Jerome Segal, The Olive Branch from Palestine: The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse. University of California Press, 2022.
Jerome Segal is unusually patient, determined, and unafraid to venture where others wouldn’t think of treading. He also believes strongly in the power of the written word. Back in the late 1980s, he was called, justifiably, “the Jewish godfather of the Palestinian state.” Since that state never actually emerged in the 30+ years since then, despite being diplomatically recognized by 138 countries, perhaps the metaphor has expired, but here he is again, in 2022, with a new book that presents his take on why the Oslo process failed, with an emphasis on the often-ignored importance of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and his own significant role in its conception. He also provides a peace plan tailored to current realities which, he asserts, can exert enough pressure in the right places to actually settle the conflict and, what’s more, to move Israeli-Iranian relations from the brink of war to perhaps something more on the range of benign annoyance than of deadly enemies.
Segal soberly explores the past and current barriers to any Israel-Palestinian understanding, let alone peace. Though it may surprise his many detractors, he discusses this fairly and accurately, acknowledging, for example, how Palestinian terrorist operations against Israeli civilians in the 1970s and 1980s had been instrumental in inculcating in Israeli Jews an almost absolute distrust of Palestinian intentions, and especially of the PLO itself. I distinctly remember a typical Israeli government statement of those days almost verbatim: “The PLO can never make peace with Israel. If it does so, it would cease to be the PLO.” Notably, from the mid-nineties, Israelis have seen Hamas exactly as they had previously regarded the PLO.
The most significant chapters are the first and last. The first is devoted to the hopeful genesis and disappointing consequences of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, issued Nov.15, 1988, including Segal’s considerable role in its beginnings. The last chapter contains his comprehensive peace plan, based on a similar fundamental analysis to what informed him in 1988. Realistic? I’ll revisit that question later in this review. I by no means want to slight the intervening nine chapters which contain new material on how Palestinian strategy and tactics were often self-defeating, while Israel’s general unwillingness to trust Palestinian intentions repeatedly helped make progress difficult to impossible.
In the current lengthy and intensely frustrating period of stalemate, it may be hard for those who weren’t around then to imagine the sometimes frenzied atmosphere around the conflict during the initial years of the first intifada, which began in December 1987. Hope was emerging in this and other areas. Segal had a concept, which he pushed hard then, and which is still the animating principle of this book, namely: Declare your state into existence; Negotiating your state’s existence is a dead end. He first urged the Palestinians to declare their independence in an article in the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds in Arabic on April 27, 1988, four months into the Intifada and followed it with articles in a variety of other outlets, including the Washington Post, the Manchester Guardian, the Jordan Times, and other papers around the world (pp. 42-43). He was apparently the first person to raise the idea, even before King Hussein of Jordan disengaged from the relationship he had maintained with the West Bank since 1967, in a speech in July 1988. Soon afterward, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) adopted the idea of a declaration and began (secretly) drawing it up, and with various ups and downs, issued it on Nov. 15, 1988.
What Segal discerned in 1988 – and which few others have understood even today – is that Israel was (and still is) exceedingly unlikely to negotiate into existence a Palestinian state on terms that even the most moderate Palestinians could accept. It holds all the cards. Instead, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has shown repeatedly, at least after Jan. 1996, that virtually every attempted negotiation has failed and, moreover, over time generated a ‘Battle of the Narratives’ in which a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians and their millions of respective supporters abroad are absolutely convinced that it was solely the bad faith and malicious intentions of the ‘other’ side that caused all the carnage, and that the ‘other side simply cannot be trusted. Segal deserves credit for having intuited the pitfalls of a ‘negotiations’ strategy back in 1988, which indeed worked out as badly as – perhaps much worse than – he had feared. Segal’s point is that the structure of negotiations that emerged, with the full consent of the Palestinians, nevertheless made it highly unlikely that they would emerge with an independent state.
