Palestinian officials have always and consistently reiterated their commitment to the peace process. Bilateral negotiations are seen as the main strategy to achieve the legitimate Palestinian objectives of ending the Israeli occupation, achieving statehood and freedom as well as solving the issue of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UNGA Resolution 194.
However, the peace process has so far lasted 18 years and there are diminishing reasons to believe that it will accomplish its objectives and bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although the process has been through severe crises before, the one we are experiencing now appears to be the most difficult.
This is so for several reasons. First, both Israeli public opinion and Israel’s political elite have been moving away from the basic assumption underpinning the peace process, namely the end of occupation. Second, the prolonged process has enabled Israel to expand its control over most of the occupied territories through the illegal settling of Jewish populations in those territories, contrary to international law.
Third, public opinion in Palestine is less confident than ever of the effectiveness of the bilateral approach as a means to ending the occupation and as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. Finally, international actors have been using the peace process mostly as an excuse not to fulfill their obligations to the human and political rights of the Palestinian people.
Thus, while this latest crisis was brought on by the failure of the new American administration to make Israel comply with its obligations under the first phase of the roadmap, particularly freezing settlement construction, it has become a crisis of the bilateral process itself rather than of aspects of it. This has caused Palestinians to think of alternative strategies for achieving their legitimate objectives.
The failure of the peace process seems to have been anticipated by the Palestinian government, which only a month ago came up with a two-year plan specifically to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state. The government justified the timing of its plan by saying that if the peace process were successful the plan would ready Palestinians for statehood. If, on the other hand, the peace process failed, then Palestinians needed an alternative based on managing their own affairs and enhancing the steadfastness and resilience of the people, in addition to building the institutions of state. The government plan thus seeks to convince the international community to recognize Palestinian rights to statehood and sovereignty without necessarily gaining Israeli consent.
There are two schools of thoughts among Palestinians vis-a-vis alternatives to the bilateral process. The first, which represents a significant minority, is to go backward by dissolving the Palestinian Authority and declaring the failure of the Oslo project under the assumption that this would bring us back to pre-PA days of direct occupation and end the confusion created by the presence of the authority, thereby unmasking the ugly reality of the Israeli occupation. This, it is then argued, will lead us back to a struggle against occupation and the international solidarity such a struggle would bring with it.
The other alternative is to move forward, i.e., to dissolve the PA within the institutions of an independent Palestinian state. This approach considers that building an authority on Palestinian territory is the second most important achievement of the Palestinian people after the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization and should not be wasted. Rather it has to be used as a tool to achieve complete independence.
This strategy relies on the ability of the Palestinian people to actively and effectively prepare for independence and statehood as well as on positive changes in the international dynamic regarding a two-state solution on the borders of 1967. There are some indications that such a dynamic is in place. Israel has never been criticized as it is being criticized now, and support for Palestinian statehood was never as strong as it is now. Hence, many Palestinians look at preparations for statehood and a possible direct approach to the UN Security Council for international recognition as the most constructive and positive approach.
This approach could have another positive side effect. It puts pressure on Israel to allow a resumption of constructive negotiations on the basis of the roadmap, which calls for ending the occupation in return for peace, security and integration. The only clear indication that Israel is willing to enter such a serious process would be a total freeze on Israeli settlement construction in all occupied territory.