Does the State of Palestine Exist?


The Journal of Palestine Studies, Fall 1989



The core of this essay turns on a conceptual question: “What is a state?” How this question is answered is and will remain central to the unfolding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In particular, how this concept is understood has major bearing on: how the participants understand the current situation; the strategies and tactics that they employ; and their understanding of what constitutes an acceptable resolution of the conflict.

            It will also affect: the life span of the Palestinian peace initiative; the ability of the PLO leadership to exercise control over events on the ground; and the psychology and therefore the politics of the Palestinian movement.

            Rarely does an abstract philosophical question have such direct and powerful bearing on the unfolding of a concrete social conflict.



What is a State?


On 15 November 1988 the Palestine National Council (PNC), acting in the name of the Palestinian people, proclaimed the existence of the State of Palestine. Since that time over 100 governments have recognized the State of Palestine. Nonetheless, despite such diplomatic successes, the proclamation of statehood has often been characterized as a charade, a paper instrument for the creation of a paper state.

            Before we can decide whether or not, or to what extent, there is presently a Palestinian State, we must gain a better understanding of the concept of a state.



Sovereignty and External Actors


States typically lay claim to sovereignty over particular pieces of territory, in essence asserting themselves to be the sole decision maker with respect to their particular territory. Moreover, states generally voice their acceptance of each other’s claims to sovereignty, forswearing as part of that recognition any right to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.

            All of this, however, is on the level of claims and commitments. In the real world sovereignty is never absolute. States are constantly and intentionally affecting what goes on within other states, without asking permission to do so. States can do this through direct actions that cause specific changes within the territory of other states (invasion, involvement in coups d’état, nationalizations, trade sanctions, boycotts, withholding aid, etc.) or they can do it by making clear that their forbearance from committing such acts is conditional and that there are circumstances under which they would intervene.

            Every state, then, exists with the knowledge that there are certain things it cannot do within its own territory, because it would either be prevented by other states from doing so or punished subsequently. Whether or not outside interference or influence is called a “violation of sovereignty” or is viewed as acceptable involvement under international law, the point is that all states find that other states affect what occurs within their borders. What varies is the extent and manner to which the state is subject to outside control.

            The implication for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that, in principle, it is possible for there to be a Palestinian state even if Israel refuses to recognize and respect its sovereignty. The mere fact of violated sovereignty would not show that a Palestinian state did not exist, because a state’s existence does not require absolute sovereignty in relation to external actors.


States and the Monopoly to Use Force


It is sometimes maintained that a state exists only if it holds a monopoly on the use of force. This is never literally true, as someone seeking to cross Central Park in Manhattan after dark is likely to learn, but it is the nature of states to claim a monopoly on the use of force. Nonetheless, governments constantly face the fact that there are other internal actors that do not respect their claims. If the disrespect is so great as to be characterized as “a breakdown of law and order,” then the issue of the existence of a state is joined. States do not exist when there is anarchy. But the breakdown of law and order is always a matter of degree. To some extent it is always breaking down.


States and the Control of Territory


For the most part, the phrase “control of territory” is an ellipsis for “the control of the population that inhabits a territory.”

            Yet rather than thinking of states as bodies that control populations, we might better think of a state as existing when there is a rule-giving entity to which the population gives generalized obedience.

            Generalized obedience has two aspects. First, general orders have to be given. Telling someone to step into an alley and empty his wallet would not count; the person would have to be ordered to report to the alley each week to empty his wallet. Secondly, the obedience given to the general rules would itself have to be general. If obedience is given only at the point of a gun, one act at a time, then the population has not been induced to obey the rules qua rules. This is the crucial point. The existence of a state at its core is a matter of generalized acceptance of some entity as the rule-giving authority.

            It is not necessary that this entity be viewed as legitimately exercising this authority. There can be and are criminal states, but what distinguishes them from mere bands of criminals is that they have succeeded, even through fear, in obtaining generalized acceptance as rule givers.