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What Segal urged the Palestinians to do back in 1988 – and still urges them to implement an updated version of today – is to anticipate the well-known Israeli concerns and to get out ahead of them by unilaterally stating clearly and forcefully those positions they would eventually have to concede anyway. In 1988 these would have included (pp.45-46):
- Explicitly renouncing terrorism and taking steps to prevent and sanction Palestinians who plan and participate in it (differentiating it from “legitimate resistance,” such as the ongoing intifada).
- Recognizing Israel in its pre-1967 borders, pledging peace, and a formal treaty with Israel as a first priority.
- Declaring the dissolution of the PLO, and merging its functions into the new Palestinian state. This would thus escape the legal and emotional sanctions against the PLO on the part of Israel and the US, and create a new unitary address compatible with the international nation-state system.
Segal emphasizes what is clear in retrospect but what was not understood by many Israelis, including most of those in high military or intelligence positions, that through the 1970s and 1980s the PLO had gone through a period of ideological reconstitution in which it had outgrown its 1968 Charter, which was unambiguously based on demands for Israel’s non-existence as a nation and its eradication as a state. Thus, Israelis understood PLO attitudes and intentions by reading straight from the charter and the PLO’s earlier belligerent and often blatantly anti-semitic statements. They ignored or belittled that by the late 1980s, the mainstream PLO under Arafat had understood that Israel must be recognized and negotiated with, causing an internal rupture when the “rejectionist front” left the organization.
What was missed by those who derided the Independence Declaration as a stunt with no real meaning is that the Declaration implicitly in paragraph 7 accepts the UN partition resolution of Nov. 29, 1947, which means recognizing Israel, and drawing its own international legitimacy from the Resolution. In other words, they renounced the main premise of the 1968 Covenant, i.e., that Israel is inherently and perpetually illegitimate! This is precisely what Segal means (in part) by his strategy of unilateralism. Unfortunately, this was not generally understood at the time, nor did the Palestinians make it integral to their strategy in subsequent years. Instead, there were repeatedly vague and sometimes inconsistent statements, often to satisfy internal Palestinian political needs, but which strained Palestinian credibility.
This pattern continued through the peace process and into the 21st century. The charter was declared modified, but tacitly, by an occasional recognition of the highly unwelcome but undeniable fact of Israel’s existence and strength, and consequent willingness to coexist with it, with the ‘green line’ of 1948-49 as a border and a shared (or bifurcated) Jerusalem. However, partly for reasons of internal Palestinian peace, this was rarely stated clearly, a notable exception being in the exchange of letters between PLO Chairman Arafat on the morning of the signing of the ‘Oslo’ Declaration of Principles in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993. Sixteen months later, on the occasion of President Clinton’s visit to Gaza, Arafat confirmed that “All of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the P.L.O. commitment to recognize and live in peace side by side with Israel are no longer in effect” and listed them by number.
This was typical of PLO undertakings: late, under pressure, and vague or, in this case, all three. These supposed CBO’s (confidence-building measures) were anything but and did little to build Israeli confidence in the reliability of Palestinian promises.
What Segal is attempting to do, as a consistent strategy for the Palestinians, is to convince them that they in fact have considerable agency, but it must be employed for realistic ends and, just as important, must be directed towards the appropriate party. Thus, he is strongly critical of the PLO’s goal in the late 1980s of convening an international conference which would inaugurate and recognize their status. To that end, it consistently sought to address US policymakers, who had in 1975 promised Israel not to recognize or deal with the PLO until it recognized Israel and accepted UNSC 242 (renouncing terrorism was later added). 242 has always been as anathema to the Palestinians as it has been indispensable to Israel, though of course for different reasons. 242 requires recognition of Israel but it does not even mention the Palestinians. Nevertheless, when the PLO satisfied the US demands in December of 1988 and was ready to “talk” to the PLO, Arafat felt obliged to accept and abandoned the unilateralist strategy urged by Segal.
