The foundations of the historic compromise have been shaken in this cruelest month of April. The president of the United States, publicly and clearly, redefined the right of return to mean the return to the yet-to-be-born Palestine. He questioned the "sanctity" of the 1967 borders and sanctioned "reality on the ground" as a determining factor for the future of settlements and borders. He committed the United States to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge over the Arabs and praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his bold steps toward peace as he expressed his solidarity with Israel’s fight against terror and its acts of self-defense as it sees fit.
The Palestinians reacted with a mix of anger and foreboding. They could hardly recover from the shock before they witnessed the killing of Hamas leader Dr. Rantisi. Bellicose words were a sad substitute for their sense of weakness and violation.
The Arab "street" as covered by Al Jazeera and other stations overflowed with emotion and rhetoric, while the Arab states reacted cautiously–after they expressed their eternal support for the Palestinians and heaped their usual vitriol on Sharon. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fresh from a friendly visit to Texas, stated that the Arabs’ hatred for America was at its all-time high. Jordan’s King Abdullah wisely "postponed" his trip to Washington to be rescheduled in a couple of weeks. The rest of the world dusted off its usual remarks about peace.
Anger, lamentation and loud expressions of hatred directed against America and its president and against Israel and the Arab regimes may help vent anger but are no substitute for strategy. The Palestinians by now have to come to grips with the fact that the support of Arab and Muslim masses cannot and will not solve the problem of Palestine. It is necessary but insufficient.
Palestinians must confront their problems squarely. They are a people living under an oppressive occupation, with a weakened and isolated leadership, without an army and with a tattered security force, a wrecked economy and fractured institutions. The image of defenders of a just cause has gradually and relentlessly metamorphosed into that of terrorists. However, the historic injustice meted out to the Palestinians, continues to define their struggle as the conflict of our time and therein lies the Palestinian’s winning card.
Whatever strategies the Palestinians have utilized in the past have not worked. It is time to reflect, reassess and innovate. Violence may preclude a solution but it will not achieve one. The Palestinians alone cannot liberate Palestine. No people have sacrificed more, or longer, than the Palestinians have, but sacrifice without a strategy designed to win is not enough. In a struggle of this magnitude, more allies who, for their own reasons, share the vision of a state of Palestine alongside Israel are indispensable. Allies in the United States and in Israel, the two countries that play a pivotal role in the outcome of this conflict, have to be identified and mobilized. Violence against civilians alienates these potential allies and the Palestinian people must make the fateful choice between military confrontation and peaceful resistance and negotiations.
The Palestinians must be given the opportunity to make and express their choices. It is time, it is past time, for the Palestinians to go to the voting booths and cast their ballots to elect their representatives. The United States cannot seriously prevent a people from voting. That is as un-American as the monarchy. The United States, once convinced, can engage Israel to make elections feasible. All parties need to see that the compromises required to achieve peace can only be made by elected representatives. It would help to couple elections with a referendum on a two-state solution based on the roadmap. The roadmap is the one international instrument accepted by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, as well as by the Quartet and the Arab League. Such a referendum would define the parameters of the political horizon for the Palestinians. Opponents of the roadmap will lose their ability to thwart progress if the referendum wins.
The Palestinians must also make choices about the future of Gaza after Israel withdraws. Gaza must be made to work, thus depriving Israeli hawks of an argument to extend the occupation of the West Bank. This probable withdrawal offers the Palestinians an unusual opportunity, the opportunity to plan for a future event rather than to cope with a done deal. It should be viewed as the first milestone in establishing their viable state. The suggestions put forth by Marwan Barghouti are worthy of serious consideration. They provide the political context that makes this withdrawal a step towards independence, rather than a downward slide to the abyss.
But beyond that, concrete plans for housing, roads, parks, industrial plants, schools and all aspects of living must be made and readied for implementation. This project can best be done under the leadership of international institutions like the World Bank, with active participation of the Palestinians themselves. A formal new entity can be entrusted with this task.
Free elections, with issues contested and choices starkly defined, will make it possible for legitimate representatives to tackle issues of Palestinian and Israeli security under the indispensable American umbrella. Egypt and Jordan can and will play significant roles in bringing this process to fruition.
The president of the United States should be taken at his word that the final status issues are to be left to the parties. Prejudging the outcome will not work. Only empowered legitimate representatives of both peoples will have the authority and ability to make the compromises needed for peace, and only they can make such peace permanent.