            In sum, the existence of a state is essentially a matter of the existence of a certain kind of social relationship between a population and a rule-giving entity. It does not depend on absolute independence from external actors, nor on a monopoly of force, nor on complete dominance over internal actors, nor on an ability to coerce people into doing what they do not wish to do. This account of what a state is can be formalized as follows:

            A territorial state exists when and only when:


  1. There is a governmental body asserting rules covering a wide range of behaviors and conventions, directed at a population inhabiting a specific territory.
  2. The government does not give generalized obedience to any other entity.
  3. The government obtains generalized obedience from the population to which its rules are directed.


            On this understanding, a state is not necessarily the absolute authority on what goes on within its territory; it can be seriously challenged by myriad internal and external actors. The being of a state is constituted by a social relationship in which the population recognizes the government as its rule issuer.



Implications for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


The Intifadah


A consideration of the concept of state casts the intifadah in a different light. The intifadah is more than a revolt or protest against Israeli rule. It· is a process through which the Palestinian people are withdrawing the generalized obedience previously given to the Israeli authorities and transferring it to new authorities.

            For example, in the early days of the intifadah there were repeated struggles between shopkeepers and Israeli soldiers. The shopkeepers sought to obey the rules set down by the underground authorities; the Israeli government sought to break this obedience. Ultimately, the shopkeepers succeeded in obeying the rules of the new authorities.

            The underground command has succeeded in establishing itself as a new authority. It issues regulations, succeeds in getting them disseminated, and often succeeds in achieving generalized obedience. To do this is to function as a government.

            The extent of this process should not be exaggerated. The Israelis can gain obedience at the point of a gun, and have maintained some ability to command generalized obedience. While no one has developed indices of generalized obedience to either the underground command or to the Israeli authorities, stone throwing, the refusal to pay taxes, resignation from positions with the Israeli administration, and participation in illegal committees and demonstrations are all part of a broad process of transfer­ence of accepted authority.

            The extent to which the intifadah has transferred generalized obedience away from the Israelis and to new authorities differs in different regions. In the rural areas the transfer of authority is more complete. In some areas, it seems, the Israelis are little more than raiding parties from a hostile neighboring tribe that has the power to enter the village at will and take away captives. Thus, The Washington Post reported on 10 June 1989 that in the West Bank village of Salfit there is no regular Israeli presence. The Israelis periodically come in helicopters and trucks, typically at night. But as soon as they leave, a new flag is painted on the wall and a new underground leaflet is posted. According to the residents, the Post reported, much of Salfit is run by popular committees, the alternative institutions of the intifadah. “There is one for health, another for civil defense against soldiers and Jewish settlers, one to handle disputes between residents, and even one for planting gardens. And there is a large committee to operate alternative education…” 

            In some instances, the refusal to accept Israeli authority emerges in highly symbolic forms. Thus, it was reported that throughout the territories Palestinians placed themselves on daylight savings time two weeks prior to the date this would have occurred under Israeli regulations.

            Substantial efforts have also been made to establish alternative quasi­governmental health and educational institutions. While less is known about legal institutions, this area is particularly important from the perspective of a state’s existence. Services such as health or education can be in either private or public hands: a government does not have to provide them for the state to exist. On the other hand, legal institutions-which give fine-grained definition to the broad rules set down by a legislature, adjudicate disputes over rules, and in criminal matters determine guilt and specify punishment-may be necessary for states to gain the generalized obedience on which their existence depends. The extent to which this is the case differs widely. Where there is recognized legitimacy in addition to accepted authority, a state can exist with far less of a judicial apparatus.

            The intifadah has not developed a full-formed judicial system, but there are rudiments. Rules are given wide publicity. Individual behavior is monitored. Infractions are responded to and individuals are made aware of specific charges. There is some process of investigation and detem1ination of guilt and punishment. Hearsay has it that specific files have been sent to Tunis for decision and there is possibly some form of imprisonment, though to be sure, beatings and executions are the predominant form of punish­ment. To make this point is not to say that individuals are given due process or that the system is just or unjust. Rather, it is to make only the point that something approaching a critical state institution used to attain generalized obedience already exists in rudimentary form.


The Declaration of Independence


To View the intifadah as a process that is constitutive of the existence of a state rather than as something that may lead to it later on places the Palestine Declaration of Independence in its proper light. The State of Palestine cannot be created by a declaration; it is created by the population in their decisions with respect to obedience. The Declaration of Indepen­dence of 15 November 1988 is a point within a long-term process of state creation, one which both preceded and follows the Declaration.

