The basically insurmountable power imbalance between the Arabs and Israelis, let alone between the Palestinians and Israelis, argues for a radical rethinking of the approach to solving the Palestine problem.
Israel is a reality firmly implanted on the ground that has to be accepted, however grudgingly, by the region around it. While it never had a “right” to displace millions of Palestinians and colonize their land, it succeeded, with the help of British imperialism and US support, in doing exactly that. After all, since it was the Germans who had murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust, justice argues that the Jews be given the choicest land in Germany for their state rather than the land of the Palestinian people, who had done them no harm. Justice, however, does not make history; hard power does—and Palestinians must reconcile themselves to this painful reality and move forward with their lives without being held back by false hopes and illusions.
This is so difficult for Palestinians because they have received probably more emotional and political support from others than any refugee community in modern times. While such support has often involved considerable financial help, it has also generally been more loud political noise than anything substantive that could conceivably help return the Palestinian people to their homes. Yet this still has deluded them and kept them from facing the painful reality that most of their land and homes in historic Palestine have been permanently lost to Jewish settler colonialism.
In comparison, other refugee populations who were not fed any such illusions of return were forced to accept the stark reality of their permanent displacement. They were also ultimately able to move forward with their lives because they were granted citizenship in their adopted countries and hence built new lives for themselves and their descendants.
This illusion of “return” has served some Arab regimes’ interests by giving them a powerful excuse to avoid integrating Palestinian refugees as citizens, particularly in Lebanon and even Jordan, both of which have millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in their camps. These regimes feared that these refugees-cum-citizens would alter their demographics and threaten their ruling order. Consequently, the excuse given was that since the Palestinians would eventually return to Palestine, giving them citizenship would technically undermine their “right of return” and hence they should be denied citizenship. Palestinian leaders actively colluded in perpetuating this tragedy.
The Palestinian problem can only be solved today if it is redefined. The issue in this day and age for people should be not so much the ownership of ancestral land but more the critical need to have a legal identity—a globally respected citizenship that allows a person to operate in the modern world. Labor in this day and age is mobile and having citizenship in a country that facilitates such mobility is critical to human development.
The most logical vehicle for this redefinition and hence for the solution to the Palestine problem is the kingdom of Jordan. Over the last seventy-five years, Jordan has developed into a relatively well-governed state, although the impact of regional political turmoil has caused it to fail economically and become heavily reliant on foreign aid for its survival. It is this Jordanian governance infrastructure that needs to be captured and put to productive use in integrating the millions of Palestinians and Jordanians into a modern, reasonably well-functioning state that would, in an era of real peace and economic integration with Jordan’s neighbors, have a much higher chance of growth and prosperity.
This proposed enlarged kingdom would include present-day Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (areas populated by Palestinians attached in a contiguous manner and physically connected to Jordan, i.e., not broken up into islands). Israeli arguments as to the need to retain the Jordan Valley become moot since the valley will now be controlled by a Jordanian government with a reliable record of maintaining peace with Israel. The convenient argument that Israel has no “peace partner” will now also be eliminated.
Jerusalem, despite the fact that neither Arabs nor Muslims have a hope of dislodging Israel from it, is, given its symbolism, a key bargaining chip in Palestinian hands. The formal relinquishment of any claims to Jerusalem (with an appropriate arrangement for the holy places) can be an important concession used to secure the foregoing terms. The Palestinians, after all, are the only party who can do this and, hence, completely legitimize Israel in the eyes of the region and the world.
Palestinians in Arab countries like Lebanon can then become citizens of this enlarged kingdom while also getting full residency rights in Lebanon, equivalent to what an EU citizen has in the European Union outside his or her home country. This would allow the Palestinians to gain full civil rights as legal foreign residents without impacting the local political or sectarian balance in these countries. The GCC, the EU, the US, Canada, and others can also help support this solution by granting this Jordanian–Palestinian passport easier access to their labor markets.
Why would Palestinians support this plan? The first generation after the 1948 war, who lived through the Nakba, have now passed, and their descendants have grown up under Israeli occupation or in refugee camps with minimal education, training, and work opportunities, causing them to become increasingly angry, bitter, and frustrated. They will realize, once this idea is explained to them, that a futile struggle to regain their ancestral land should not be their priority anymore. The issue for them and their children going forward needs to be the ability to live a productive, fulfilling life once they are no longer stateless by having a citizenship that would allow them to do this. Today, evidence of such new thinking can be seen, for example, in the fact that many Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are applying for Israeli passports, something that Palestinian public opinion saw as traitorous and unthinkable in prior years. Surveys also show that a large percentage of West Bankers and Gazans, along with those living in camps who are trying to join the exodus to Europe, want to emigrate for this very reason.
Such a “deal” would need to be ratified by some form of collective decision of the Jordanians and of the Palestinians, defined here as those who are residents of the occupied territories and those that are stateless in the diaspora. Anybody with no skin in the game has no business deciding here, and this means other Arabs or Muslims, or even Palestinians who are comfortably settled in other countries with full citizenship.
While “rejectionists” will likely resort to violence, the fight to crush these groups will be immeasurably strengthened by the support of the Palestinian masses, who will have voted in favor of this solution. Should the Palestinians vote against this solution then they would have collectively agreed, at best, to continue to bear the heavy burden of occupation and statelessness with all its consequences for the indefinite future.
Jordanians and Palestinians are as similar as any people can be. They are Sunni Arabs from the same neighborhood. Merging them will not create any long-term ethnic or sectarian fault lines. While there will be strong (and shortsighted) resistance from some “East Jordanian” elites who will see this as a threat to their dominance, the US, Israel, and the GCC have considerable influence over these elites as their de facto protectors; hence the role of these governments will be absolutely critical in pressuring the Jordanians to acquiesce.
The transition to an expanded Palestinian–Jordanian kingdom will then be relatively straightforward since it will simply involve the current kingdom of Jordan’s widening its writ to cover the Palestinian territories and the diaspora in a step recognized by all relevant countries. This would be accompanied by a withdrawal of recognition of the Palestinian Authority. While there clearly will be bumps along the road, things will eventually settle down like they did between East and West Germany. They will then have a large country with a population of fifteen million to twenty million, a large domestic market, and open borders with Jordan’s neighbors, including Israel, all of which can give this new entity a serious chance at becoming economically viable, instead of being the economic basket case that Jordan is now.
Failure to carry out such a plan puts the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Jordanian state itself at serious risk of what many Israelis, whispering among themselves, call “transfer,” that is, ethnic cleansing. Over seven million Palestinians in historic Palestine (the area between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea) continue to live in a gray zone of political disenfranchisement with no hope in sight. This, the Israelis know, is a recipe for armed conflict or massive civil disturbance that could eventually bring insurmountable global pressure upon them. Increasingly many Israelis will see such ethnic cleansing, which could take place under the fog of a regional war—say, with Iran—as the only solution to this problem. Here Israel could forcibly kick out the Palestinians into Jordan and Egypt in a genocidal war and, in the process, destroy the Jordanian state as we know it today. Those who would write off such a scenario as outlandish have not been paying enough attention to political discourse in Israel since its founding.
The lack of imagination, so common among leaders throughout history—with imagination being so necessary to solve this problem—combined with a Palestinian people drowning in a sea of illusions and an Israel drunk on its own power, can only end in a disaster for a region that is already at the precipice.