Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Palestinian Futures (Part I)

Even after a half century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a cancer of instability undermining efforts to resolve all Mideast problems. Indeed, in view of last summer’s Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the resultant domestic Lebanese political standoff, this spring’s outbreak of fighting in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, the Fatah-Hamas street battles this month, the split in the Palestinian government, and Israel’s discriminatory policy toward the two new governing bodies in Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems set to intensify in the near future.

Beneath these surface indicators, things look even worse. Palestine is increasingly beleaguered, walled in, and cut off. Desperation, incompetence, hopelessness, and the shortsighted interference of Palestine’s enemies have combined to split the Palestinian political scene into two groups that appear more intransigent every day, with Israel and Washington actively accelerating this process. Within Palestine, between Palestine and Israel, and more broadly in the region, positions seem to be hardening, and relatively little effort is being made to address the real underlying problems of disenfranchisement, discrimination, humiliation, and poverty. If instability in Palestine is a cancer, it now seems to be metastasizing.

Is this impression accurate? Could the future unfold differently? Even a cursory scenario analysis may help to imagine both likely future developments and better outcomes that are possible. Following the scenario analysis that will be introduced in this post, subsequent posts will take more in-depth analytical views, using the previously mentioned "second lens" of system dynamics and "third lens" of complexity theory.

Numerous variables affecting the future of Palestine can be enumerated: security, personal power, quality of governance, living standards, justice, respect, culture. All—and more--will make their contributions to Palestine’s future, but scenario analysis is more productive when focused on two or three critical axes for several reasons: some of these variables may be more important than others, some may be subsets of others, and selection helps focus attention on analytically interesting alternatives.

Here two critical axes will be selected: the degree of Palestinian unity and the degree of justice in Palestine. This leaves somewhat neglected many important issues, but unity and justice are fundamental, not leading automatically to any particular future (e.g., good government or rapid economic development) but, if present, opening the door to such goals, and, if absent, very likely closing that door.


These two axes generate four broad future paths for Palestine:

A. Clash of Civilizations (disunity and injustice)
B. Persian Empire (unity and injustice)
C. Zion Abandoned (disunity and justice)
D.Two-State Compromise (unity and justice).

Take the names with a grain of salt. Scenario A, rather than a chaotic clash of civilizations, might result in a collapse of Palestinian society and ultimately the extermination of the Palestinian people as an organized population, but it seems more likely that such an outcome would still be preceded by unrestrained extremism on all sides. Scenario B, in which Palestinians are unified but fail to achieve justice, might lead instead of alliance with Iran to a purely Arab nationalist movement, but at present Iran seems the most enthusiastic backer of Palestinian aspirations.

Scenario A. Clash of Civilizations
The current hardline attitudes of all major players worsens. Failure to find a compromise leads to mounting confrontation that feeds intensifying extremism on all sides. Palestinian in-fighting opens the door to al Qua’ida, weakens any Palestinian or Israeli efforts at compromise, keeps the initiative firmly in the hands of militarists in Israel and the U.S., and steadily broadens the conflict. As neighbors are drawn in, Palestinian civil war, Iraq-style terrorism, Palestinian-Israeli warfare, and finally a Mideast war occur one after the other. Mounting extremism strengthens the Israeli garrison state, dramatically expands the Iranian role even as it strengthens messianic Shi’ism reminiscent of the early Khomeini era, raises the threat of an Israeli or American nuclear attack on Iran, inflames Arab nationalism, and destabilizes first Jordan and then other conservative Arab states.

Scenario B. Persian Empire (unity and injustice)
Palestinian unity minimizes social chaos and facilitates the rise of a pro-Palestinian alliance. As Palestinian-Israeli fighting intensifies, a pro-Palestinian alliance emerges under Iranian leadership. This provokes a resurgent militant Arab nationalism, “Nasser-II,” that competes with Persian ascendancy. Arab candidates for an emergent nationalist hero--albeit this time one with a more religious perspective than Nasser’s--already exist: e.g., Nasrallah or Moqtada al Sadr—and must decide whether to coordinate with the rising power Iran or compete with it.

Scenario C. Zion Abandoned (disunity and justice)
Against all odds, a movement of conciliation to seizes popular imagination in Israel and provides Palestinians with a convincing alternative to violent resistance rapidly enough to head off rising extremism, the combination of rising justice for Palestinians and Palestinian unity might open the door to a regional decline in insecurity. This happens because of popular revulsion in Israel to an unusually barbaric Israeli military strike combined with the chance simultaneous rise in both Israeli and Palestinian politics of leaders willing to consider compromise. Washington happens to be occupied elsewhere and thus offers no objection. Palestinian leaders negotiate the early stages of the conciliation with extraordinary skill, and mutual confidence builds. Slowly, the majority of Israelis reject their “exceptionalism,” give up Zionism, demand dismantling of the garrison state in the interests of Israeli democracy, conclude that apartheid is not only immoral but a poor basis for long-term security, and the Jewish state is transformed into a true democracy that welcomes people of all faiths.

Scenario D. Two States (unity and justice).
Palestinians manage to put together a unified government, and Israel chooses to give that government a chance. Under conditions of rising justice for Palestinians, the agreement leads to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a state with territorial integrity, its own armed forces, equitable water rights. This trend both depends on and enables a general solution to regional issues, such as secure borders for Lebanon, return of the Golan Heights to Syria, a new governmental system in Lebanon that makes the Shi’a poor equal citizens, and a recognized regional role for Iran.

These scenarios provide one of innumerable possible frameworks for studying the limitless complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Comments on alternative approaches would be most welcome.

Hint: Do we want to get into the analytically challenging territory of more than two axes?

In a future post, I will discuss milestones for figuring out which scenario seems closest to the mark as events unfold and scenario evolution.

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