Bret Stephens: Every time the Palestinians say no, they lose

(Amr Nabil | AP) A man holds the daily Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper fronted by a picture of President Donald Trump, at a coffee shop in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Regarding President Donald Trump’s peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the instant conventional wisdom is that it’s a geopolitical nonstarter, a gift to Benjamin Netanyahu and an electoral ploy by the president to win Jewish votes in Florida rather than Palestinian hearts in Ramallah.

It may be all of those things. But nobody will benefit less from a curt dismissal of the plan than the Palestinians themselves, whose leaders are again letting history pass them by.

The record of Arab-Israeli peace efforts can be summed up succinctly: Nearly every time the Arab side said no, it wound up with less.

That was true after it rejected the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, which would have created a Palestinian state on a much larger footprint than the one that was left after Israel’s war of independence. It was true in 1967, after Jordan refused Israel’s entreaties not to attack, which resulted in the end of Jordanian rule in the West Bank.

It was true in 2000, when Syria rejected an Israeli offer to return the Golan Heights, which ultimately led to U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty of that territory. It was true later the same year, after Yasser Arafat refused Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, which led to two decades of terrorism, Palestinian civil war, the collapse of the Israeli peace camp and the situation we have now.

It’s in that pattern that the blunt rejection by Palestinian leaders of the Trump plan — the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, denounced it as a “conspiracy deal” — should be seen. Refusal today will almost inevitably lead to getting less tomorrow.

That isn’t to say that the plan, as it now stands, can come as anything but a disappointment to most Palestinians. It allows Israel to annex its West Bank settlements and the long Jordan Valley. It concedes full Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem. It conditions eventual Palestinian statehood on full demilitarization of a Palestinian state and the disarming of Hamas. It compensates Palestinians for lost territories in the West Bank with remote territories near the Egyptian border. The map of a future Palestine looks less like an ordinary state than it does the MRI of a lung or kidney.

Then again, much of what the plan gives to Israel, Israel already has and will never relinquish — which explains why the plan was hailed not only by Netanyahu but also by his centrist rival Benny Gantz. Critics of Israeli policy often insist that a Palestinian state is necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy. True enough. But in that case, those critics should respect the painful conclusions Israelis have drawn about just what kind of Palestinian state they can safely accept.

More important, however, is what the plan offers ordinary Palestinians — and what it demands of their leaders. What it offers is a sovereign state, mostly contiguous territory, the return of prisoners, a link to connect Gaza and the West Bank, and $50 billion in economic assistance. What it demands is an end to anti-Jewish bigotry in school curriculums, the restoration of legitimate political authority in Gaza and the dismantling of terrorist militias.

Taken together, this would be a historic achievement, not the “scam” that liberal critics of the deal claim. The purpose of a Palestinian state ought to be to deliver dramatically better prospects for the Palestinian people, not tokens of self-importance for their kleptocratic and repressive leaders.

That begins with improving the quality of Palestinian governance, first of all by replacing leaders whose principal interests lie in perpetuating their misrule. If Abbas — now in the 16th year of his elected four-year term of office — really had Palestinian interests at heart, he would step down. So would Hamas’ cruel and cynical leaders in Gaza. That the peace plan insists on the latter isn’t an obstacle to Palestinian statehood. It’s a prerequisite for it.

At the same time, it’s also essential to temper Palestinian expectations. The Jewish state has thrived in part because, dayenu, it has always been prepared to make do with less. The Palestinian tragedy has been the direct result of taking the opposite approach: of insisting on the maximum rather than working toward the plausible. History rarely goes well for those who try to live it backward.

For all the talk about Trump’s plan being dead on arrival, it says something that it has been met with an open mind by some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They know only too well that the Arab world has more important challenges to deal with than Palestinian statehood. They know, too, that decades of relentless hostility toward the Jewish state have been a stupendous mistake. The best thing the Arab world could do for itself is learn from Israel, not demonize it.

That ought to go for the Palestinians as well. The old cliché about Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity has, sadly, more than a bit of truth in it. Nobody ought to condemn them to make the same mistake again.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.