Two September deadlines, one strategy for hope

If Abbas violates his pledge and continues to negotiate while Israel expands settlements, he will forfeit his remaining credibility among his own people.

Abbas speaks Obama looks on (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas speaks Obama looks on
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trapped in a box with no apparent exit. Having been coerced into resuming direct negotiations “without preconditions” when many opposed such negotiations in the absence of a total settlement freeze, he has made a solemn pledge to his people. If Israel’s rather permeable “moratorium” on new settlement construction is not renewed and extended when it expires at the end of September, the Palestinians will withdraw from this new round of negotiations.
Yet every practical political consideration and every public pronouncement by leading members of the Israeli government suggests that a renewal or extension of the current “moratorium” is inconceivable.
If Abbas violates his pledge and continues to negotiate while Israel expands settlements, he will forfeit his remaining credibility among his own people. However, if he honors his pledge, the American government will blame the Palestinians for collapsing the “peace process,” and Abbas’s decades-long sole strategy for achieving peace – negotiations, negotiations and more negotiations – will be dead in the water and sinking fast, leaving his people with nothing to look forward to but an open-ended continuation of the status quo.
Abbas clearly has an urgent need for a new strategy, one which would both permit him to continue negotiating and compel the Israeli government to negotiate with a genuine intention to actually achieve a definitive peace agreement.
Fortunately, for Israelis as well as for Palestinians, the one-year time limit for this new round of negotiations which Abbas had sought and which has been agreed to by the American and Israeli governments makes such a strategy readily available for immediate adoption.
Throughout the long years of the perpetual “peace process,” deadlines, starting with the five-year deadline for reaching a permanent-status agreement in the now 17-year-old Oslo Declaration of Principles, have been consistently and predictably missed. Such failures have been facilitated by the practical reality that, for Israel, “failure” has had no consequences other than a continuation of the status quo – which, for all Israeli governments, has been not only tolerable but preferable to any realistic alternative. For Israel, “failure” has always constituted “success,” permitting it to continue confiscating Palestinian land, expanding its West Bank colonies, building Jews-only bypass roads and generally making the occupation even more permanent.
In everyone’s interests, this must change. For there to be any chance of success in this new round of negotiations, failure must have clear and compelling consequences which Israelis would find unappealing.
IN A famous interview published in Haaretz on November 29, 2007, Ehud Olmert declared, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights [also for the Palestinians in the territories], then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”
In a prior Haaretz article, published on March 13, 2003, Olmert had expressed the same concern in the following terms: “More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against ‘occupation,’ in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle – and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”
All that the Palestinian leadership needs to do to continue its engagement in this new round of negotiations, and to do so from an unaccustomed position of strength and with genuine hope for a satisfactory conclusion, is to state that, if a definitive peace agreement on a two-state basis has not been reached and signed by the agreed deadline of September 2, 2011, the Palestinian people will have no choice but to seek justice through democracy – through full rights of citizenship in a single state in all of Israel/Palestine, free of any discrimination based on race or religion, and with equal rights for all who live there – and that they would pursue this goal through purely nonviolent means.
Framing the choice with such clarity would ensure that the Israeli leadership would, at last, be inspired – indeed, compelled – to make the most attractive twostate offer which Israeli public opinion could conceivably find acceptable, while rendering continued settlement construction, which, in the current context, is a clear test of Israeli sincerity in seeking peace, a matter of relatively minor importance and a commercially high-risk enterprise during the coming year.
With half a million settlers already implanted throughout the West Bank and east Jerusalem, it may now be too late to divide the land and achieve a decent twostate solution (as opposed to an indecent, less-than-a-Bantustan one), but a decent two-state solution would never have a better chance of being achieved. If it is, indeed, too late, then Israelis, Palestinians and the world would know and could thereafter focus constructively on the only other decent alternative.
It is even possible that, if forced to focus during the coming year on the prospect of living in a single democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens – which, after all, is what the United States and the European Union hold up as the ideal form of political life – many Israelis might come to view this “threat” as less nightmarish than they traditionally have.
In this context, Jewish Israelis might wish to talk with some white South Africans. The transformation of South Africa’s racial-supremicist ideology and political system into a fully democratic one has transformed them, personally, from pariahs into people welcomed throughout the world. It has also ensured the permanence of a strong and vital white presence in southern Africa in a way that prolonging the flagrant injustice of a racial-supremicist ideology and political system and imposing fragmented and dependent “independent states” on the natives could never have achieved.
This latest one-year deadline for achieving an agreed settlement of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict must not only provide an “outside-the-box” solution to the bind in which Abbas finds himself. It must also have clear and unambiguous consequences which focus all concerned minds on a genuine effort to actually achieve peace with some measure of justice.
Whether the future of the Holy Land is to be based on partition into two states or on full democracy in one state, a definitive choice must be made in the coming year. A fraudulent “peace process” designed simply to kill time can no longer be tolerated.
The writer, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team, is author of The World According to Whitbeck.