There is a chance that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will soon end and an independent Palestinian state will emerge.
The direct peace talks taking place in Washington are a necessary step towards that goal, but this is not the only option the Palestinians have.
Despite all the Palestinian opposition to direct Palestinian-Israeli talks (with the settlement freeze about to expire), there is hope in many quarters. Before leaving for Washington, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said publicly that he would have gone to the peace talks even if the chances of success had been no more than one per cent.
It is easy to be pessimistic or apathetic. History has been very unfavourable to Palestinians who did not accomplish anything of substance through peace talks.
The current Israeli policy is not helpful. Israel’s heavyhandedness in Gaza, coupled with its continued violation of international law –” by building exclusive Jews-only buildings in occupied Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank –” make many doubt Israel’s sincerity or desire to make peace.
The babblings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (the spiritual leader of Shas, a major coalition partner in the government) who wishes to see death (by plague) inflicted on all Palestinians, cause many to doubt Israel’s willingness to live in peace with its Palestinian, Arab and Muslim neighbours.
Things are not easier on the Palestinian front either. For the first time, a Fateh leader goes to talks opposed by his own party, as well as facing opposition from PLO factions, independents and groups outside the PLO. The Hamas opposition took a violent dimension with the gunning down of four Jewish settlers near Hebron.
So what is the cause of this illogical Palestinian hope?
The hope stems from the simple fact that after decades of haphazard action, the Palestinians have finally a strategy for statehood. This strategy is determined, well thought out and totally non-violent.
According to this strategy, the state of Palestine will soon become a reality, regardless of the results of the next 12 months of negotiations.
Palestine’s new strategy for statehood has been spearheaded by the energetic, Western trained, former World Bank executive, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It is focused on building up a Palestinian state rather than on cursing the Israeli occupation. The two-year blueprint, which was unveiled last year to international praise, has produced tangible change on the ground.
Fayyad’s government has succeeded, as admitted by Israeli army generals, to deliver security and the rule of law while, at the same time, introducing far-reaching reform in education, health and local economy.
It is true that Abbas agreed reluctantly to go to Washington. Palestinians and the Arab League had hoped that some agreement on the borders would have been reached in four months of proximity talks. The idea was that if the western borders of Palestine are agreed upon, then it would be obvious that settlement building in housing units within Israel’s international borders will be Israel’s decision, while the status of lands and buildings on areas set for the state of Palestine would be decided on by the Palestinians.
Now September 26, which marks the end of the 10-month partial Israeli building moratorium, will come without a clear idea of whether the freeze can be rescinded and when settlement-building activities must cease.
The American commitment is another reason for the Palestinian hope. In the end, it was the Americans that pulled it through. With Americans chairing tripartite talks and their commitment to stay in the negotiating room for an entire year, Palestinians were assured that the stronger party, Israel, will not try to bully the weaker Palestinian delegation. By agreeing to participate (and not just to mediate), the US has negated the argument that it cannot be more interested in peace than the parties concerned.
The creation of an independent, contiguous Palestinian state has been declared by both presidents Bush and Obama to be in the national interest of the United States.
The talks are cleverly organised to allow for positive press and a photo opportunity before the mid-term elections; the necessary arm-twisting will be completed long before the beginning of the presidential reelection season.
If as a result of Israeli obstructionism the talks fail, Palestinians will have no choice but to declare their state unilaterally and hope that the world will recognise it.
The Americans, who will be witness to the Palestinian conduct in the negotiating room, will then have to decide whether to support such a declaration or keep this conflict festering on.