As the United Nations prepares to vote next week on the issue of Palestinian statehood, it might be worth bearing in mind that whatever the outcome, the result will certainly not be the creation of an actual Palestinian state, any more than the November 1947 partition resolution spelled the inevitable creation of a Jewish one.
In 1948, Israel came into being due to the extraordinary cohesion of Palestine's Jewish community (the Yishuv). Armed with an unwavering sense of purpose and an extensive network of institutions, the Yishuv managed to surmount a bevy of international obstacles and fend off a pan-Arab attempt to destroy it. Likewise, it was the total lack of communal solidarity—the willingness to subordinate personal interest to the collective good—that accounted for the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society as its leaders tried to subvert partition.
Sixty-four years later, Palestinian society seems no better prepared for statehood. And the U.N. would be doing the Palestinians a great disservice by accepting the corrupt and dysfunctional Palestinian Authority as its newest member. While this would hardly be the first failed state to be delivered by the world organization, the unique circumstances of its possible birth make failure a foregone conclusion, and the consequences are too dire to contemplate.
The building of the Jewish state began in the Swiss town of Basel in 1889 at the First Zionist Congress, which defined Zionism's goal as "the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law," and established institutions to promote it. By the time the League of Nations appointed Britain as the mandatory for Palestine 23 years later, the Yishuv had been transformed into a cohesive and organized national community that provided most of Palestine's Jewry with work, trade union protection as well as with education, health care, and defense.
By contrast, it was the tragedy of the Palestinians that the two leaders who determined their national development during the 20th century—Hajj Amin Husseini and Yasser Arafat—were far more interested in destroying the Jewish national cause than leading their own people. As far back as 1978, Arafat told his close friend and collaborator, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, that the Palestinians lacked the traditions, unity, and discipline to have a successful state. Once given control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza, this prognosis became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his regime quickly became oppressive and corrupt. Later it helped launch the second intifada, the bloodiest and most destructive confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians since the 1948 war. In the process, he destroyed the fragile civil society and relatively productive economy that had developed during the previous decade.
Paradoxically, it was Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the June 1967 war that laid the groundwork for Palestinian civil society. Not only did it bring the issue of Palestinian independence to the forefront of the international agenda, but it also produced dramatic improvements in the Palestinians' quality of life. During the occupation, the territories became the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world—ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. From 1967 to 2000, life expectancy rose from 48 to 72, while infant mortality fell from 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 births in 2000. And while there was not a single university that existed in the West Bank or Gaza before Israeli rule, by the mid-1990s, there were seven such institutions, boasting more than 16,000 students.
All of these achievements were steadily undone after Oslo, as Arafat's regime took control over parts of the territories. In September of 1993, conditions in the West Bank and Gaza were still better than those in most neighboring Arab states—and this despite the economic decline caused by the first intifada. Within six months of Arafat's arrival in Gaza, the standard of living in the strip fell by 25 percent, and more than half of the area's residents claimed to have been happier under Israeli rule. The launch of the second intifada six years later dealt the death blow to the economic and institutional gains that Israel bequeathed.
In an apparent departure from this destructive path, in the summer of 2007, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad embarked on the first true state-building effort in Palestinian history. And he has had some modest successes, most notably a sustained economic recovery that has nearly restored the West Bank's pre-intifada levels of performance. Yet Fayyad has created no new institutions, and the PA remains a corrupt and wholly dysfunctional organization. The Palestinian prime minister may claim to have laid the groundwork for a democratic Palestine, but the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, and by extension his own position, are totally unconstitutional. Not only did Abbas defy Hamas's landslide victory in the January 2006 parliamentary election, but Abbas's presidency expired more than two years ago.
No less important, the two factions dominating Palestinian life, the Hamas and Fatah, remain armed groups, and active practitioners of terrorism—an assured recipe for a failed state. The Oslo Accords charged the PA to dismantle all armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza, but Arafat never complied; David Ben-Gurion, by contrast, dissolved all Jewish underground movements within a fortnight from Israel's independence, incorporating them into the newly established Israeli Defense Forces. Following statehood, even if Abbas were to make a genuine commitment to reform, Hamas would continue to defy his tenuous authority; not only does the group rule the Gaza Strip, which it has transformed into an Islamist micro-state, but it also wields considerable power in the West Bank.
Small wonder that recent surveys show that more Palestinians in east Jerusalem, who are entitled to Israeli social benefits and are free to travel across Israel's pre-1967 borders, would rather become citizens of the Jewish state than citizens of a new Palestinian one. Two thirds of them believe that a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence backed by the U.N. would have no positive effect. And they're right. Unfortunately the ramifications—increased conflict with Israel and a deepening rift in an already divided Palestinian society—are manifold. Once again, the Palestinian leadership is leading its people astray.
Efraim Karsh is research professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, director of the Middle East Forum (Philadelphia) and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.