Where next for Palestinians?

Palestinian history is at one of its most serious and important junctures. The peace negotiations that commenced with the Oslo accords in 1993 are at an end. Even hardened devotees of the peace process with Israel have now given up and are adopting positions that threaten to disrupt the cozy status quo of the "peace process". The Palestinian president’s announcement that he will not seek re-election, and the recent demand for UN recognition of a Palestine state on the 1967 territories are examples of this trend. It has become impossible for even the most pliant Palestinian leadership to ignore Israel’s strategy of "talking and taking", its relentless colonization of the occupied territories, which doubled after the Oslo agreement and is ever more blatant and aggressive. The Palestinian maneuver, taking advantage of an assumed US frustration with Israeli intransigence on settlement building, is clearly designed to challenge the international community out of its inertia.

Whether this will be able to jump-start a process more favorable to the Palestinians is unclear. So far, the signals are mixed. Western leaders have reacted by urging Abbas to stay on and restart negotiations with Israel. The US has even offered him various sweeteners–more weapons for PA security forces, a release of 400 Fateh prisoners, and extending PA security control to Area B and partially to Area C. Israel was said to be considering a ten-month settlement moratorium as another inducement. At the same time, both the US and the EU rejected the Palestinian request for state recognition as "premature", despite widespread encouragement from journalists, NGOs and activists. Israel declared itself "alarmed", but its president proposed a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Perhaps these reactions represent some form of early response to the Palestinian maneuver. At any rate, Abbas is so far sticking to his position, with possibly more positive results to come. But supposing this Palestinian tactic to recommence peace negotiations on a better basis succeeds, what then? And what of the long-term future? In my discussions in Ramallah this week, I have been struck by the variety of opinions and ideas about ways out of the current impasse. Most of these, however, were strategies for interim solutions without a vision about the ultimate aim of a peace settlement. The consensus about the two-state solution, which was nearly universal, has been shaken by the logistical reality of Israeli settlement expansion, but the alternatives have not solidified. The only shared view is that more negotiations with Israel on the current basis are futile. Marwan Barghouti’s call from his prison cell on November 19 for popular resistance in the face of peace talks he describes as "doomed" has found wide resonance.

In the current political confusion, people are searching for solutions. The major trends I found can be summarized as: plodding on with the pursuit for a Palestinian state, however elusive, or abandoning the whole idea for something radically different. In between are various ideas for surviving the current impasse and hoping for the best. Foremost in the first camp is the Salam Fayyad government with its two-year program for economic development and state building. The language this government uses of "good governance, accountability and transparency" will be familiar to students of the Oslo years, when preparations for statehood were at their zenith. Undeterred by the manifest failure of that process, the current PA government believes that greater effort in the same direction could yield better results. In other words, diligence has its rewards and, with generous international funding, a sovereign state might emerge.

By contrast, the other camp, consisting of various political analysts, intellectuals and activists, suggests that the PA, which has failed to deliver anything significant in 18 years, should be dissolved. Some, like the politician Ahmad Qatamesh, propose a PA limited to a domestic role, managing civic issues like health and education, while a revitalized and more inclusive PLO would deal with the politics. Others advocate more radical approaches. Without a PA to mediate between Israel and the occupied Palestinians, a campaign of civil resistance against Israeli apartheid should be waged in all the occupied territories. This could in due course lead to the creation of a unitary state in Israel-Palestine. More direct calls for a one-state solution, given the logistical impossibility of two states, are increasingly heard.

The divergence of opinion and the ferment of ideas are indications that at this critical stage in Palestinian history, what is needed is not a peace process on better terms, but a pan-national debate about the future. The deepening gulf between the "outside" and the "inside" that I see here is the most dangerous threat to that future. The challenge facing the Palestinians involves all of them, not just the third living under Israeli occupation. Any political decision now must include Fateh and Hamas, the refugees and the exiles. That is why some of us are calling urgently for an international meeting of Palestinian leaders to work out the best way forward before it is too late. Israel, which has worked hard to fragment the Palestinians and diminish their cause to one of bickering over percentages of land on the West Bank, must not be allowed to succeed.