the basic tenet of Palestinism." The authors cite a study by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information from 2000--when Barak and Clinton were offering the historic compromise, before the eruption of the Aqsa Intifada--based on a random sample of 1,600 refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. Of those surveyed, 98.7 percent rejected compensation in place of return. Among the non-refugees questioned, the figure was 93.1 percent. The right and the necessity of return is incessantly drummed into every child and adult by family, school, and the P.A. So it is no surprise, as Kimmerling and Migdal conclude, that the refugees continue "to respond as if basic political, social, and spatial conditions had not changed, as if it were possible to travel back through time to some idyllic point in the past." Indeed, the role of the refugee camps in the evolution of Palestinian nationalism has become so great that no Palestinian leader is likely to defy their will.

Kimmerling and Migdal observe that the Oslo accord "unveiled a large majority on each side ready ... to accept two states." But professing a two-state solution while continuing to insist on the "right of return" as an essential component of a settlement is meaningless blather. Kimmerling and Migdal fail to understand this. Some commentators believe that the Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" is merely tactical and diplomatic, but so long as this remains the official position, and the Palestinian leadership continues to pander politically to the people in the refugee camps, and the Palestinian masses are not encouraged to compromise on this demand, there will certainly be no change of direction.


This book is not precisely an apologia for the people whom it studies. The authors are frequently critical of Palestinian behavior over the past century or so. But Kimmerling and Migdal almost always match their censure of the Palestinians with criticism of the Zionists and Israel, as if it were somehow indecent to express the former without the latter. There is something compulsive about the evenhandedness of this book, and it sometimes has the effect of distorting history.

This, for example, is what Kimmerling and Migdal say about partition: "Proposals to divide the country between Jews and Arabs had been circulating since the 1937 Peel Commission Report without much success. Neither side liked the idea of splitting the small piece of land." It is certainly true that neither side liked the idea, but in 1937, in 1947, and in 1993-2000 the Zionist leadership and then the Israeli leadership accepted--and in the latter years, even proposed--compromises based on the idea of partition, whereas the Palestinian leadership, under Husseini and again under Arafat, rejected all proposals for partition. The Palestinian rejection of the autonomy proposals agreed upon between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 at Camp David may be viewed in the same light: Sadat, and most commentators at the time, believed that the envisaged self-government in the West Bank and Gaza would have evolved into full-fledged Palestinian statehood. This was precisely why the Israeli right voted against the proposals.

Similarly, Kimmerling and Migdal write of "the retreat [since 2000] from an acceptance by each side of the inevitability and necessity of partitioning Palestine, of a two-state solution." This is accurate with regard to the majority of Palestinians, but it flies in the face of every opinion poll conducted among the Israeli public in the past three years. A majority of Israelis, while supporting Barak's and then Sharon's anti-terrorist operations, continue to believe that Israel should in the end withdraw from the bulk of the West Bank and Gaza, and agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. (Even Sharon now speaks about the eventual establishment of such a state, though the measure of his sincerity in this regard is anybody's guess.)

Again, when Kimmerling and Migdal speak of the intermingling of religious symbols and motivations in the current intifada, they write that "national motives" and "religious symbols" also figure "increasingly, on the Israeli side." But is this "balance" really true? Do most Israelis, when trying to contain and to suppress Palestinian violence, declare that they are fighting for Judaism or its sacred sites, including the Temple Mount? Do they believe, like all Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, and most Fatah terrorists, that they are serving God's purpose and are assured of heavenly rewards when they die in God's war? Does Sharon, like Arafat, speak of "a million martyrs" whom he is willing to sacrifice for the cause?

Kimmerling and Migdal's book is liberally studded with factual errors. Often the mistakes are important; occasionally they merely display the authors' biases. They refer to "Sir John Philby" as the "British High Commissioner" in Transjordan in the 1920s--in fact, Harry St. John Philby was the British "Resident" in Transjordan (there was never a British "High Commissioner" in Jordan, and the only relevant high commissioner was the one in Palestine, who was also nominally responsible for Transjordan). They refer to the "two Christian Maronite villages" of "Bir'm" and "Ikrit"--in fact, Iqrit was Greek Catholic. They write that Jaffa fell to the Haganah on April 22, 1948 and Haifa on May 13--in fact, the reverse is true. They write that "starting on December 8, [1947]" the Palestinian forces "managed to capture isolated Jewish neighborhoods and settlements"--in fact, they tried but failed to capture a single Jewish neighborhood or settlement in the course of the war (the only settlements to fall were those conquered by the armies of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, in May and June, though in one or two instances the Jordanians were assisted by Palestinian militiamen). They write that Fawzi al-Qawuqji's Arab Liberation Army entered Palestine in March 1948--in fact, many, perhaps most, of its troops had entered the country already in January and February. They adduce the "Khartoum [Arab] summit conference in the summer of 1968--the famous meeting in which the Arab League issued its notorious three no's to Israel: no negotiation, no recognition, no peace"--but Khartoum took place in late August and early September 1967. They misrepresent the Battle of Karameh of March 1968 as one in which "the Palestinians (aided by Jordanian artillery) ambushed the Israelis, killing as many as 25 soldiers"--in fact, the Israelis lost 33 dead (and 161 wounded), mostly to Jordanian tank and artillery fire. (There was no Palestinian "ambush," and Arafat himself fled Karameh at the start of the battle.) They write of the "peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1980"--in fact, it was signed in March 1979. They call Abu Alaa, the second or third man in the P.A. hierarchy, Ahmad Khuri--in fact, his name is Suleiman Ahmad Qurai. They remark that the Israeli-Palestinian flare-up in September 1996 was the result of the Israelis opening a tunnel "which extended underneath haram al-sharif"--in fact, the tunnel ran outside of, and parallel to, the western boundary wall of the haram.(This is important, as the Palestinian rioting was sparked by the rumor--which Kimmerling and Migdal here turn into fact--that Israel was tunneling under, and damaging, the compound.) They refer in this connection to forty Palestinians killed--but they fail to mention the fifteen or so Israeli dead in this Palestinian-initiated shootout. And so on, endlessly.

