The Palestinians’ Ultimate Option
The Arab foreign ministers meeting on July 29th in Cairo to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must keep in mind that endorsing direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is not necessarily a favor to the Israelis. In fact, the opposite is true; direct negotiations will compel the Netanyahu government to deal with substantive issues-such as borders-as a precursor to negotiating a two-state paradigm. The Arab states should link direct talks to negotiating borders, instead of waiting to make more progress in the proximity talks. The United States in particular, along with the leading Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians must do all they can to change the current dynamic of the negotiations. To that end there are specific realistic steps that must be taken not only to avoid failure but to set in motion the inevitability of establishing a Palestinian state.
For the United States, these steps are to work to bring the parties to direct negotiations while seeking to bolster the credibility of its leadership in the region. Doing so will require bridging the gaps between the two sides in bringing them to direct talks, engaging their publics, and working with regional actors that have strong stakes in the success of peacemaking efforts, especially the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. In this connection, strengthening Israeli trust and confidence in President Obama and his commitment to Israel's security is critical if Israel is to make the kind of concessions necessary to achieve a negotiated two-state accord. President Obama should visit Israel and speak directly to the Israeli people regarding his commitment to enhancing U.S.-Israel security cooperation-particularly regarding the threat from Iran-and to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict such that Israel's future as a democracy with a sustainable Jewish majority is ensured. He should not wait for progress in the peace process to do so. On the contrary, increasing Israel's confidence in President Obama, and enhancing overall trust in the relationship between the United States and Israel, will be critical to affect progress in the negotiations.
While reaching out to Israel, the United States should work to bring Prime Minister Netanyahu to direct negotiations with the issue of borders as the initial point of departure. The Palestinians refuse to enter into direct talks because they do not believe Prime Minister Netanyahu is sincere in his stated desire to achieve a two-state solution. But addressing the issue of borders (excluding Jerusalem, which should be negotiated at the conclusion of direct negotiations) would signify Netanyahu's seriousness. Even more, addressing the borders issue ultimately offers a chance to kill two birds with one stone: achieving an agreement on the contours of a border between Israel and the future Palestinian state, while taking the issue of Israeli settlement construction-a constant point of tension and distraction-off of the table. It would also lead to an understanding that the major settlement blocs will remain part of Israel based on land swaps along the 1967 Green Line-a key and necessary achievement for the success of the peace talks which has been the basis of nearly every previous Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking endeavor.
The United States must also bring the Palestinians to direct talks. To do so the U.S. must assure Palestinians that the White House is committed to hosting negotiations that are meaningful and sincere. The U.S. should welcome the Palestinians' recent proclivity to turn to the Arab League for endorsement of steps in the peace process, and go even further to encourage Arab League representatives to join the Palestinian team in direct talks in order to augment the Palestinians' position and utilize the Arab Peace Initiative as a resource for advancing negotiations. The Arab foreign ministers must endorse the American approach and not press for tactical advantage, if any, while undermining the strategic objective.
Israel too must make significant steps to improve the atmosphere in the region if negotiations are to succeed and Palestinian unilateral actions are to be avoided. Israel should agree to negotiate borders first in order to demonstrate its seriousness, and to address the issue of settlement construction. It also should encourage the economic and security advancements in the West Bank by permitting and even encouraging Israelis to visit Area A, and even invest in the West Bank. At the same time, Israel should continue to remove unnecessary roadblocks and expand the areas in which Palestinian security forces may operate, including into Area B. In the context of renewed direct talks, Israel should work toward freeing a significant number of Palestinian prisoners to the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah to show that negotiations-and not violence-produce meaningful results. In this respect, continuing to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip and enabling the import and export of goods from the territory will also be important measures to be taken as negotiations proceed, while also crediting the PA for any progress made in this regard.
Finally, the Palestinians must also do all they can to give negotiations a chance to succeed. To start, they should enter into direct talks with support from the Arab League and aforementioned assurance from the United States. The benefits of entering direct talks are two-fold: they demonstrate the Palestinians' commitment to the two-state solution-which enjoys strong international support-while pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu to reveal his positions. The Palestinians should continue to stress that borders be negotiated first, but reduce their emphasis on an Israeli settlement freeze. As long as any Israeli building is done quietly and does not take place in sensitive areas that are to be negotiated, the Palestinians should provide Netanyahu with space to maneuver politically. At the same time, as the Palestinians move forward on the political track, they should continue to pursue economic growth in both the West Bank and Gaza while promoting a concerted non-violent campaign to oppose Israel's occupation. In this regard, the movement to refuse work in Israel's West Bank settlements and boycott settlement products is useful and legitimate as a tool of the non-violent approach to send a clear message.
While pursuing these steps to advance negotiations, the Palestinians should concurrently prepare the groundwork for a Palestinian declaration of statehood in the event that negotiations fail to produce a viable two-state solution. They should continue to build the infrastructure for a future state while canvassing the international community in an effort to obtain their readiness to recognize its establishment. The support of the European Union and the Arab League will be particularly critical in the effort to obtain a United Nations Security Council Resolution recognizing the newly declared state. The Palestinians should continue to make public their intentions in this regard, and consider appointing a special envoy who is tasked with advancing this diplomatic initiative in full coordination with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Key to the success of this effort-as well as to the potential for successful negotiations-is the maintenance of permanent calm in the region and the Palestinians' repeated publicly stated commitment to non-violence. This is the key to guaranteeing Israel's national security, which is a prerequisite to the realization of the Palestinians' national aspirations for statehood.
By working to advance negotiations on the one hand while preparing the groundwork for a declaration of statehood on the other, the Palestinians can take control of their future-but only through non-violent means. In fact, the greatest threat to Palestinian statehood today is not a breakdown of negotiations, but a return to violence that would renew an open-ended bloody conflict, relinquish the vast international support the Palestinians enjoy, and squander Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's impressive state-building efforts which are bringing the Palestinian people to the brink of independence.