The signing of the Oslo Accords created a tremendous sense of optimism. The Declaration of Principles signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government in 1993 led to many countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, a rise in Israel's GNP, and two productive economic conferences in Morocco and Jordan. One of the memories that best symbolizes this period for me occurred in May 1994: I had been invited to Washington by the president of the United States, and on the plane ride there, the whole cabin approached me with their menus asking me to autograph them. People were really excited, telling me: "This is peace! It's good for both parties." I felt their euphoria. It was a win-win game.
You cannot sign a peace treaty in a win-lose game, while devastating the other party. One only needs to look at what happened to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples. You don't really achieve a long-term solution with devastating wars. The only way you can build real peace is if it's a win-win situation: through negotiations, conversations and dialogues that lead to agreements which equally - or at least satisfactorily - satisfy both people. When it comes to our situation, I think it's not normal to talk now about permanence in these negotiations. Why? Because the interim agreement has continued for over 20 years. It is now 20 years since we signed the Declaration of Principles and the Oslo Agreement in the White House. So we have lived for 20 years in "interimness," and we have become accustomed to it. But "interimness" is not good for the Palestinians: While we've been in this seemingly never-ending interim time period, the Israeli government has been unilaterally changing the parameters, the terms of reference and the reality on the ground, thereby undermining the basis for a permanent solution.
Finding a Solution
We often talk about a two-state solution. In fact, there are only two solutions to this conflict. There is no third solution. Either we decide that we both want to live in one state, or else we have to divide this land into two states. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going away. I think a very important piece of wisdom that we Palestinians acquired in the 1960s was that the Israeli occupation is very different from an occupation carried out by the British, French or Spanish. These are people who suffered through a Holocaust, the worst genocide in all of history, and these people are now here to stay: They are going to live in this land, and we have to live with them.
As the PLO, which was established in 1964, our first suggestion was to live in one country, like the Americans - in a democratic, secular state in which Jews, Christians, Muslims; Arabs and Israelis, all live together, under a constitution like that of the United States, which separates religion and state while simultaneously protecting one's right to freedom of religion.
When I was the primary author, back in 1969, of the statement that introduced the idea of a one-state solution, I studied the Holocaust. I wrote three articles, the first one was about the Jews and the Holocaust. If we are going to live with the Jews in Israel forever, then the Holocaust is something we must understand. I read a lot and also knew many European Jews who had personally seen and experienced the horrors of that period. I remember the mother of Ania Francos, who was a famous journalist at that time. The elderly woman used to start shaking every time the doorbell rang, because it reminded her of the day they took her husband and children away. That was how I explained and justified the idea of living together with Jewish Israelis in one state.
The Two-State Solution: A Story of Palestinian Concessions
The idea of a one-state solution was never accepted by the Israelis, so the only solution on the table has been the two-state solution. The compromise we made, for the sake of peace, was to build our state in the West Bank and Gaza - an area which constitutes 22 % of the land of historic Palestine. The two-state solution has a solid foundation in international law: The world has never accepted or recognized the Israeli occupation of 1967 as something that would lead to Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza. So, for practical reasons, people thought that a two-state solution should be along the 1967 borders.
We even agreed to be more flexible, making it clear that we are willing to make some minor border modifications, allowing land swaps of equal value in certain places. Therefore, it is very interesting to see that today, when people talk about concessions, particularly painful concessions, we have to ask: "What other concessions can we possibly make?" We accepted that our future state will be built on 22% of our land, which is one half of what the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 allocated to us. Has any Israeli government made any concession that even comes close to this?
For myself and many Palestinians, this concession is a personal one - and remains as painful today, in 2014, as it was back then. I was born in Safad, thrown out of Palestine from Jaffa in 1948, lived in Gaza, and now live in Ramallah. The question is: What more can be asked of a Palestinian?
The message we are hearing today is broadly as follows: The Israelis will not be required to withdraw from all of the West Bank, but instead a solution will be proposed whereby the settlements in the West Bank will remain under Israeli control; all of Jerusalem will remain the unified capital of Israel, with nothing left for the Palestinians; and all of the Jordan Valley will remain under Israeli control for at least 40 years according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, 100 years according to Isaac Molcho, a member of the Israeli negotiating team, or perhaps 10 years, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Moreover, these security stipulations would be performance-based, meaning that, at the end of any given period, it is Israel who will decide whether control can be handed over to the Palestinians. It does not take a fortune teller to predict what will happen, and we have the outcome of Oslo as a precedent. The Israeli government will say that the Palestinians are incapable of protecting their eastern borders alone, and thus the Israeli military presence will be extended for another 10 years. But, assuming for a moment that Israel would hand over control, the question is: How will the Palestinians ever be able to pass the test if they are forced to have a demilitarized state, as the Israelis are also demanding? Will we have to defend the Jordan Valley with our sticks? How at any point in time will we be able to say: "Yes, we are now capable of defending our borders?"