            At the same time, 15 November 1988 was the critical moment at which the process of state creation was formalized through the establishment of an entity that asserts itself to be a state, to be non-subservient to any other authority, and to be a generalized rule-giver over a loosely demarcated population and territory.

            In the Declaration itself we see an instance of what such formalization means. At some point in the text there is the emergence of a new actor: “the Palestine National Council hereby declares...the establishment of the State of Palestine.” After this the text takes a historical turn. We find phrases such as “The State of Palestine calls,” “The State of Palestine declares,” “The State of Palestine affirms.” These calls, declarations, and affirmations are the first acts of the State of Palestine. What has occurred is that a new entity, “The State of Palestine,” has come into being.

            However, to say “we hereby proclaim the State of Palestine” is not to create a state. It is to create a corporate entity which views itself as a state and which bears the name: State of Palestine. Whether or not it is a state has to do with whether or not it can function in certain ways. Broadly speaking, it depends on whether or not it can get its intended citizenry to view it as a state and to view themselves as its citizens and to act accordingly.

            But because there cannot be a state without an entity whose pronounce­ments and actions count as the actions and pronouncements of the state, the Declaration of Independence was a vital part of the state creation process. It amounted to the formalization of the deeper process of the intifadah.[1]

            One significance of the Declaration of Independence as a process through which an entity affirming itself to be a state was created is that it makes it possible for that entity to function as an international person (i.e. to be accepted by other states as an actor, as an entity capable of entering into agreements and participating in the interchange between states).

            It is not a logically necessary requirement for the existence of a state that other states treat it as an international personality. It is perfectly possible for a state to be isolated by the entire world, boycotted, or not judged capable of entering into any agreements.

            But being viewed as a state by other states contributes to the state formation process (the generalized acceptance by the population). It does this in two ways. First, in viewing and treating the entity as a state, other states offer a perception of the entity that can be internalized by the entity itself and its population. In this it partakes in what Sartre recognized about the role of the Other’s perception in determining one’s self-perception. If widely shared, the perception that there already is a State of Palestine can even find its way into the perceptions of the Israeli public. Thus, their definition of the situation is capable of shifting from “should we relinquish our territory?” to “should we withdraw from a foreign country?”

            Secondly, by treating the entity as a state, other states give it a variety of powers that increase its ability to obtain generalized acceptance as rule-giver. For instance, foreign states can decide to accept the travel documents (passports) of the State of Palestine (none have yet been issued), thereby giving to the entity a power that it did not previously have and that is generally reserved for states.

            Passports are important because they are identity documents in a deeper sense. In carrying a passport that identifies the bearer as a citizen of a specific state, the individual tends to accept that identification as his self-identification.

            These factors, which could be brought into play only after the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, demonstrate some of the signif­icance of the Declaration within the state building process.



Palestinian Strategies


Historically, the PLO has entertained two strategic alternatives: armed struggle, and negotiations through an international conference. Armed struggle is affirmed within the Palestine National Charter as the only strategy for attaining the Palestinian objective of “liberating all of Pales­tine. “

            Although armed struggle has re-emerged today as a possible strategy, the objective has changed: it is now to force Israel out of the territories. Supporters of this strategy argue that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon resulted from the severe cost in Israeli lives, just as its withdrawal from Sinai was linked to the War of Attrition and the 1973 War. But these analogies are ill-conceived. In Lebanon, there was not the genuine security concern that accompanies the Israeli view of the territories, and neither Lebanon nor Sinai was viewed by a significant part of the Israeli public as a part of Israel. Armed struggle is for the Palestinians suicidal in the context of the West Bank and Gaza. It would set the stage for the total dispersion and exile of the Palestinian people, and would be at the same time a disaster for Israelis and for the Jewish people as a whole. Nonetheless, the move toward a guerrilla struggle is a distinct possibility.

