Obstacle or Opportunity?

By Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah (THE WASHINGTON POST, 26/03/07):

When Henry Kissinger coined the term "constructive ambiguity" during his attempts to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace, he couldn't have expected that one day Palestinians would use it in their own peace initiative. The ambiguity in the agenda of the new Palestinian "unity government" depends on whether one sees the cup as half full or half empty. If Israel and the United States want to move forward on the peace process, the cup is half full. But if there is no real will to pay the price for peace, the cup is half empty.

More than a year ago, with international encouragement, the Palestinian people adopted electoral democracy, even before they enjoyed sovereignty and the end of the Israeli occupation. They threw out their longtime Fatah secularist leaders and replaced them with Hamas. The unjust freeze on Palestinian aid that followed sparked a social revolt and the beginnings of a civil war; this was stopped in part by the recent Fatah-Hamas coalition that produced the unity government.

For the first time in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a majority of Palestinians, including the Islamists, are willing to accept a Palestinian state within the internationally acceptable borders of 1967. The implicit recognition of Israel in this is supported by clauses in agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel that included mutual recognition as well as respect for Arab and international resolutions and treaties. By demanding explicit recognition before negotiations can begin, Israel and others are being unreasonable. No other people without sovereignty has been forced to recognize an occupier whose borders are vague. By accepting an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, the Palestinians have declared the borders of their own state and offer the possibility of mutual recognition through negotiation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the supreme military commander, has called for an end to occupation through negotiations and has rejected outright the use of violence. While insisting on the people's right to resist occupation through any method, the unity government prioritizes nonviolent resistance. Furthermore, by seeking to extend the cease-fire in Gaza to the West Bank, the new government is offering an olive branch to the Israelis even before negotiations begin.

Politically, the new government provides a logical process regarding negotiations for a permanent resolution of the conflict. It gives Abbas and the PLO, which he chairs, full authority to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. Once an agreement is reached, it is to be ratified by the Palestinian National Council or through a referendum. Polls of Palestinians consistently show strong support for a peace based on the two-state solution. So an Abbas-brokered deal approved by the people is possible even with Hamas in power. Such a peace, negotiated by a moderate Palestinian and approved by the silent majority, would last. The alternative, making a secret deal without public support, would not last and would easily be torpedoed, as we saw with the Oslo accords.

Opponents of peace find plenty of excuses to see the cup as half empty. The Palestinian prime minister, for one thing, belongs to an Islamic movement that has not yet declared its strategic long-term position regarding Israel. Those not interested in peace note that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

Hamas's supporters, however, note that it took the PLO 30 years to recognize Israel and that in the past 12 months, Hamas has come a long way by accepting the 1967 borders of a future Palestinian state. Hamas's commitment to the Gaza-only cease-fire also shows that it can be trusted to meet its obligations.

In June 1967, Israel occupied Palestinian and Arab lands. Forty years later, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, the Israeli army is still occupying the lands and oppressing the people, and the government still supports building illegal settlements in Palestinian territory. Soon after the occupation, the late Moshe Dayan said that the Israelis were waiting for a phone call from any Arab leader. Instead, Arabs resolved not to recognize Israel, not to negotiate with Israel and not to make peace with Israel.

Since then, Palestinians and other Arabs have reversed themselves, offering peace, negotiations and recognition in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The new Palestinian government, which plans to participate in the upcoming Arab summit, will approve and reiterate the Arab peace initiative, first made in Beirut in 2002, that called for an exchange of land for recognition as well as normalization.

It is time for Israel and the international community to see that the cup is half full. By choosing to work toward peace, they can fill it the rest of the way -- or stand by and watch the drops of hope dry up.