The revival of direct negotiations last August between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was mainly an initiative of the U.S. government, energized by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has put relentless pressure on both sides to keep talking despite the seeming futility of such a process. Kerry proclaimed these negotiations an all-or-nothing moment, the last chance for the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the conflict by creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The agreement for the current round of negotiations is set to expire on April 29, and Kerry is increasingly desperate for the parties to agree on an extension. But if the talks continue, as may well happen, that should not be misunderstood as a sign that there’s any realistic chance of such a diplomatic process succeeding.
At this point, neither side seems eager to prolong negotiations for fear of creating expectations that could produce an acute crisis of leadership. On the Israeli side the refusal to release a fourth group of long-serving Palestinian prisoners, on March 29 as per prior agreement, suggests an intention to provoke the Palestinian Authority and doom this latest diplomatic effort. As might have been expected, the Palestinian side played its part by provoking Israel in return. It announced a plan to join 15 international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, and thus continue to claim the accoutrements of statehood as conferred by the United Nations General Assembly at the end of 2012. Israel is angered by such a move, contending that the only path to Palestinian statehood is bilateral agreement in which Israel gives its consent.
Pessimism about a negotiated solution appears justified. It should be obvious that the insistence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on the indefinite expansion of unlawful Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem, even while the negotiations are taking place is a clear signal that it has no intention to respect even the inviolability of Palestinian territory, let alone basic Palestinian rights. Almost as telling is Netanyahu’s continuing insistence that no progress can be made without a formal declaration by the Palestinian Authority that accepts Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Such a demand would require the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to acknowledge the second-class subordinated reality of the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Israel as well as to abandon any right of return of Palestinian refugees dispossessed in 1948 and 1967. This right of return is established under international law, and has been insisted upon by every governmental representative of the Palestinian people. Its abandonment by President Mahmoud Abbas would be tantamount to political suicide.
There is also something fundamentally deficient about the double role played by the United States in presiding over the negotiations. How can it proclaim itself the unconditional ally of Israel, and at the same time establish confidence among Palestinians that it is a neutral third party seeking to promote a just peace? The short answer is that it can’t and won’t. From the very outset of the recent diplomatic initiative, this contradiction was resolved in Israel’s favor by the Obama administration’s appointment of Martin Indyk as its special envoy for the negotiations. Indyk has a long career as an advocate for Israel that includes working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the premier Israel lobbying organization in the U.S., which exerts disproportionate pro-Israeli influence over U.S. Middle East policy. Only the weakness of the Palestinian leadership can explain a willingness to entrust its diplomatic fate to a mediator so strongly tilted in favor of Israel, which is also entirely in control of the situation on the ground. The Palestinian Authority depends on Israel to transfer tax revenues to fund its government, and it can be brought into line. And even while talks are underway, Israel continues to expand settlements and accumulate “facts on the ground” that make a meaningful Palestinian state more and more of a pipe dream.
What is to be gained and lost by continuing the negotiations? Perhaps some hope that while talks are proceeding, the conflict will not devolve into confrontation through a third intifada against Israel’s occupation policies. There is also the sense that so long as the U.S. government is seen as backing a two-state solution, there are ample grounds for supporting the diplomatic effort. The Arab League endorsed and recently reaffirmed the 2002 Arab regional peace initiative calling for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestine and formal acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 Green Line borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a vision of peace derives from the unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which was premised on Israel’s withdrawal from territories occupied in the course of the 1967 war, but also on a just solution of the refugee problem.
There has effectively existed a two-state consensus providing the contours for a conflict-ending peace arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians, as if there were no alternatives. It should be appreciated that way back in 1988 the PLO indicated its acceptance of the 1967 borders as the basis of a negotiated peace. Such an approach would allow Israel to have secure borders based on 78 percent of historic Palestine, and would limit the Palestinian state to the other 22 percent, or less than half of what the U.N. had proposed in its partition proposal of 1947. The Palestinians rejected the U.N.’s proposal, objecting both to partition and to the allocation of territory between the two peoples as unfair. The extent of this Palestinian concession, perhaps imprudently made, has never been acknowledged, much less reciprocated. In my view, this failure exhibits a fundamental lack of political will on the Israeli side to reach a solution through bilateral negotiations.
The two-state consensus has been challenged over the years by influential Palestinians, including the scholar Edward Said, who argued that only a solution based on respect for rights, democracy and equality in a single state could acceptably resolve the conflict. The advocacy of a single, secular, democratic state draws on two sets of arguments — a pragmatic contention that the settlement process and the changed demographics of East Jerusalem and the West Bank are essentially irreversible, and thus there is no feasible means at this time to create a viable Palestinian state; and a principled contention that it makes no political sense in the 21st century to encourage the formation of ethnic states, especially as in this case 20 percent of the Israeli population is Palestinian and subject to discrimination. In some respects, the essence of the Palestinian predicament is to acknowledge that it is too late for the two-state solution and too early for a one-state solution.
If this round of talks collapses, or if it should be resumed but reach no positive outcome some months later, is the situation hopeless for the Palestinians? In my view, Palestinian hopes for a just peace should never have rested on the outcome of formal diplomacy. Currently, the best Palestinian prospect is by way of pressures exerted through a movement from below, combining popular resistance with global solidarity. Such a process, what I have called a “legitimacy war,” is exemplified by Gandhi’s nonviolent victory over the British Empire in India and more recently by the success of the global anti-apartheid movement against South Africa’s white minority regime.
The recent shifts in the Palestinian national movement toward nonviolent tactics and the growing global solidarity movement, centered on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) initiative, are gaining momentum throughout the world, especially in Europe. These developments are reinforced by U.N. calls to member states to remind corporate and financial actors that international law restricts business dealings with Israeli settlements. In effect, there are horizons of hope for Palestinians in seeking a just and sustainable peace that are gaining their authority from the actions of people rather than the maneuvers of governments. Of course, as the political climate changes, governments could have a crucial role to play, taking advantage of a new balance of forces that enables diplomacy to move toward solutions rather than, as now, degenerate into a blame game and a meaningless diplomatic charade while the fate of a people too long occupied is sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.
Editor's note: A version of this article was previously published on Al Jazeera Turk.