            The second strategy focuses on negotiations under superpower auspices at an international conference. In particular, it looks to the United States to force Israel to negotiate with the PLO and ultimately to accept a Palestinian state. This strategy, which resists making any so-called “con­cessions” in advance of the final negotiations, is built upon a misunder­standing of both American politics and Israeli politics. There simply is no way to get the United States to put that kind of pressure on Israel. And even if it did, so long as Israeli security fears are deep and widespread there is no way that Israel would comply. Pursuit of the hardline version of this strategy leads to transformation within Israel, but the outcome is the Israel of Ariel Sharon.

            The possibility of a third strategy has emerged with the intifadah. This rests on the perception that the creation of the Palestinian state is, most centrally, a process of establishing a relationship of generalized obedience between a Palestinian entity and the Palestinian people. [2]

            This third strategy views the two-state solution as something that the Palestinian movement can move toward unilaterally. It views the intifadah, augmented by the Declaration of Independence, as the central process whereby the state comes into being. According to one scenario under this approach, a provisional government is established and increasingly gains recognition as the government of the State of Palestine while at the same time serving as a vehicle through which the intifadah is institutionalized. The underground command becomes a part of the governmental structure, and its directives are issued as laws and governmental regulations. Obedi­ence is now demanded on the basis of loyalty to the new state. The government starts operating as such to the maximum extent possible given the presence of Israeli troops within its territory. The PNC is transformed into the legislature of the State of Palestine. An independent judiciary is formed. Laws passed by the legislature are binding on Palestinians within the territories. The judiciary functions both outside the territory as well as underground, within the territory of the new state. As the new government emerges it assumes the role previously played by the PLO as the repre­sentative of the Palestinian people. The PLO moves to some new status (e.g. as a political party) or goes out of existence. With the PLO going out of existence, the Charter becomes irrelevant. The new state is based on a constitution, establishing it as seeking permanent peace with the State of Israel.

            On the international level, passports are issued for travel to states that recognize the State of Palestine. A Palestinian currency—small, inherently valuable coins produced underground within the territories—is introduced and used internationally. Meanwhile, State of Palestine bonds are issued and traded.

            At some point, negotiations become part of this strategy. Without negotiations there will be no resolution of the status of Jerusalem or of right-to-return issues. Ideally, negotiations would occur early in the process: early negotiations could help bring about political transformation within both camps. But if this does not happen, the third strategy proceeds nonetheless, viewing negotiations as possibly five or more years away. Moreover, early negotiations that lead to deadlock are undesirable.

            When negotiations do occur, the central issue need not be Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state but Israeli troop withdrawal from the country of Palestine. Under the third strategy this is brought about not primarily through superpower pressures on Israel but through political transformation within Israel.

            The basis for successful negotiations with Israel rests on three processes: the achievement of a de facto state, the maintenance of a powerful and sincere peace initiative, and the maintenance of local and international pressure for Israeli withdrawal.

            Seeing that it is possible for the Palestinian state to exist even before the occupation has ended, this third strategy seeks to create the reality of peace between the two states as a de facto condition that may well precede its formalization in a treaty. Thus, it is even possible for the Palestinian state to announce that it is at peace with the State of Israel. On the issue of demilitarization, whether or not there is a formal agreement, the State of Palestine has no alternative other than to he to some extent demilitarized. Under this third strategy, agreement to demilitarization would be used early in order to promote political change within Israel rather than saved as a concession until the end-game of negotiations. Demilitarization would also blunt the possibility of Sharonist policies. It would be part of the defense policy of the new state. [3]


Time Frames


Strategic frameworks are important not only as guides to action but also, sometimes more importantly, as a means of providing a vision or narrative of the process leading to success. And because they give a picture of the road to success, they also give a way of identifying what failure would look like. For instance, within the strategy of armed struggle, the picture of defeat would involve the crushing of military forces or the failure to smuggle arms into the territories. Within a strategy resting on the superpowers to impose a settlement, the breaking off of the U.S.-PLO dialogue would be seen as a possibly fatal setback. Images of the processes of success and failure play a vital role in the thinking of participants on all levels, from the Palestinian leadership in Tunis to youngsters in refugee camps.