In contrast, Segal has always seen Israeli public opinion as the crucial variable and argued in the 1980s, that the focus on the US was a grave misunderstanding of the dynamics of making peace. The Palestinians mostly ignored his advice after issuing their Declaration. Now, perhaps, the PLO agrees with Segal, as it has largely boycotted the US government since relations between Trump and Abbas soured early in the former’s presidency. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel did not even address, much less attempt to solve, any of the issues or tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and that may well set the tone for American policy in the coming years.
Segal’s main reason for writing the book is, however, to try to blaze a path for the future and in this sense, its first 10 chapters constitute an extended prologue. He grounds himself on his basic idea; Palestinian independence will not emerge out of negotiations with Israel. Of course, negotiations are indispensable for a myriad of dependent issues, as he acknowledges, but not in the original stage. His first and essential point is that the Palestinians must unilaterally do what is reasonably necessary to overcome Israeli fears and beliefs regarding the Palestinians and the veracity of their desire and capability for making and maintaining peace with Israel. That is the first step. Of course, these fears were magnified by the brutal and violent Second Intifada (2000-20005) that ended the Oslo process and, additionally, by events in the ensuing years, including Hamas replacing the PLO in Gaza, thus shattering Palestinian unity and leading to four (so far) bloody Israeli campaigns there. Besides Israeli fears regarding Palestinian statehood, there is the Palestinian claim to a right of return, overwhelmingly supported by Palestinians everywhere, which Israel regards as a mortal threat to its identity as a Jewish state.
Moreover, the situation today is complicated exceedingly by Israel and Iran regarding each other as grave strategic dangers, Iran’s closeness to producing a nuclear bomb, and Israeli threats to attack Iran. Iran considers itself a staunch backer of a Palestinian right to replace Israel, and supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, with the latter reportedly deploying 150,000 missiles on Israel’s northern border. Thus, Segal rightly defines the Iran-Israel hostility as an element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and his plan addresses it as well.
Segal correctly points out that Hamas has never been a serious strategic threat to Israel, has never claimed to replace the PLO as the Palestinian people’s leading organization, nor does it have any plan of its own for ending the conflict. Moreover, it has frequently stated that it would not stand in the way of peace agreed to by the Palestinian people through a referendum. Segal believes such a referendum, which would include Palestinian refugees around the world, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, must in any case be held to provide the indispensable legitimacy for lasting peace, and that Hamas could and would not stand in the way of such an expression of the people’s will. In addition, Segal would want to see the peace actively supported by the UN Security Council – and Hamas would be unlikely to maintain opposition in the face of that. Even if Israel opposes the peace initiative, he believes the US would not stand in the way of UNSC endorsement.
Segal considers – and I agree – that at the root of Iran’s primal hostility to Israel is the Palestinian issue, including a very important theological component based on Palestine being an integral component of dar-el-Islam (Muslim lands), as well as the locus of the Haram el-Sharif, aka the Temple Mount. However, Iran has also frequently stated that it would accept any decision of the Palestinian people. Such an acceptance would render the additional issues that have accreted to Israeli-Iranian hostility, including Hezbollah, Iran’s nuclear status, and other regional conflicts, much more susceptible of solution, or at least mitigation if the core issue of Palestine is removed. Segal also makes the interesting argument that this would provide Iran a means to climb down from its position of hostility to much of the world, once its primary grievance had been dealt with. This may not eliminate the hostility completely but even mitigation would be a considerable plus and, if it seemed possible, would almost certainly influence Israeli public opinion toward support of the Palestinian peace process.
