US shift may mean end of bilateral approach

The recent shift in the American approach for running the peace process left the Palestinians with different and sometimes contradicting reactions. Initially, the Palestinians were very worried after news leaked about possible American-Israeli negotiations over a deal that would involve American incentives to convince Israel to freeze settlement activities for two or three months. As one leading Palestinian politician put it, each one of these incentives could be potentially more dangerous to the Palestinians than the continuity of settlement activities themselves. Another problem about the Americans’ approach is that it would have also negatively impacted the Palestinians’ inalienable right to resort to international agencies such as the United Nations to ask for help.

Furthermore, the Palestinians were met with yet another provocation when they heard that these incentives included possible American support for the Israeli demand of maintaining a military presence in the Jordan Valley within the framework of a two-state solution. Such a guarantee would surely infringe on the Palestinian right to self-determination and complete independence.

On the other hand, the even more recent shift in the American administration’s position from trying to resume negotiations on the basis of convincing Israel to extend the settlement freeze to calling for negotiations without a settlement freeze was yet another negative indicator for Palestinians. It pointed to one of two things: either the lack of seriousness by, or the failure of, the United States to convince or pressure Israel into abiding by international law and adhering to the obligations put forth by the Quartet-initiated roadmap that was later to become a UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping settlement expansion.

This is especially important for the Palestinians because the American-sponsored negotiations are supposedly about ending the occupation whereas the continuity of Israel’s settlement expansion is about the consolidation of that same occupation, namely on the land slated for the future Palestinian state. Hence, the failure of the international community, including the United States, to urge Israel to stop settlement expansion leaves the Palestinians with big question marks not only about the credibility of the negotiations process but also about the ability of the international community to convince Israel to end the occupation through these negotiations.

There is, however, one side of this new approach viewed by Palestinians in a more favorable light. It is represented in the statements of both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell about the need for the two sides to put forward serious and complete negotiating positions on final status issues including borders, settlements, Jerusalem and security. This was considered positive by the Palestinians because regardless of the formalities of the process and whether talks are direct or indirect, all Palestinians agree it is about time the Israelis engaged in a serious presentation of their positions.

This would enable the international community to make a sound judgment call on whether the bilateral paradigm should be continued as the proper approach for achieving the international vision of peace embodied in the two-state solution. In this regard, since we Palestinians understand Israel’s occupation mentality more than anyone else, we believe that with the current government structure in Israel it would be difficult if not impossible for this bilateral approach to bring about an end to the occupation and consequently the creation of an independent Palestinian state in return for the peace, security and normalization Israel is demanding.

It is clear that the international community is nearing a crossroads at which a decision must be made on whether this current approach should be continued. The alternative is for the international community to take more direct responsibility toward the region by adopting a multilateral approach of further supporting the institution-building of a Palestinian state, eventually followed by a Security Council resolution recognizing an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.