This piece also appears in Haaretz
Is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership, which is currently proposing to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 border, about to shake up the Israeli-Palestinian paralysis in a game-changing way? The answer for now would appear to be “no.” Both U.S. and EU officials were quick to distance themselves from the idea and label it premature. For their part, the Israelis took umbrage at this hint of Palestinian unilateralism. In case anyone failed to notice how much irony was dripping from this indignation, days later Israel indulged in yet another unilateral act of its own: advancing plans for the expansion of Gilo in East Jerusalem.
By mid-week, some Palestinian leaders were busy retreating to a more minimalist version of the “statehood now” plan. The option of a unilateral declaration of independence was more a reflection of frustration and desperation than it was a profound development in Palestinian strategic planning capacity or political smarts. It seems that talk of the move was both tentative and ill-conceived.
No plan was revealed that would address the obvious questions arising from such a strategy. Would the Palestinians maintain the Palestinian Authority in this scenario, given its overwhelming dependence on Israel? What would be the status of the mission of U.S. General Keith Dayton to train the Palestinian security forces in this new context? What would happen with taxes and border crossings, and how would the PLO advance its struggle internationally?
The list of questions goes on, but the paucity of answers from the PLO leadership suggests that it has yet to seriously consider a strategic alternative to its 16-year dependence on negotiations with Israel. In fact, the entire episode looked like another example of the PLO trying to leverage its weakness rather than rediscover or create new strengths.
Despite all this, the Palestinian flirtation with a new approach does have some significance. It is part of a new fluidity and questioning of assumptions that have entered the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Palestinian civil society, for instance, has long ceased to rely on its leadership’s strategies for achieving de-occupation. Inside the territories, nonviolent resistance, notably to the separation barrier, continues to gather adherents and momentum. Outside, the campaigns for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel are growing to dimensions that should make Israel’s leaders sit up and take notice.
Hamas leaders are stepping up efforts to break their international isolation and slowly absorbing the implication for their future actions of the Goldstone Report’s accusation against them of war crimes. Overall, there is an increasingly pervasive new sense of uncertainty in the region. Opposite this, Israel’s leadership demonstrates an impressive capacity for tactical maneuvering, but is as bereft as the PLO of a strategic outlook.
At this stage, it is unclear whether any new strategic direction will come from the Obama administration; so far it has kept both sides guessing. The sharpness of U.S. criticism of President Mahmoud Abbas for not returning to negotiations was unexpected, given American investment in his leadership. The White House’s admonition of Israel for advancing the approval process of a new neighborhood in Gilo was highly unusual, too.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s seeming addiction to poking American presidents in the eye seems to be souring relations with the Obama administration even more quickly than happened with President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s (an unwise predeliction that directly triggered Netanyahu’s fall from political power at the time).
So it is still Washington rather than Ramallah that is likely to shape the next phase of any peace effort. After 10 months of the Obama team’s efforts to pursue essentially the same old peace process (albeit with greater vigor), the collapse of that edifice is increasingly visible. A half-baked declaration from Ramallah is unlikely to chart a fresh path forward. Instead, Washington should be reviewing the reasons why that worn-out peace process architecture cannot deliver, and embracing a course correction.
For all the talk of resuming direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, no one really expects them to bring about a breakthrough. If the aim is to resolve the 1967 issues (borders – including those of Jerusalem; settlements, two states and security), then the focus needs to be on an agreement between the international community and Israel on the details and conditions for de-occupation, and between the international community and the Palestinians on the transition to Palestinian assumption of sovereign responsibilities (international oversight of security, for instance). If the aim is to resolve the 1948 issues (Israel’s creation, the refugee narrative, and ending all other outstanding claims), then American or Quartet mediators will need to pursue a far broader, bolder and more inclusive conversation than the technical fix approach that has previously held sway.
Either way, U.S. or Quartet-led back-to-back negotiations with the Israelis, on the one hand, and Palestinians, on the other, are more likely to produce results than putting the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in a room together. But absent such American initiative, we should not be too flabbergasted if next time around, a Palestinian declaration of political reorientation is actually matched by a strategy and a plan, or if it reshapes the conversation.