Rethinking the Palestinian Future

This essay is the revised text of the Constantine Zurayk Memorial Lecture, delivered by the author at the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut, Lebanon on 25 April 2013. This essay considers the Palesti­nian future by complicating the realities of the status quo in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the role of the international community, and the realities of being a person in solidarity. The author posits moving beyond looking at the Palestinian future from the perspective of horizons of feasibility and need, which have been defined by non-Palestinians, to a horizon of desire and vision crafted by Palesti­nians that encourages a re-imagination of positive solutions.

IT IS A HUMBLING HONOR to give this lecture in memory of the great Arab scholar and personality Constantine Zurayk, a distinguished Syrian diplo­mat, an admired academic leader, and a notable scholar who articulated the ideals of Arab civilization ahead of his time. He was dedicated, among many other issues, to the goal of achieving a bright future for Palestine and its people. I can claim only a slim connection with Professor Zurayk because he earned his PhD at Princeton University, where I was a longtime member of the faculty.

As I reconsidered my self-selected title, ‘‘Rethinking the Palestinian Future,’’ it occurred to me that I had been presumptuous in proposing such a topic. After all, who am I to talk about the Palestinian future? This is not a matter of false humility. It pertains to the presumption of any non-Palestinian to purport to address the Palestinian future.


Part of the Palestinian tragedy, ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is that others have again and again presumed to talk on behalf of the Palestinian people. Because of the manner in which the world is orga­nized, these alien voices have consistently overridden Palestinian voices on the basis of geopolitical calculations and Orientalist thinking, to the detri­ment of the Palestinians. The roots of this distorting process go back at least as far as the 1917 declaration of Lord Arthur Balfour. His infamous letter to the head of the Zionist movement decreed that the United King­dom would look with favor upon the establishment of ‘‘a national home for the Jewish people’’ in historic Palestine.

This narrative of colonial ‘‘otherness’’ continued throughout the thirty years of the British Mandate. Its milestone was the 1937 Peel Commission report, an imperial initiative that came up with the characteristically British idea that Palestine should be partitioned between Jews and Arabs, which put forward London’s colonialist endorsement of the Zionist undertaking without indigenous consent.1 The Peel recommendations were signifi­cantly extended by the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which assigned 55 percent of Mandate Palestine territory to Jews and 45 percent to Arabs. This allocation defied both the will of the Palestinian population and the demographic balance in Palestine, which at the time had a greater than two-thirds Arab majority. This neocolonial approach to Palestine has been sustained since Israel proclaimed itself a sovereign state. Subsequently, the UN admitted Israel as a member without a sufficient prior effort to secure Palestinian rights under international law or obtain the consent of the indigenous population.

Thus, at the very historical moment that colonized communities were discrediting European colonialism and defeating it in wars of liberation around the world, Britain was condemning Palestine to a new variant of European settler-colonialism, a catastrophic process for the Palestinian people. The Nakba of 1948, which featured massive dispossession of Pales­tinians and the destruction of over six hundred of their villages, was fol­lowed by a second cycle of dispossession in 1967 that resulted in the prolonged occupation and partial de facto annexation of the Palestinian territorial remnant. The 1967 occupation has not been static, but rather has been used by the Israelis ever since to realize their vision of ‘‘Greater Israel.’’ Israel’s efforts to control the West Bank and Jerusalem have been relentless, relying on a combination of annexation, manipulation of residence and building permits, the building of settlements, and coercive demographics.

External support both for the denial of Palestinian self-determination and for Israeli expansionism has been a consistent feature of the more than sixty-five years of Israel’s existence as an independent state. Its bor­ders as proposed by the UN in 1947 were extended by force of arms during the 1948 war, increasing Israel’s share of historic Palestine from the 55 percent allotted by partition to 78 percent at armistice. After the 1967 war, the expanded borders (and the expanded territory they encompassed) were given implicit and provisional de jure recognition by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 242.

These were the borders in which the PLO subsequently acquiesced in the historic concessions contained in its 1988 declaration of Palestinian independence—a declaration that in essence recognized Israel’s existence. Some years later, these borders were also accepted de facto by the Arab states in their 2002 peace initiative as well as by several American presidents—in the latter case with additional elements in Israel’s favor. These include retention of settlement blocs, recognition of Israel’s security concerns in the Jordan Valley, acknowledgment that there would be no return to the 1967 borders, and effective recognition of Israel’s annexation of Arab Jerusalem.

Even here, then, it is mainly outsiders who are pronouncing on what is fair and reasonable for the two peoples in a distorted manner that reflects Zionist influence in shaping U.S., European, and even UN diplomacy. The point here is that the Palestinian ordeal has been facilitated at every stage by the weight of alien politi-The Palestinian ordeal has cal forces not genuinely supportive of the inalienable been facilitated at every Palestinian right of self-determination. As the most stage by the weight of alien fundamental of human rights, self-determination has political forces not been set forth as the common Article 1 in the two genuinely supportive of the foundational documents depicting political legiti-inalienable Palestinian macy since the end of World War II: the two human right of self-determination. rights covenants of 1966.2

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