The Palestinian track

If an agreement is to be viable, it must enjoy the support not merely of official negotiators but of a substantial majority of citizens on both sides.

palestinian rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Amid the deluge of news - about an imminent deal with Hizbullah, the cease-fire with Hamas, talks over the Golan Heights, Iran's bid for nuclear weapons and the political gamesmanship between the premier and defense minister - Israelis might be forgiven for having put the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority out of their minds. Yet we do so at our peril. World leaders still regard solving the Palestinian issue as essential to Mideast stability. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remain determined to build on last November's Annapolis conference as one of the main pillars of US foreign policy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his visit to Jerusalem on Monday, told the Knesset he was willing to deploy French troops to underpin a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Most importantly, Israel recognizes that an accommodation with the Palestinians is central to the longterm maintenance of our Jewish majority and our democracy. And so, official talks, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and on the Palestinian side by Ahmed Qurei, continue apace. They will become ever more significant in the coming months, as both Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seek to nail down a deal before leaving office. Thus the public needs to pay attention to Israel's negotiations with the PA about the fate of the West Bank, especially if Jerusalem commits itself to far-reaching concessions as part of a "shelf agreement" - to be put away, then dusted off when conditions are ripe. AS ALWAYS in this part of the world, the best guide to understanding the present is keen awareness of the past. Israeli attention to Palestinian negotiations today ought to be informed by two threads that have run through the conflict from its origins - both ably traced in Benny Morris's definitive new book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. Morris shows that the Jews of the pre-state Yishuv, self-reliant and politically committed, created a public-service elite that, in turn, built the infrastructure of a state, including the Jewish Agency and Histadrut. They were ready for independence. Palestinian Arabs, by comparison, did almost nothing during the British Mandate to prepare for self-government. Morris also follows the long thread of Palestinian rejection of compromise: from the Peel Commission partition plan of 1937 and the UN Partition Plan of 1947 to the peace proposals offered by Yitzhak Rabin (Oslo) and Ehud Barak in 2000 (Camp David). FOLLOWING these threads into the present brings us to important contemporary truths. First, Palestinian statehood will not emerge ex nihilo. It requires the long-overdue promotion in Palestinian society of the political and civil institutions that ensure the rule of law necessary for responsible self-governance. The EU has provided valuable assistance to the PA's civil society programs, and the US has already invested $86 million in strengthening the PA security sector, requesting $100m. more from Congress for the fiscal years 2008 and 2009. It may be true, as Secretary Rice said at a conference in Berlin on Tuesday, that Palestinians seeking to build transparent institutions "cannot succeed without the international community's support." But, ultimately, they must themselves bring about the conditions for statehood. Second, given that the rejectionist impulse has consistently prevailed, it is especially urgent for Palestinian leaders - President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, or others yet to emerge - to prepare their people not only for the transition to statehood, but also to abandon the intransigence that has served them so poorly; to ready them for realistic concessions. To this end, Palestinians must, in any accord, recognize the sovereign rights of Israel as a Jewish state. Yet no preparatory effort has been made in the Palestinian street, which still views Israel as "illegitimate." If an agreement is to be viable, it must enjoy the support not merely of official negotiators but of a substantial majority of citizens on both sides. Abbas, who has insisted time and again that the "right of return" remains non-negotiable, gives little sign of encouragement on this score. When Palestinian leaders find the courage to finally reconcile their people to the Jewish nature of the State of Israel; when they lead the way in replacing Palestinian victimization with a sense of self-reliance - only then will the self-determination that Palestinians seek and Israelis can live with be realized.