Will there be a Palestinian state? It's too early to tell, but Yasser Arafat, with wide backing from residents in Gaza and the West Bank, is intent on asserting a claim to Palestine. From winning a separate international dialing code to claiming Jerusalem as his capital, he works single-mindedly for a state.
Let us assume, for sake of argument, that an independent Palestinian state comes into being before the year 2010. Will it survive? What would it look like?
Answers to these questions are necessarily speculative, but we can envisage the possibilities by examining four key factors: political legitimacy, economic growth, human resources and external relations.
The prospects for political legitimacy in an independent Palestine are poor, starting with the judiciary and the police.
Guarantees of personal civil liberties hardly exist on paper, much less in reality: The Palestine police, staffed with PLO loyalists from the Tunisia headquarters, rely on harsh interrogations, even torture, to extract evidence from people rounded up without warrants or any semblance of due process.
Legitimacy also requires opposition movements (such as Hamas) to renounce violence, participate in elections and parliament, and evolve toward becoming a loyal opposition (as religious movements have done in Jordan). There are few signs of their moving in this direction.
Palestine would be weak in the elements of civic society. Voluntary organizations and non-PLO-dominated associations are scarce, though some professional societies (such as the Red Crescent) and private foundations do exist.
It is unlikely to enjoy even minimal freedom of the press, for the PLO firmly controls radio and television programming; independent newspapers are harassed for opposing PLO policies -- or even for not giving Arafat enough front-page space.
Looking at the full range of options, from a democratic Palestine to a totalitarian police state, the most likely outcome is a mildly authoritarian state.
An independent Palestine is not likely to enjoy economic growth greater than its very high rate of population increase (currently 3.7 percent yearly).
Recent years, in fact, have seen negative growth, negligible savings and investments, and massive deficits in balance of payments, trade and the budget.
As of now, the future Palestine will likely lack a fully operational international airport or commercial port and will have deficiencies in electricity, phones, potable water and other services.
In all, Palestine is likely to be a highly dependent, slow-growth state unable to respond to the expectations of its inhabitants. If donor support falters, economic growth stays significantly ahead population increase.
Palestine would enjoy the benefits of a nearly homogenous population, with Sunni Muslims making up nearly 95 percent.
The basic split among Palestinians is political, between those ready to make peace with Israel and those intent to continue the armed struggle; this parallels a division between those seeking a more secular, nationalistic country and those insisting on an Islamic society.
Palestinians have one of the world's highest population growth rates, estimated in 1991-92 at 46.6 per 1,000 for the West Bank and 56.1 for Gaza. Unless several steps are quickly taken, the population will likely double in 20 years.
Unemployment and underemployment rates already are not just extremely high but worsening.
With the labor force estimated to grow by 15,000 young people annually, generating new jobs is the key to improving living conditions. Only a small number of Palestinians with professional qualifications will be able to emigrate, meaning 100,000 new jobs will be needed by the year 2000.
Compared with many other Arab states, Palestinian education and skills rank relatively high; still, they are deficient.
About 70 percent of adults are literate. The state's meager revenues would make it hard for it even to maintain the educational status quo; to expand primary and secondary education to the entire population would take much more donor aid than can reasonably be expected.
The most realistic scenario is a steady state in which schools, health services and other human resources neither significantly improve nor deteriorate.
Unlike other secessionist movements, the PLO has a particularly successful record of building diplomatic recognition, and a future Palestine can expect to become a full member of most major international organizations.
However, the future of an independent Palestine will ultimately depend in large measure on stable relations with two neighboring countries: Jordan and Israel.
Relations with Jordan are likely to be more adversarial than cordial. If a Palestinian state falters economically, as is highly likely, Jordan may discreetly resume its goal of a Jordanian-Palestinian political entity.
The threat from Jordan is cultural and political rather than military or economic; as such it may be the new state's most serious external threat.
Relations with Israel will be incredibly complex, involving as they do a host of economic and other issues. The Palestinian dependence on Israel, an economy 35 times larger than its own and the source of 90 percent of its gross national product, creates acute asymmetry.
As a result, Palestinian bargaining power on most issues will be negligible; and the one credible threat, that of violence, will only be counterproductive, for it would prompt massive Israeli economic sanctions or even direct intervention.
In all, the prospects are for an independent Palestine's maintaining reasonable, if occasionally turbulent, external relations. Its enemies are likely to have their attentions directed elsewhere, while its friends are fickle.
Taking all these factors into consideration, the future of independent Palestine can be seen in terms of the following four scenarios, ranked in order of probability from the highest to the lowest:
1. Palestine is a shackled, highly dependent state. This scenario is most likely because Palestine's aging leadership lacks the ability to respond to the massive expectations of a young society insistent on rapid change.
2. Palestine achieves modest economic growth, a vocal civic society provides some checks to government power and human resources improve, including the status of women. This scenario is feasible, but poor economic prospects and high societal discontent make it difficult to achieve.
3. Palestine achieves a democratic transition, rapid economic growth and institutionalized guarantees for human rights. The economics of Palestine make this a low probability reinforced by the drift toward authoritarianism.
4. An independent Palestine becomes a military, political and terrorist threat to Jordan and Israel as well as a conduit for support from Iran, Iraq and Syria. This is highly unlikely due to the ability of Israel to bar Palestinian migrant workers plus its readiness to intervene in Palestinian internal affairs, and to the low-risk policies of Palestinian leaders seeking to collaborate with Israel.
Aaron Segal is professor of political science at the University of Texas, El Paso. This piece is adapted from an article that appeared in Middle East Quarterly.
Pub Date: 4/06/97