            The image of failure may be even more decisive than that of success, for it is the perception that a particular line of action is failing that triggers decisive, even desperate changes in strategy. Thus, the picture of the process of success and failure plays a crucial role in determining time frames.” For instance, the peace initiative adopted in Algiers is expected at some point to bear tangible signs of success. But when? After six months or after five years? And how are the tangible signs to be recognized? The strategic vision helps provide answers to these critical questions.[4]

            Within the third strategic framework, the Palestinian state emerges during the period of occupation. Its creation is not blocked because Israel refuses to negotiate or because the United States fails to exert major pressure on Israel to accept a Palestinian state. Thus the role of the peace initiative is transformed. Rather than being a device for getting Israel to accept a Palestinian state, it is a policy for preventing Israel from destroying the Palestinian state and for getting Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian state. It seeks to create the fact of peace between two states and thereby to transform Israeli attitudes.

            Thus understood, the peace initiative operates within a very different time frame. So long as it blocks the movement of Israeli politics to the right, so long as it helps create an international obstacle to expulsion or the use of massive military force, it is succeeding. The longer it is sustained, the more credible is the claim that the State of Palestine’s existence represents no threat to the State of Israel, and the more powerful will become the Israeli peace movement’s call for Israel to withdraw its troops from a foreign country that does not and can not threaten it.



The Political Psychology of the Palestinian Movement


The central fact of the Palestinian experience is dispossession from land seen as their own in the ordinary way that any land is seen as belonging to its long-standing inhabitants.[5] The Palestinians have lost their attempt to recover this land in full. Conditions of loss, defeat, statelessness, and occupation threaten and often shatter personal pride and dignity. Through resistance and struggle and refusal to accept defeat and injustice, Palestin­ians have found modes of existing with dignity despite conditions of weakness.

            The issue of dignity plays an implicit but central role in intra-Palestinian political debate. George Habash expressed this theme when he character­ized Arafat’s peace initiative as a “policy of concessions,” and as a “striptease” in which Palestinians were first asked to take off their shoes, and then their shirt, and then their pants, and finally their underwear. Habash asked rhetorically, “And what do you think the Israelis are going to do next?”

            A strategy of unilaterally creating the Palestinian state and protecting it through a peace initiative is radically different from making concessions in the hope that Israel will agree to negotiate with the PLO and that it will subsequently agree to grant the Palestinians a state of their own.

            The intifadah was, and remains, a process of massive defiance arid self-assertion. It has tied the hands of the more powerful Israelis and stripped them, in the eyes of the world and in their own eyes, of the moral high ground and even of their self-pride. The Declaration of Independence was an extension of this process of self-affirmation. By proclaiming the State of Palestine, the Palestinian movement created a perspective from which it was finally possible to launch a sustained and clear peace initiative. The proclamation transformed the elements of a peace initiative from conces­sions to acts of self-assertion and ways of protecting the state, controlling the agenda, tying the hands of the other party, and even transforming his outlook.

            The emergence of a functioning governmental entity will further transform the behavior and perspective of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian leadership is not yet the leadership of a government. But when it takes on that role, it will encounter a new ethical, psychological, and political reality.

            Movements operate within a different logic than do governments. Within movements, actors and policies are evaluated and critiqued from a viewpoint that demands standards of fidelity to ideals, basic goals, and fundamental norms of justice. Resistance movements can only survive by avoiding stances that strip its participants of dignity. Pragmatic compromise in the face of injustice is extremely difficult for movements.

            Governments, on the other hand, have different primary responsibili­ties. Their role is to protect and preserve. They bear extended responsibility for the well-being of the populations they claim as citizenry. Moreover, their ability to continue to maintain the generalized obedience necessary for their very existence as governments depends on how adequately they are perceived to be carrying out these functions. Put in a different idiom, one might say that the professional ethics of leaders of a movement are different from the professional ethics of leaders of a government. A governmental leader who sacrifices vital interests out of pride is judged unfit for high responsibility. The leader of a movement who does the same thing may be viewed as having refused to betray the ideals of the movement.

            The perception of the existence of a Palestinian state shifts the bases of obedience. So long as there is only a Palestinian national movement, different factions pursue their own different visions of how to advance the aims of that movement. On some occasions, this has resulted in groups withdrawing from the PLO or central institutions of the PLO. But with a state, the issue of loyalty to one’s country emerges, as does the concept of treason. This is true on the leadership level as well as on the level of mass obedience to laws and regulations. When George Habash announced, following the 19th PNC at which the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, that though he voted against the political resolutions he was remaining within the PLO, he was assuming the role of loyal opposition. The force of this factor grows with the perception of the actual existence of a government.


