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Hebrew University
HUJ Moshe Zimmermann on the fate of Palestinian refugees: "Anybody who wanted to return could return"
HUJ Moshe Zimmermann
Director of the Koebner Center
E-mail: mszimm@pluto.mscc.huji.ac.il

MIDDLE EAST | 11.11.2011

The viability of a Palestinian state



When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made his formal application to the United Nations for Palestine to be recognized as a state in September, many Palestinians were thrilled.

Their president, long seen as hesitant and indecisive, had gone on the offensive, rejecting any further negotiations for the time being. Peace talks with the Israelis over the past few years had in any case not made any substantial progress - when they actually took place at all.

Abbas' application was not popular with everyone, and it's far from certain that a majority of members of the UN Security Council will support it. France and Britain have already announced they will not vote in favor of the motion. Other countries are at best reluctant, or at worst, outright against recognizing Palestine - partly out of a sense of solidarity with Israel and partly for reasons related to political power in general.

The Palestinian territories are split up, the economy is weak - and the Israeli government doesn't appear to be interested in the creation of a stable Palestinian state: But even if the UN were to recognize Palestine, its government would face serious problems.

Many settlers oppose a Palestinian state

"To make a viable Palestinian state, Israel's settlement policy would have to be reversed," said Moshe Zimmermann, director of the Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The settlements would have to be demolished - or the inhabitants of the settlements would have to become citizens of the new Palestinian state, the Israeli historian said. However, Israeli settlers want neither of these things, and most are outright against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Zimmermann also points to serious economic concerns, because the Israeli occupation has led to a lack of investment and high unemployment. 
Suleiman Abu Dayyeh of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Jerusalem also believes these problems would cripple any Palestinian state.

"From a purely economic point of view, a state of Palestine is not currently viable," he said.

Abu Dayyeh sees the fact that the territory's borders to Egypt and Jordan are under Israel's control as one of the major factors.

"Palestine has no airport, there are no roads and no rail links with neighboring countries," he said.

At the same time, though, he is convinced that if these obstacles were to disappear, Palestine could become more independent through trade, transit and tourism, as well as light industry and agriculture.

Israeli occupation impedes the Palestinian economy

Zimmermann believes the problems with the Palestinian economy are not insurmountable. While the Palestinians are economically disadvantaged, this doesn't mean they can't cooperate with one another. In fact, there are already areas in which the two sides cooperate.

"This can be further developed, so that one day we may be able to say yes, a Palestinian state may be viable," said Zimmermann.

He also sees no problem when it comes to the unresolved question of the fate of Palestinian refugees. If it were up to him, anybody who wanted to return could return.

"This is of course difficult," he said, "but it is possible. I do not think the majority of the millions of Palestinians who now live elsewhere will choose to return to Israel or an Arab State of Palestine."

He argues that many of them would simply accept that their lives are now elsewhere, in places like Bahrain, Jordan or Canada.

Not everyone favors the two-state solution

Zimmermann, though, does see a major obstacle in the form of the Israeli government. He is convinced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are not interested in a Palestinian state.

"There is a very strong right-wing group in Israel which sees all of the Palestinian territories as part of the state of Israel," said Zimmermann.

This group may reject the creation of a Palestinian state, "but the Israeli government cannot say it openly, because it has committed itself to accepting the two-state solution," he added.

According to this view, there is a major gap between what the Israeli government says and what it does, as it finds itself torn between the desire to resolve the conflict and the settlement of Palestinian areas.

Author: Anne Allmeling / pfd
Editor: Martin Kuebler

This report was originally published in German on Qantara.de, the Internet portal promoting dialogue with the Islamic world. The project is a joint effort by the German institutions Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education), Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institut and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) and is funded by the German Foreign Office.

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