by Hind Khoury
The Political Impasse
In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization(PLO), serving as the representative of thePalestinian people, unveiled the Palestinian PeaceInitiative which would have established a state on 22% of historic Palestine— their own country from which they were expelled in 1948. The initiativepromised that Palestine would live in peace and security next to Israel, whichwas a major historical compromise that eventually took the Palestinianpeople years to absorb. In response, Israel did not only refuse the deal,but also sought to pursue its construction of illegal settlements even moreaggressively in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) defined bythe 1967 occupation. Current public opinion polls show that 60-70% ofPalestinians continue to support this peace initiative.
Fourteen years later, in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, theArab League countries made another peace offer called the Arab PeaceInitiative, which was reaffirmed in 2007. This initiative states that all theArab countries are prepared to recognize Israel and normalize their relationswith it, conditional upon Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territoriesoccupied in 1967.
One would imagine that these were tempting offers to Israel in orderto end the conflict with the Palestinians in addition to establishing regionalpeace. Israel’s actions demonstrate otherwise, however, especially itsexpanding colonialism in the OPT. Clearly a resolution is not on Israel’sagenda, as it continues its settlement expansion and continued violence,which includes wars, bombardment of civilians, a siege, exploitation ofwater resources, economic and social strangulation due to checkpointsand the construction of the separation/dispossession wall — all in flagrantviolation of international law and without regard for the humanity of thePalestinian people.
Even the United States’ peace-building efforts are conducted in order to pursue its own strategic and security interests — a position explicitlystated by President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech. The U.S. has beenseeking a serious resumption of meaningful negotiations, starting with afreeze of settlement expansion in Occupied East Jerusalem and the WestBank. These efforts were not only rebuked by Israel but also were met withadamant and increasing expansion of illegal settlements, consequentlyemptying the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), including all UnitedNations resolutions and signed agreements, of its content and transformingit into an exercise in futility.
A political paradigm shift had become clearly necessary to render theMEPP credible, meaningful and fruitful. Neither the U.S. nor the Quartet couldassert their position as an objective broker. It became necessary to approachthe UN as the body in charge of peace and security in the world and as thelegal reference which, in 1947 , determined the creation of two states in historicPalestine — one Israeli and the other Palestinian (UNGA Resolution 181).
Palestinian Introduction of Game Changers
The Arab revolutions, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, were massive,nonviolent, pluralistic and secular. They were conducted by a middle classmainly trying to regain a sense of dignity and justice for the people. Whilepopular demands were mainly socioeconomic and political, there have beensufficient signs of support for Palestinians, with a deep sense of anger atthe injustice and humiliation caused them through a continuing Nakba — aprocess of dispossession and expulsion that is still ongoing.
By toppling autocratic regimes which were incapable of respondingto the people’s most basic needs and aspirations, these popular uprisingsemboldened the Palestinian leadership to change the rules of a futilepolitical game. They were supported in this initiative by a reinvigoratedArab League and Arab governments who became more proactive politicallyand diplomatically because they had to be, or because they had to showsigns of being more responsive to their people’s agenda.
In spite of slow U.S. and European reaction to these massive uprisings,they eventually made clear statements in support of the people. Soon after,a number of EU foreign ministers explicitly acknowledged that while theregion’s stability remains a prime objective for Europe, this cannot bemaintained any longer through the acceptance of autocracies, but onlythrough the emergence of sustainable democracies. It still remains to beseen if Europe will concretely support the rise of democracies in the regionand establish equal partnerships that truly recognize the Arab people’s needsand aspirations.
New Environment for Palestinian Initiatives
This new environment created conditions allowing the Palestinianleadership to move ahead with two important political initiatives that areresponsive to Palestinian public opinion, and that could calm popularfrustration with the Israeli occupation and end the divide between the currentpolitical leadership of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinian leadership wisely adopted a two-pronged approach,creating new momentum for a two-state solution and the Arab PeaceInitiative. These initiatives also aimed to avert the risk of violence eruptingto fill the political vacuum or in response to Israel’s never-ending andincreasingly aggressive and violent treatment of Palestinians and continuedappropriation of Palestinian land and resources.
Palestinian Unity: Speaking in One Voice
By May 2011, a reconciliation agreement sponsored and supported byEgypt had already been signed by the two main Palestinian factions (Fatehand Hamas) in order to reunify Gaza and the West Bank and to agree onone political program. This development was induced mainly by the needsof the Egyptian leadership to move ahead with a meaningful political process necessary not only for its own national security but also to satisfythe Muslim Brotherhood, who is becoming the most important politicalforce in Egypt. The Palestinian faction Hamas, which had belonged to theMuslim Brotherhood, is still suffering an almost hermetic siege in the GazaStrip. As political Islam comes to power it is showing signs of moderation,accepting political pluralism and democracy in addition to readiness fordialogue with the West. This moderation will mainly be exhibited by themaintenance of the peace agreements signed with Israel, first by Egypt atCamp David and then by the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords.
The Palestinian internal reconciliation will take time to concludeand may prove to be complicated after more than four years of totaladministrative and political split between the West Bank and Gaza. It is,however, achievable with the support of Egypt and a more forceful andorganized Palestinian public opinion.