Continuance of the Intifadah


The perception of the intifadah as the process of the creation of the Palestinian state rather than as a revolt that may lead to a Palestinian state alters what it means for the intifadah to be crushed. To end the intifadah under those circumstances is to see the Palestinian state destroyed. A process viewed in this light will have a staying power beyond that of a simple revolt.

            To see the state as created through a process of transferring generalized obedience from Israeli authorities to new Palestinian authorities is to see more clearly what is essential to the intifadah and what is accidental. For instance, throwing stones per se is not essential. What is important about throwing stones is that it denies Israeli rule. But there are other ways of exercising that denial and there may be ways that engage much larger segments of the population. Throwing fire bombs adds nothing to what is achieved through throwing stones, or lemons for that matter, and fire bombs run the risk of generating a more violent Israeli reaction.

            When the existence of a state is understood as generalized obedience, the role of civil disobedience within the intifadah will be seen as very different from civil disobedience in other conflicts. For instance, in the American civil rights movement, while civil disobedience emerged as a tactic for awakening the conscience of the American people to injustice, it was not part of a process of deconstituting the American state. With the intifadah, civil disobedience may function as a tactic to engage the consciences of Israelis and Americans, or it may not. But the core meaning of civil disobedience in the intifadah is not is a tactic to do anything. Rather, as a mass action, civil disobedience is the withdrawal of the generalized obedience constitutive of Israeli rule.

            Moreover, the transfer of generalized obedience to the new Palestinian authorities may involve no contact with the Israelis, yet remain deep acts of allegiance to the new state. As an example, the legislature of the State of Palestine, meeting in Tunis or elsewhere, might pass a series of rather mundane laws. For instance, a law might be passed dealing with smoking in public restaurants. The intifadah-as-state-building-process would be en­hanced by mass adherence to this law. Or a Palestinian supreme court might rule on whether or not teenagers have the legal ability to enter into binding contracts. When Palestinians live in accord with such a ruling, and when village elders involved in the adjudication of disputes conform to such rulings, they are acting in ways that are constitutive of the existence of the Palestinian state.

            To see the intifadah as the process of constituting the Palestinian state is to see that the intifadah is not over even if clashes with the Israelis come to a halt. As the Palestinian state comes into being, the intifadah is normalized into daily life. This is quite different from ending it.




The Camp David framework provided for a five-year transitional period of autonomy during which negotiations on a permanent solution were to commence. Prime Minister Shamir’s election proposal also has two separate negotiations, with final status issues not even subject to discussion during the autonomy negotiations.

            A case can be made for separating negotiations over a transition phase from negotiations over final status. It can be argued that the two sides are so hr apart that agreement on a permanent solution cannot be reached unless there is a broad change in the environment, which could be hoped to occur during the autonomy stage.

            On the other hand, a framework that calls on Palestinians to enter into an autonomy period prior to any agreement on the final outcome—indeed prior to the beginning of final status negotiations—looks like a way to entrap the Palestinians in interminable negotiations and a never ending autonomy framework.

            However, the generalized obedience model of what it is to be a state casts the dichotomy between autonomy and final status issues in a new light. What occurs during an autonomy period is either the further coming into being of the Palestinian state or it is the reverse process. If, for instance, there is a conflict between the autonomy authorities and the national (State of Palestine) authorities, and if the population obeys the autonomy authorities, then the process of state creation is reversed and the state moves back into non-existence.

            But consider a scenario in which the autonomy government is “nation­alized.” Autonomy is established with only local Palestinians engaged in either the negotiations or the administration. But then the government of the State of Palestine announces that all autonomy officials are under the jurisdiction of the state and that no autonomy regulations can conflict with the general statutes and court rulings of the Palestinian judiciary and legislature convened in Tunis. And assume, as is likely, that the autonomy officials, without making any proclamation, simply conform to this an­nouncement. Under such circumstances, autonomy is the carrying through of the existence of the State of Palestine. Autonomy becomes the vehicle through which the state emerges through a complete governmental appa­ratus on the ground.