But the book's biggest factual shortcoming lies in omission (subsequently compounded by gross inaccuracy)--the omission of any discussion of what happened in the negotiations of 2000 and January 2001, from Camp David through the Clinton proposals to Taba. In a book that purports to update the reader to 2002 and assumes (as I do) that what happened in 2000 was a historical watershed, the omission is staggering and irresponsible. All that Kimmerling and Migdal tell us is that "the course of these talks have been covered extensively elsewhere." There are no descriptions of what Barak offered in July and how Arafat responded, no details about what Clinton offered in December and how the two sides responded. (Israel immediately accepted the Clinton package; the Palestinians procrastinated and then, in effect, said no.) There is nothing about what happened at Taba in January 2001. Only this: "Suffice it to say here that, despite many subsequent recriminations, the two sides settled most of the outstanding issues between them."

This is hogwash; even Palestinian spokesmen don't make such a claim. In fact, a deep chasm separated the Israelis and the Palestinians on all major issues--at Camp David, in responses to the Clinton proposals, and again at Taba. By the end of the Camp David summit, Barak, at Clinton's prodding, had agreed to Israeli withdrawal from 100 percent of Gaza and 90 to 91 percent of the West Bank; the uprooting of most of the settlements; and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with Israeli or American troops controlling the Jordan River line, and with some form of Palestinian functional control over most of the Arab districts of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians responded to these proposals by unleashing a new intifada and by stating that they were willing to settle for nothing less than the entirety of the territories and the uprooting of all the settlements, full sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem including the Old City, sole Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and the "right of return" to Israel for all of the Palestinian refugees.

In December, Clinton submitted--and then published--his proposals: Israeli withdrawal from 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank (with substantial territorial compensation for the Palestinians from Israeli territory); the uprooting of most of the settlements (with the settlers remaining in the 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank that was to remain in Israeli hands or moving to Israel proper); Palestinian sovereignty over the Arab-populated districts of East Jerusalem and over half or three-quarters of the Old City, and sovereignty over the surface area of the Temple Mount (with, implicitly, Israeli sovereignty over the earth underneath, which presumably contains the remains of the First and Second Temples); and a "right of return" for the refugees limited to the areas of the West Bank and Gaza that would become the Palestinian state and massive funding for the refugees' rehabilitation. Barak and his Cabinet accepted these parameters within forty-eight hours; the Palestinian Authority procrastinated and then rejected them, insisting on complete Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, top and bottom, and sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank, and the "right of return" to Israel.

The subsequent discussions in Taba were held a fortnight before the Israeli general elections in which Sharon trounced Barak. Given the timing, both sides understood that the negotiations could not be successfully concluded and that they therefore lacked real political significance--or, as Muhammad Dahlan, one of the Palestinian negotiators later put it, that they were harta barta, nonsense. At the press conference at the end of Taba, Israel's chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, putting his best face on things, declared that the two sides had never been closer to an agreement. But Abu Ala, the chief Palestinian negotiator, when asked about the refugees, flatly declared that the Palestinians continue to insist on the right of return. It appears that Yossi Beilin had variously proposed that Israel accept back a token 40,000 refugees or tens of thousands per year over several years, and the Palestinians had refused.

The Palestinians, or some Palestinians, apparently agreed to cede to Israel 2 to 2.5 percent of the West Bank in exchange for territorial compensation elsewhere--but after the meeting they denied that they had agreed to anything less than the entirety of the West Bank. It is unclear whether the negotiators had Arafat's authorization to make any territorial concession. In any event, they rejected Clinton's proposed cession of 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank. And they continued to insist on sole Palestinian sovereignty over the whole of the Temple Mount, rejecting Barak's and Clinton's various proposals: U.N. Security Council control of the site; a joint Israeli-Palestinian condominium; and "divine sovereignty" (meaning neither Palestinian nor Israeli sovereignty, with the Palestinians continuing to exercise de facto control, as they have since 1967). All this diplomatic disagreement Kimmerling and Migdal weirdly summarize by observing that the "two sides [had] settled most of the outstanding issues between them."

In December 2000, Clinton set out the guidelines for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Those guidelines, whether or not Yasir Arafat or Ariel Sharon like them, remain the only basis for a reasonable peace that provides both peoples with a modicum of justice and security. But the Palestinians will first have to give up their dream of destroying Israel and discard their insistence on the "right of return." Their leaders will have to tell their people--in the camps outside Tyre and Beirut and Damascus and Gaza and Nablus and Amman--that there will be no return to the garden, that the price of that dream is too high. And Sharon, or his successor, will have to give up the dream of a Greater Israel. But I do not see these happy developments happening anytime soon. I fear that we are in for a long and bloody haul.