Though Segal says UNSC approval is important, he suggests a process involving the creation by the General Assembly of a body that could be called the UN Special Committee on Palestine-2, explicitly modeling itself on the 1947 committee that devised the partition plan that gave birth to Israel. UNSCOP-2 would likewise report a plan for Palestinian independence back to the General Assembly, where the US has no veto, and Segal is not deterred by his expectation that Israel and likely the US would boycott its hearings (as the Palestinians did in 1947, to their great detriment). It is this plan that would be brought to a Palestinian referendum, as discussed above. While Segal expects that no foreseeable Israeli government would be inclined to accept any such UN-devised plan or process, he believes that a considerable portion of the Israeli public would be very attracted to the real possibility of peace it offers, including with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and that this might well result in a political situation where the government would be forced by its citizens to accept it. However, he does not explain, if the US is likely to boycott this stage, or why it would allow the plan to go through the Security Council without a veto.
The question of how to deal with the refugees (and their descendants!) who fled or were expelled from what became Israel in 1948 has long been considered the thorniest of the many issues connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has always regarded the Right of Return (RoR) an existential question that could make impossible a Jewish state, and polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Israeli Jews could not imagine anything more than a few, or absolutely no, refugees being admitted, even in exchange for an otherwise seemingly viable peace. Segal employs a total figure of 7 million refugees, which is more or less in the middle range of current estimates. It is assumed that most refugees who do choose to return would be admitted to a Palestinian state but Segal – and many others who have studied it – believe that some number appreciably more than a token must be allowed to return to Israel to put the issue of return fully to rest.
Segal projects that a total of around 300,000 returnees to Israel could be acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis, and makes the important point that their status in Israel would be as “permanent residents,” entitling them to most benefits of citizenship except, crucially, the right to vote in Israeli national elections. Thus, they would not affect the internal political balance between Arabs and Jews, presumably making their presence more acceptable to Israeli Jews. He also suggests a scheme by which some portion could actually return to their or their ancestors’ original villages, which he feels would have great symbolic importance. Likewise, Jewish settlers in the West Bank could remain as permanent residents upon promising to respect and obey the laws of the State of Palestine.
Jerome Segal has written a notably well-informed and fair-minded book, which is simultaneously a personal memoir, a history, and a peace proposal. It should by rights join the small number of books on the flash disk of every would-be peacemaker between Israelis and Palestinians. It contains useful insights regarding the role and possible effects of unilateral actions that could well be helpful in other conflicts. And for me and others who are professors of Israel Studies, it indicates that I should revise elements of my lectures regarding the lead-up to the Oslo process.
In his 1980s ideas, as here, Segal regards the Israeli public as the crucial audience that must be convinced by the Palestinians of both their desire for peace and their capability to maintain it. Thus, he is necessarily trying to limit any Israeli government’s opportunity to block the achievement of Palestinian independence, while encouraging the agency of the Israeli public, which he sees as more likely to respond positively to a fair opportunity for a lasting peace. Given present Israeli political predilections, in which the center-right, rightist, and religious parties regularly receive about twice as many votes as the center left and Arab parties, that assumption may be open to question. Timing is thus of paramount importance – and timing seems as difficult now as could be imagined, even as compared to last year, when I assume much of the book was written. The war in Ukraine, a worldwide financial crisis likely involving both international recession and high inflation, autocracies and populist parties gaining ground amid a drastic democratic decline, not to mention seemingly endless waves of Covid-19, make it hard to envision any political and diplomatic bandwidth to spare for the very heavy lifting required for a historic effort like this. Segal doesn’t rely overmuch on the US being the central figure it has in past peace processes but it’s hard to imagine any US administration willing to sit this one out. However, Joe Biden has an overfull plate already, and with the possibility of a Republican congress in 2023, not to mention a conceivable Trump White House in 2025, any chance of getting this off the ground in the next few years appears inauspicious. Nevertheless, timing aside, Segal’s oeuvre deserves serious analysis.