            In response to nationalization, it is quite possible that the Israelis would dismiss the autonomy government. And for this reason the State of Palestine government might not want formally to nationalize the autonomy government. Rather, it might simply hold this possibility as a card that it might play if it needs to.

            But what is particularly interesting is that the de facto existence of the State of Palestine advances even if there is no formal nationalization. All that need be the case is that in fact it is the State of Palestine that is providing the rules that are operative during the autonomy period. Thus, suppose the State of Palestine issues a Constitution and a set of basic laws. If in fact the autonomy authorities take cognizance of and respect this framework, it is the State of Palestine that is the ultimate rule giver.

            Seen in this light, the negotiations over the so-called autonomy arrangements may really concern the exact limits of authority that the Israelis will concede to the Palestinian state. The fact that one state operates within the parameters permitted by another state does not mean that the first state is fiction. It is a situation faced all the time by weak states, such as Finland, that border powerful and potentially assertive neighbors.

            The final stages of negotiations, in which the Palestinians push for Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state, is not about whether there will be a Palestinian state but about moving the Palestinian state from a de facto to a de jure basis and determining the range of its authority.

            An appreciation of these facts by the Israeli government may generate a reluctance even to begin autonomy negotiations. This reluctance may be enhanced if the PLO were to go out of existence and be fully replaced by the State of Palestine, or if all Palestinians were to swear their allegiance to the new state, and if the new state were to deputize as its negotiator any Palestinian elected by the residents of the territories. Under these circum­stances, the Israelis would be placed in a situation in which it would be impossible for them to carry out any negotiations without in fact negotiat­ing with the government of the State of Palestine.

            Such a situation would emerge as an obstacle to negotiations, and it would be a mistake to bring it about if early negotiations appeared likely and appeared to have a chance to transform attitudes within Israel. This problem does not exist at present, in part because a government of the State of Palestine has not yet been established, but it must be borne in mind.

            In sum, autonomy should not be feared by the Palestinians. Properly understood, the intifadah does not end during autonomy, even if violent confrontations do. From the Palestinian perspective, the autonomy period is not a prelude to the existence of the state; the state continues to come into existence through autonomy. The autonomy period offers the Pales­tinians an opportunity to consolidate their state and to increase Israel’s willingness to withdraw its troops from the occupied Palestinian state.



Does the State of Palestine Exist?


From the foregoing it should be clear that there are really two very different questions:


  1. Does the State of Palestine exist?
  2. Is the State of Palestine a state?


            The answer to the first question is clearly “Yes.” An entity named “State of Palestine” was created on 15 November 1989. But this is not the central question. The central question has to do with the status of the entity called “the State of Palestine.”

            The point of making a statement such as “there is a Palestinian state” Or “there is not a Palestinian state” differs depending upon the context. Immediately after the State of Palestine was proclaimed, I visited East Jerusalem. “When I referred to the West Bank and Gaza as “the occupied territories, a Palestinian friend corrected me by substituting the words “the country of Palestine.” His implicit point was that one aspect of the process of bringing the Palestinian state into being is to talk (and act) as if its existence was already established.

            The point is a valid one, and as one who believes in the two-state solution as the road to peace and who believes in the strategy of unilateral creation of the Palestinian state, I accepted his linguistic recommendation.

            Similarly, when other states are asked to recognize the State of Palestine as a state, they are not being asked as social scientists to make an appraisal. They are being asked, as political actors, to undertake a political act. This does not mean that their decisions are totally divorced from the consider­ations a social analyst brings to the issue, but the political actors are essentially making a decision, not making a judgment. And there are good reasons for them to decide to perform the act of recognizing the State of Palestine, not the least of which is that the State of Palestine has a morally legitimate claim to be a state.

            But there are other contexts, such as the present one, where we seek as analysts to survey the situation and to ask, “Has the entity called the State of Palestine succeeded in establishing itself on the ground as a state?” “Does it fulfill the criteria that are necessary before one can use the term ‘state’ as an adequate description of that entity?”

