The question seemed simple. A European official wanted to know if the peace process was just around the corner or far away.
On the surface of it, one can tick off a number of positive signals. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators recently exchanged letters outlying their various political positions as to the best way forward. Israel’s current expanded coalition government is large enough to be able to take difficult decisions without the fear of any small faction blackmailing the government. Europe seems to be united in its single-minded push to ensure that the peace process moves forward without any more delay. The US will most likely return to the issue after the November elections. The Arab Spring is moving forward and bringing more popularly supported leaders who are unlikely to be very friendly to Israel.
That seems to make the present political atmosphere a golden opportunity to make peace, not only with the Palestinians but also with the Arab world, whose peace offer has yet to be responded to by Israel.
Pessimists, however, do not see any genuine signal that Israel wants to make peace, except to go through the process. Israeli leaders, pessimists say, are only looking for the photo opportunity and the appearance of a process without any substance.
What is worrisome to them is the daily erosion of the potential of the two-state solution as Israeli settlement activities have not slowed down. They wonder whether Israel wants to accept an independent and viable state while its bulldozers continue to dig up Palestinian land with the aim of building exclusive Jewish colonies there.
Jordan, which has the longest boundaries with the occupied territories and is only one of two Arab countries that has signed a peace treaty with Israel, has in recent months stepped up its diplomacy vis-Ã -vis the peace process. King Abdullah has made an unprecedented visit to Ramallah to convince the Palestinian leader to give talks a chance, leading the Palestinian leadership to respond positively even while doubting the success of such mission due to Israeli intransigence.
Practically speaking, however, and without a dramatic change of the Israeli position, it looks like the reality is more bound to create conflict than the other way around. That is dangerous.
Politicians have been unable to resolve this long-standing conflict. Palestinians are pitted against rightwing Jewish settlers who act arrogantly in the West Bank, behaving as if they were in the Wild West.
Palestinians will be looking at ways to nonviolently obtain results that politicians have failed to produce. The recent successful resolution of the hunger strike that slightly improved the conditions of the Palestinian prisoners highlighted the potential, albeit small, of nonviolent protest to produce tangible results.
More encouraging has been the increasing visibility of international protests, that take the form of boycotts and calls for divestment from Israel. South Africa’s recent decision not to accept any goods produced by settlers with the masking sign "made in Israel" has contributed to the feeling that international solidarity can produce results.
Naturally, the biggest results of nonviolent protests can be obtained in the occupied territories. Palestinians of all colours, including Fateh and Hamas leaders, are becoming more convinced of the potential of nonviolent popular actions. But while the leaders, including Abbas and Hamas head Khaled Mishaal have given lip service to nonviolent protests, they have done little to lead a protest movement.
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad participated in a number of protest activities, but few of the senior Fateh leaders made persistent contributions to nonviolent protests. Sure, some leaders make media appearances here and there, but there is yet to be any serious leadership in this regard.
Some nonviolent activists have proved effective, but so far, this cannot be considered a national movement. Disagreement still continues on whether Israeli and international peace activists should be part of such activities and there has been little success in containing some hot heads who insist on violating the purity of nonviolent protests by throwing stones, which inevitably induces violent Israeli repression.
At the political level, the failure of any move forward in the peace process has strengthened the one-state idea of many Palestinian intellectuals. The argument by such activists, who are still few, is that the one state solution can better address Palestinian aspirations at democracy in the entire area between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, and addressing the right of return. Naturally, Israeli Zionists who want a Jewish state refuse the concept totally and consider its supporters to be so radical that they are not worthy of their response.
The fast-moving events in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and Syria, have so far distracted attention from Palestine to the Arab Spring and its repercussions. However, as one Arab politician said recently, spring is a season that returns yearly. Failure to grab the current unique opportunities for peace will not mean that Palestinian yearning for freedom and independence will go away. It might be winter in Palestine now, but spring is surely around the corner.