A Palestinian state is coming — it’s just not clear whether it will result from the current peace talks.
It is easy to be pessimistic, or even apathetic, about the latest round of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. History is a witness to the lack of Palestinian accomplishments in incremental negotiations. All successful efforts to date have stemmed from secret talks made public only once a package agreement was reached.
Nevertheless, a breakthrough is possible this time — thanks to the unshakable Palestinian peace strategy. Whereas the Palestine Liberation Organization long pursued a dual strategy of military resistance and politics, today’s Palestinian leaders have clearly opposed any form of violence. Most recently this determined nonviolent effort can be seen and felt in every city, village or refugee camp in Palestine. With tactics including the boycott of Israeli settlement products and an international divestment campaign, it has captured the imagination of local groups, international activists and Israeli peace supporters.
Palestinian security apparatuses are working tirelessly to defend the peace strategy. These efforts have created an opening, but the situation remains plagued by attempts at obstruction from both sides.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Washington last week, it marked the first time a Palestinian leader entered peace talks enduring deep opposition within his own party in addition to opposition from PLO factions and outside groups. Hamas has not stopped at verbal expressions of disagreement; it was behind the Aug. 31 fatal shooting of four Jewish settlers near Hebron and an attack near Ramallah that injured two settlers the following day. The attacks were clearly timed to disrupt the talks and weaken the position of the Palestinian delegation.
Palestinians have good reason to be skeptical about Israel’s sincerity when it comes to peace. Chief among them: Israel’s heavy-handedness in Gaza and its continued violations of international law by building Jewish-only buildings in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. When the spiritual leader of Shas, a major coalition partner in the Israeli government, has publicly expressed hope for a plague to kill all Palestinians, many understandably doubt Israel’s willingness to live in peace with its Palestinian neighbors. Even after the talks began, Israel’s foreign minister has dampened any hopes for progress by saying nothing will happen this year.
So why should Palestinians hold on to hope?
Rather than cursing the Israeli occupation, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank executive, has shifted the focus to building up the Palestinian state. Fayyad’s government has improved security — as Israeli army generals have acknowledged — and the rule of law while also introducing far-reaching reforms in education, health and the economy. In its annual report on assistance to the Palestinian people, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development estimates that gross domestic product in the occupied territories rose 6.8 percent in 2009. The recently unveiled second-year phase of this plan is titled “home stretch to freedom.”
Palestinians have launched a public relations campaign, “I am a partner,” aimed at the Israeli public. Featuring key Palestinian negotiators, it seeks to debunk the myth that there are no peace partners on the Palestinian side.
It is true that Abbas was reluctant to go to Washington. Palestinians and the Arab League had hoped for some agreement on borders to be reached in four months of proximity talks as a prelude to direct talks. If the western borders of Palestine are agreed upon, the thinking went, it would be obvious that settlement building in areas to be included in Israel’s international borders would be controlled by Israel, while decisions about the status of buildings and lands earmarked for the state of Palestine would be made by Palestinians. Now the 10-month partial moratorium on Israeli settlement building is due to end Sept. 26, and there is no clear idea as to where the freeze can be rescinded and where settlement building must cease.
The Obama administration’s commitment is another reason for optimism. With Americans chairing tripartite talks and committed to staying in the negotiations for a year, Palestinians were assured that Israel will not be able to bully their delegation.
Despite President Obama’s statement last week that the United States cannot want a peace agreement more than the parties themselves, the United States, by heading the talks, has as much interest in peace as do the two parties. The creation of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state has been declared by both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, to be in the United States’ interest. And the talks appear to be timed with the U.S. political calendar. Holding the talks now allows for positive press and photo opportunities before the midterm elections, while any potential arm-twisting will be completed long before the start of the presidential reelection season.
Palestinians have good reason to be hopeful about the eventuality of an independent state. If its creation is a result of peace negotiations, good. But if the talks fails because of Israeli obstructionism, Palestinians will have no choice but to declare their state unilaterally and hope the world will recognize it. Those Americans who witness Palestinian conduct in the negotiating room over the coming year will have to decide whether to recognize the state or keep this conflict festering.
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.