            Approaching the issue in this context, consider the following balance sheet:




  1. The territories of the West Bank and Gaza have not been annexed by any established state.
  2. The population of the West Bank and Gaza is almost totally Palestinian. These people view the PLO as their legitimate repre­sentative. The PLO, acting in the name of the Palestinian people, has proclaimed the existence of the State of Palestine. Though its borders were not defined, on all accounts it includes the West Bank and Gaza territories; thus the State of Palestine is the only entity claiming sovereignty over these territories.
  3. Within these territories, the Israeli authorities no longer have the broad generalized obedience shared by all functioning governments.
  4. An underground Palestinian authority has emerged and it enjoys, in some respects, obedience to its directives.
  5. The newly proclaimed state has been recognized by over 100 existing states.
  6. The State of Palestine was admitted as a state to the Arab League.
  7. The State of Palestine has named a president and a foreign minister.
  8. The State of Palestine has filed its adherence to the Geneva Conventions.




  1. Israeli troops continue to occupy these territories. In many respects they succeed in getting generalized obedience (e. g. people carry identity cards issued by the government, their cars carry appropriate plates, Israeli rules governing construction and land use are obeyed).
  2. Over a wide range of instances the Israelis are able to arrest and punish Palestinians who violate Israeli rules.
  3. The State of Palestine has not yet established a government; it lacks a legislature, a judiciary, and a full executive branch.
  4. The underground command that exercises some of the powers of a government within the territories has not been subsumed under the government of the State of Palestine.
  5. Although work on a Constitution for the State of Palestine has been undertaken, no Constitution has been adopted.
  6. The State of Palestine has issued no laws or rulings.
  7. It has not been admitted as a state by any agency of the United Nations; its application to WHO was postponed.
  8. The State of Palestine has not issued passports.
  9. It has not issued a currency.
  10. It has not issued postage stamps or financial instruments (e.g. State of Palestine bonds).


            Is the State of Palestine a state? This is a time-specific question. Although as of today, 8 August 1989, I would say that it is not, it is clearly an entity that is several steps along the way to being a state.

            The State of Palestine is not yet a state primarily because it has not sufficiently begun to act as a one. The Israeli occupation is not the primary reason why this is so. The primary reason the State of Palestine is not acting as a state is that it has not established a government, and therefore it is not issuing rules to which a population could respond with generalized obedi­ence. The State of Palestine has not institutionalized the intifadah, that is, it has not subsumed the new authorities that are operative on the ground under its own authority.

            Were the State of Palestine to move in this direction, it could probably be viewed as a weak state, presently occupied in some areas by foreign troops and in other areas presently subject to short-lived raids by foreign troops. Moreover, if functioning government were established which began to legislate, the transfer of generalized disobedience to the State of Palestine would be expanded.

            The fact that the leaders of the PLO have moved slowly with respect to the establishment of a Palestinian government does not mean that they have been unwise. From their point of view, the primary goal is not to bring the Palestinian state into being as quickly as possible. They have multiple objectives, such as ending the occupation as quickly as possible and making tge Palestinian state as secure as possible once it does exist.

            As I noted earlier, a functioning Palestinian government might have difficulties in reaching interim arrangements with the Israelis. Insofar as one believes such arrangements are possible, there is reason to proceed slowly. But if it becomes clear (perhaps it is already clear), that in the current environment such agreements can not be reached, then it will be time for the Palestinians to look at the ship of state and say, “Full speed ahead!” 

















[1] Formalization yes, institutionalization no. The institutional structures of the State of Palestine remain to be created and their relationship to the institutions of the inti­fadah remain to be defined.


[2] My book Creating the Palestinian State—­A Strategy for Peace, presents a version of this strategic approach in considerable de­tail.


[3] See Segal, “A Foreign Policy for the State of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 28, no. 2, Winter 1988.

[4] In Algiers, when George Habash voted against the PNC resolution accepting U.N. Resolution 242, he predicted that Arafat’s peace initiative would fail, and that in six months time Palestinians would judge that he, Habash, had been correct. But he never specified what would count as evidence of success or failure.


[5] This is not to say that there were not also valid Jewish claims to the land, but the nature of these claims and the basis for their validity were of a very different sort.