Segal presents his plan as a package drawn from lessons laid out in his first 10 chapters. I see them as more of a toolkit of concepts and practices that should inform any peacemaking effort, to be employed as seems appropriate at the time. The exception is his primary idea, that Palestinians must pre-emptively and unilaterally convince Israeli public opinion of their willingness and ability to make peace, which I agree is an essential first step, but extremely problematic to achieve. Segal remarks that the Palestinians unilateral action in 1988 required “much more demanding steps” than now (p. 219). I disagree. After 30 years of off-again on-again peacemaking in which Palestinians have suffered far more than Israelis, most will be indignant at the thought that they have to prove their desire for peace to Israel. Nevertheless I cannot imagine how any mutually acceptable process can start without such a kickstart.
Segal’s other steps outline the essential items on a peace agenda, once at least the interest and hope of a significant portion of the Israeli population has been aroused. The US government must agree at the least not to actively oppose the process in the UNSC or elsewhere. Problematically, as noted above, Israeli government opposition and non-participation is assumed, making American acquiescence unlikely, unless US politics and policy both undergo a drastic shift. His analogy to 1947 when the Palestinians and most Arabs boycotted UNSCOP-1, is likewise problematic. The difference – and it is major – is that today Israel is a powerful country and it is impossible to imagine carving off the West Bank, where over 500,000 Israeli citizens live, without active Israeli participation. Segal’s plan thus implicitly assumes that the prospect of incipient peace will galvanize the Israeli people to demand Israel’s involvement or, which I think is even more unlikely, that the world community will somehow force Israel to acquiesce.
There is another (fairly new) wrinkle that Segal does not address: the Abraham Accords, which has already drawn the UAE and other Gulf countries close to Israel in a situation unimaginable even a few years ago. Much of this is clearly directed at Arabs’ and Israelis’ mutual loathing of Iran. I have urged the Israeli and American Jewish left to accept and deal with the Abraham Accords in a recent article in the Palestine-Israel Journal, but few have yet heeded that advice. This configuration is very much in development but if proceeds it could limit Arab support for any Palestinian peace initiative and also diminish the likelihood of any cooling of the tension with Iran.
One final point that I wish Segal had taken into consideration: the growing movement for confederation as a means of resolving the conflict, which I call Two State Solution 2.0. This is a wide-ranging plan that modifies the classic 2SS by providing for ongoing economic and political relationships between the new Palestinian state and Israel. As Segal also suggests, settlers might stay in Palestine and retain Israeli citizenship, and Palestinian citizens could reside in Israel as permanent residents without voting rights there. Confederation would also allow a right of return to Palestine/Israel under the conditions of all returning Palestinians accepting Palestinian, not Israeli, citizenship (though Palestinians with current Israeli citizenship would retain that). The major feature of Confederation is that the whole of the land would belong to both peoples equally, and the political boundary along the Green Line would not inhibit free access to all, though regulations might restrict residency to prescribed limits. Confederation is fully compatible with Segal’s plan, and he might consider incorporating some of its features into further editions.
Jerome Segal has produced a plan that should be part of the required reading of all who venture into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Unfortunately, recognition and reviews of the book in the US seem so far to be limited to the leftwing press and media. Arab media are taking it seriously though, and I understand it’s already been serialized (in Arabic) in Palestinian newspapers – and I hope it is taken seriously there.
My doubts and reservations as an analyst are based on my general reading of the current situation as inhospitable to peacemaking. However, the international landscape is always shifting and it may be in a few years that elements of Segal’s plan would be implemented. What it does provide is a firm recognition of the importance of Palestinian agency in the peace process – something that has almost disappeared since the beginning of the Second Intifada – and which is essential for any process to have a chance of success. Perhaps when Palestinian President Abbas disappears from the political scene – he is currently 82 and in the 18th year of a four-year term – the expected struggle for power could induce a major reconceptualization of Palestinian strategy. Such a change on the part of the Palestinians is long overdue and is essential – though certainly not sufficient – to the success of any program for Palestinian independence and the end of the occupation. As the Jewish saying goes, b’m’hayrah b’yamenu (May it be speedily and in our days).
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