The central question of the Arab-Israel–or at least the Israeli-Palestinian–conflict is whether it is a "normal" struggle over territory or an existential battle set by religion, identity, and other factors much less susceptible to resolution through compromise.
Many observers, drawing analogies from other issues without properly examining the specifics of the Arab-Israel case, conclude that it is a normal conflict and, consequently, can be easily settled if only the right formula is found. In fact, though, for much of the Palestinian side the question has remained one of total victory, in which only Israel’s extinction and replacement by a Palestinian Arab, and perhaps Islamic, state extending between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is the acceptable solution.
This is not to say that all Palestinians think this way. Indeed, one could well argue that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his closest allies understand how impossible and dangerous this kind of thinking is for the Palestinians themselves. This does not mean, however, that they can change this thinking in the face of militants, gunmen, Fateh hardliners, propagandists, opportunists, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other forces. To challenge this basic self-definition of the movement too openly or decisively would be political suicide as well as being dangerous to their personal security.
Only the continued priority that the movement places on total victory, no matter how long it takes, rather than on getting a state and easing immediate Palestinian suffering can explain the course of events. The ultimate failure of the 1990s’ peace process was due to this orientation. In 2000, Yasser Arafat turned down both the opening and later best offer of Israel and the United States as even a framework for a negotiation in which he would have no doubt received more.
The basic rejection of agreeing to end the conflict in return for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem is due to this view that a long enough struggle will bring about Israel’s collapse and total Palestinian victory. The same can be said of the demand for a "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, which would give a tremendous opportunity to subvert Israel from within. In private conversations, and now openly with the revival of the call for a "one-state" solution, we encounter the Palestinian refusal to accept a peace in which their state lives alongside Israel.
The methodology of terrorism; the continuing demonization of Israel on a daily basis by the Palestinian Authority and its media; the insistence even in 2005 of officially mourning Israel’s original creation; and many other practices reflect this world view. A more subtle aspect is putting the priority on violence and agitation rather than on building the infrastructure of a future state. In pursuit of total victory–or at least keeping the door open for its pursuit–the Palestinian movement has squandered international goodwill and the huge financial aid it received in the 1990s.
In making peace, then, the problem is not the precise delineation of borders or the status of every square centimeter of East Jerusalem, but this basic conceptual issue. How can there be compromise if Palestinians are daily taught that Israel is doomed and that they will ultimately win? Why else would it not be obvious to the Palestinians that their interest lay in making a post-occupation Gaza Strip into a showcase that would bolster a comprehensive solution as the next step?
This situation is in large part the legacy of Yasser Arafat, who never sought to transform the Palestinian struggle into a normal movement for a state. Even in the 1990s Arafat refused to foreclose a permanent "revolution until victory." He made hardly a single speech designed to move his people toward a compromise peace.
Now, ironically, the rise of Hamas to the point of seizing control over the movement–or at least having veto power over any diplomatic positions–is based on the foundation that Fateh has built. The nationalist leadership told the people for years that Israel would collapse, the Palestinians had a right to all its land, violence was the only tactic that works, and compromise was treason. For decades, including the last one, Palestinians were told that the measure of legitimacy was with those who killed the most Israelis and took the most intransigent line.
This is not to ignore the many other factors involved in creating this situation, from Israel’s own positions in negotiations to the corruption of Fateh. But the point is that this history has been funneled through a hegemonic Palestinian conception of the conflict that has not fundamentally changed.
If the Palestinian people were really offered a bold alternative by a credible leadership, they could be convinced to take a different road. But this has not happened. Now, Hamas and a new generation of Fateh militants threaten to lead the movement openly back to where it was in the 1970s. Such an outcome would be a tragedy of monumental proportions on top of what already is one of the greatest political tragedies of the last century, guaranteeing additional decades of futile struggle.