The arrogance of "viability"

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On the face of it, the Palestinian state that most of us envisage already has three strikes against it when it comes to assessing its viability. First, the history of states that are split into two separate, non-contiguous geographical entities–in the Palestinian case, Gaza and the West Bank–is not very promising. Witness the fate of Pakistan/Bangladesh several decades ago. Secondly, "Palestine" never functioned as a coherent Arab political entity until the advent of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, and that experience has proven a failure. And third, Palestine’s disastrous economic and demographic situation can hardly be described as self-sustaining. Nor do all of Palestine’s neighbors necessarily fully legitimize its claim to statehood; here I am referring not to Israel, where some 80 percent do recognize that claim–but to Syria.

There is an element of arrogance in discussing the future of Palestine in these and similar terms of "viability". After all, which states among us are viable, and which have proven accurate or credible in evaluating the viability of others? In the 1930s and 40s, British experts asserted that the Jewish yishuv in Palestine/Eretz Israel could never absorb 100,000 Jewish refugees and survive, yet Israel successfully doubled its original population of around 600,000 in its first few years of existence. Even today Israel is still over-dependent on foreign aid to qualify under some criteria of viability.

On the other hand, certain Israelis have been arguing for 50 years that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan–currently a pillar of regional stability and economic progress–is an artificial, non-viable state that will soon collapse. And of course the present plight of Iraq, with its three distinct religious/ethnic sectors and additional minorities, provides ample grist for the mill of the viability-sayers.

Indeed, it would be a relatively easy exercise to delineate a set of criteria for state viability that eliminate most of the countries in the Middle East.

It is tempting for many Israelis to discuss Palestinian state viability in terms of Israel’s security and other needs. In other words, if Israelis can feel that Israel itself is viable–meaning, in this case, safe–alongside a Palestinian state, then that state too is viable, whatever it looks like. But this approach ignores the dangers to Israel of the emergence, almost by default–that is, by dint of a partial Israeli unilateral withdrawal that is accompanied by de facto annexation of large parts of the West Bank–of a Palestinian "state" that is so constrained and fragmented by Israel’s perceived territorial needs that it proves ungovernable, hence unstable and dangerous to its neighbors. Back in the 1970s and 80s we saw how disastrous for our own interests was our proximity to the then anarchic state of Lebanon. We should be wary about repeating the experience.

In view of today’s demographic situation, we clearly do require the emergence of a territorially viable and stable Palestinian state, if only to enable Israel to survive as a Jewish and a democratic state. This recognition in turn bespeaks an interesting and relatively new Israeli condition for Palestinian viability. Not only must a Palestinian state serve as the homeland of the Palestinian people, enjoy maximum contiguity, cultivate political unity and a stable, non-violent leadership and enjoy at least the potential for relative economic self sufficiency in order to be viable. It must also, by virtue of its very existence, be so configured as to enable Israel to remain a Jewish and a democratic state, and Jordan to remain the Hashemite Kingdom. That is to say, it must absorb all the Palestinian political energies in the region. And it must be constitutionally pledged to abjure any advocacy of irredentism, incitement, refugee "return" and denial of historic symbols of natio! nhood concerning its neighbors.

True, this criterion too, which is almost certainly shared by both Jordan and Israel, reflects a certain arrogance. But in international terms–within the framework of what Palestinians are fond of terming, in their own arrogance, "international legitimacy"–it is also fair. The Palestinian leadership should integrate it into its own concept of the parameters for eventually negotiating Palestinian statehood.

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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