Last month, hotel conference rooms here and in Gaza were filled with events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, which were meant to pave the way for lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
The rhetoric at these events was bitter and stinging. Many in attendance called for the accords to be annulled. Even among those who helped cut the deal with Israel in the 1990s, the prevailing sentiment was that Oslo had failed to protect even minimal Palestinian national rights. Rather, they argued, it had enabled Israel to deepen the occupation, mutilating and gaining control over most of the land of Palestine. Instead of bringing an end to the occupation, and liberation for Palestinians, the accords allowed Israel to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders.
Although this negative assessment of Oslo is correct, all of the angry rhetoric strangely did not extend to the Palestinian Authority, which was born from the accords and is the current embodiment of them.
If those calling for the cancellation of Oslo were serious and not just engaging in political sloganeering, then they should, logically, also be asking for the dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority. But because growing numbers of Palestinians are becoming financially dependent on the Authority for salaries and for services, and because so many people are benefiting from its existence, the Authority is now considered by many to be a “national achievement” that should be preserved.
Attacking Oslo has become a pressure valve that allows Palestinians to release frustrations while avoiding the real problem: the Palestinian Authority itself and its flawed negotiating strategy.
The Authority, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas, continues to indulge the fantasy that negotiations might truly end the decades-long conflict. They won’t. For the past 20 years, Palestinians approached negotiations as the only path to achieving a final-status political settlement that would satisfy their minimal demand: a sovereign and independent Palestine within pre-1967 borders. From one round of talks to another, they kept laboring to achieve this goal, but suffered one failure after another.
Most Palestinians, apart from Mr. Abbas and a few of his aides, are opposed to the current talks. The overwhelming sentiment is that negotiating with Israel is of no value at all, and will not produce any benefit. They have reached that conclusion after the bitter experience of watching two decades of negotiations and seeing Israel dig itself deeper into occupied land, cramming Palestinians into ever shrinking enclaves in which they have no real power.
They believe that Israel is not at all serious about negotiations, since it doesn’t want to end the occupation or acknowledge Palestinian rights. Rather, Israel is using negotiations for tactical reasons and as a cover to appease the international community while deepening its settlement policy in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank and tightening its grip on, and presence in, Palestinian land.
But this anger toward the negotiations is misplaced. If the majority of Palestinians want the Authority to survive, then they should accept that it will perform the task of negotiating.
After all, negotiations are a major demand of the international community, which uses them to give the impression that a settlement is on its way in order to continue managing the conflict while avoiding political instability. To encourage the process, foreign governments and international organizations dangle several carrots, the most important of which is the continued flow of international aid that is necessary for the Authority’s survival. If Palestinians were to abandon negotiations altogether, they would appear to be in the wrong and seen as sabotaging a potential settlement, which would lead to international measures against them.
Palestinians, because they are the weaker party in this conflict and face more pressure from the international community, should play along and continue the negotiations. But they should approach the talks from a completely new perspective; a tactical rather than a strategic one.
Palestinian negotiators should leave their wishful thinking behind and abandon any illusions that the current talks, with their imbalance of power in favor of Israel, can or will produce any final settlement in their favor.
Instead, they should accept that the struggle against Israel is a long-term one. There is no solution on the horizon and no independent state in sight. So the continuing debate in Palestinian (and even Israeli) society, between one- or two-state solutions, is a fruitless one, since neither state can or will be achieved in the near future.
This does not mean that Palestinians should simply give up and submit to the fate imposed on them. Negotiations should be seen as just one of many tracks. Challenging Israel in international forums should become a priority. Likewise, the Authority must focus on improving basic social services and creating jobs in order to lower the high unemployment rate. Having a job, good schools, and a functioning health care system is what makes families stay and not emigrate.
Without high hopes and without internal wrangling, Palestinians should continue negotiating in order to satisfy the international community and gain further support abroad for their cause.
The focus of the negotiations should be on how to exploit any future talks to incrementally advance Palestinian objectives on the ground, like transferring control over more land and natural resources to Palestinian Authority, easing the restrictions on movement imposed by Israel, and opening borders for Palestinian exports. Small gains on issues like these should be pursued so long as Palestinian leaders avoid signing any final-status agreement that would require them to renounce Palestinian national rights at this stage — since such a deal would be patently unjust.
Anything else that can be achieved without jeopardizing basic Palestinian rights should be seen as a building block on the road to advancing Palestinians’ prolonged struggle for statehood and international legitimacy.
Ali Jarbawi, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority government, is a professor of political science at Birzeit University. This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.