This reunification will have to address difficult and challenging issues:making progress on confidence-building measures, agreeing on a joint politicalprogram and government, reforming Palestinian institutions (especially thePLO), uniting security forces and reconciling families and persons.
The reconciliation is further complicated by the total refusal of boththe U.S. and Israel. This is a contradictory position for these countries,since Palestinians cannot succeed in any resolution with Israel withoutinternal unity, nor can they reconstruct their democracy — both of whichare objectives that have been stated by the U.S. government.
The Bid for UN Membership
This may have been initially a tactic pursued by the Palestinianleadership to push toward a resumption of meaningful, serious and crediblenegotiations that would lead to the creation of a sovereign and viablePalestinian state. But with the adamant refusal of the Israeli governmentto respect its obligations according to the Road Map and other signedagreements and international legitimacy, combined with the withdrawalof the U.S. from its own policy statements on the matter, the Palestiniansfound it necessary to pursue full membership in the UN.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech requestingUN membership for Palestine was received with multiple standing ovationsby the international community in the UN General Assembly. While theprocess has been rejected by the U.S., the Palestinians will continue to pushfor this membership until it materializes. UN membership is necessary tofinally set clear terms of reference for productive negotiations between Israeland the Palestinians, improve the Palestinians’ negotiating positions, which have thus far been subservient to Israeli whims, and provide the internationalcommunity and the Palestinians with the means to hold Israel accountableas a country obliged to respect international law.
In the meantime, Palestine was accepted as a full member at UNESCO, withthe right to join a few other UN agencies and the capacity to pursue the protectionof its cultural heritage and education rights in all the territories occupied in 1967,including in East Jerusalem. This step is a significant one, considering that Israelhas been trying to erase Palestinian history and identity.
Optimism or Pessimism?
There is no question that the region is undergoing major transformationswith unclear outcomes. But it is safe to say that two important changeshave emerged: first, that Arab public opinion, surely sympathetic to thePalestinian people’s struggle for freedom, shall weigh in the decision-makingof regional governments and those seeking to maintain their influence onthe region. The second change is that moderate political Islam is taking thefront stage of political life in all countries of the region, where soon enoughthey will have to distinguish themselves from previous political powersby supporting peoples’ needs and aspirations, among them the search forfreedom, justice and dignity for the Palestinian people. These importantchanges in the region will bring about power shifts and changes to thebalance of power in favor of the Palestinian cause.
Clearly the challenge remains tremendous in the face of a powerfuland expansionist Israel. It remains to be seen if the Arab League countrieswill be able to develop a concerted and independent framework for security,political and economic cooperation aimed at benefiting the region as a whole— underlining complementarities and long-term collective interests — andpursue an intensive political and diplomatic agenda to realize them.
The Middle East Remains a Strategic Region
This may still be an idealistic scenario, for the Middle East remains avery strategic region that is sitting on important sources of oil and naturalgas and on some of the most vital trade routes, especially to Europe andthe U.S., and is the cradle of civilization. These countries will surely aimto maintain their influence on the region in addition to ensuring the securityof Israel.
This scenario will be better served by creating tensions in the Arabworld on the basis of Dual Containment, a principle of American foreignpolicy toward the region in the last three decades. The new sources of suchtensions could be between a Shi’a axis led by Iran, and the Sunni axis led by Turkey. This dynamic will direct important resources of the Gulf countriesto protect itself from Iran’s threat rather than look toward the strengtheningof an Arab and regional agenda.
Further internal tensions between Islamists and liberals will most likelybe encouraged in the Mashreq countries from Egypt to Syria and perhapsLibya to maintain instability, but this time due to internal tensions. Thiswill provide Israel with the opportunity to halt the political process andgain more time to pursue further settlements in what should be the futurePalestinian state and to abort the two-state solution.
The Arab countries can be further divided whereby the Maghrebcountries at the southern shores of the Mediterranean could succeed intheir democratization experience and establish more stable and prosperousregimes, signs of which we see in the making, especially in Tunisia. Thisdynamic will distance the Maghreb from the unstable Mashreq countries andhelp create amenable conditions around a good part of the Mediterraneanfor cooperation with Europe, ensuring better security, economic exchangeand controlling immigration.
So an important question still remains as to how the Western powers willredefine their relationship with the Arab countries and how much politicalgood will there is to really appreciate the will of the Arab peoples.
The People Must Remain Vigilant
The Egyptian masses who returned to Tahrir Square in November gavea strong sign that people will remain vigilant to ensure that the revolution’sgains are maintained and that government officials and the leadership areheld accountable. The people will not approve privileges for any governmentor ideology. This is an energy that will influence all Arab peoples, includingthe Palestinian people.
This will be the true spirit needed if the “Arab re-Awakening” is toinfluence the evolution of events in the region. This influence will pushArab governments everywhere to ensure that their country’s interests areprioritized properly, and that the collective Arab interests across the regionbecome the focus of government policies, strategies and action. This is ascenario that will ensure sustainable development, democracy and prosperityof the region, establishing Arab countries as equal partners to other counties,all serving as positive actors on the world stage.
This geopolitical scenario that realizes both the Arab Peace Initiativeand the establishment of a Palestinian state would be for the benefit of peacein the region and the world.