So again, we have gone the extra mile and suggested a third party presence of international troops, American troops, even perhaps Micronesian troops. Netanyahu's reaction was to reject the concept of a third-party military presence, to insist on demilitarization and to announce that Israel would remain in control of the Jordan Valley along with all the land, all the intersections, all the hilltops, all the mountaintops, all the skies above and all the water reserves underneath the West Bank. My goodness! What will remain of this beautiful state of ours after Israel takes all the so-called settlements "blocs" and restricted bypass roads in the West Bank, the Jerusalem area and the Jordan Valley as well as the skies and water and mountaintops and hills? These are the "constructive proposals" that are being suggested by the Israeli government.
Kerry's response is, in essence: "We will divide the balance, we will bargain the rest." Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. is taking Israeli ideas as a starting point and is trying to put them into slightly more acceptable terms. For instance, when we insist on '67 borders, we are being told "Alright, you insist on the '67 borders, so negotiations will start from the '67 borders, but we will have to take into consideration all of Israel's military and demographic requirements." The problem is that if we take into account all of those requirements, we will be left with scraps of land that can never amount to a viable, independent or sovereign state.
Similarly, we have been clear that we need a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and have proposed that Israel have its capital in West Jerusalem, making Jerusalem an open and free city that represents the message of the three great faiths which form its fabric. Israel wants the whole of Jerusalem as an exclusively Jewish city. The ambiguous language we are hearing from the U.S. is along the lines of: "The Palestinians have aspirations to have a capital somewhere in the greater Jerusalem area." If you know Jerusalem, you will know that this sort of language could lead to a capital in Shu'fat or maybe just a little building with a Palestinian flag in Beit Hanina. I wish I could say I were being sarcastic here. We know from the Camp David talks in 2000 that there was a suggestion for the Palestinian capital to be a big villa or palace for Yasser Arafat inside the Old City of Jerusalem, with a flag and a bypass over the wall of Jerusalem so that visitors would not have to be stopped by Israeli security at the gates.
Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State
Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state has been brought to the negotiating table for the first time and has somehow become a sine qua non requirement for any agreement. Some of us say that this is a non-issue that was disingenuously raised by Israeli officials just to make things more complicated and more complex. Netanyahu was the prime minister between 1996 and 1999, and he never made this demand then. I participated in the Wye River negotiations with him, where we reached an agreement. He never mentioned the idea of "a Jewish state" then. The first time it was brought up as a prerequisite by Netanyahu was in 2010 at the White House.
When Israel entered into a peace treaty with Jordan, there was no such requirement that Jordan recognize Israel as a Jewish state. With the Egyptians there was also no such requirement, and the same with all the other countries. Why now? What Netanyahu claims - a view which may be shared by many other Israelis - is that calling Israel a Jewish state simply states a fact. Yes, of course, the majority of people now in Israel are Jews, so why not call it a Jewish state? If that is really the case, then Israel can define itself as it wishes. Why should it need recognition of the character of its state from outside? This idea is unprecedented.
Yet we should remember that Jews everywhere in the world fought against the entanglement of religion and state. Jews in the U.S., who represent 3% of the population, went to the U.S. Supreme Court to cancel what they considered to be Christian prayer in public schools, while in Israel, 21.5% of the population are Christians and Muslims, not Jews. Why should we jeopardize their rights as first-class citizens of their country?
So why bring in this idea now, when the negotiations are already down, just to make things more difficult?
It seems a few weeks ago, Mr. Netanyahu discovered that Beit El means "the House of God." Beit El is a checkpoint at the entrance to Ramallah. So now Beit El is as important to the Israelis as Jerusalem or Hebron. The Palestinian government is in Ramallah. And since we are losing Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, now Ramallah is next. With an Israeli government like this, the interpretation of the meaning of a Jewish state will soon include all of the West Bank and not just all of Israel. Therefore, what kind of security will we have if that is a part of the narrative that they use to justify the state of Israel? You don't attach much of an ideological, holy meaning to Haifa or Jaffa or Gaza, but you do in Hebron, Jerusalem and Nablus. So where is the two-state solution going to be?
Changing the Course of the Negotiations
I don't want to leave you in despair, but I can say this: If the negotiations lead to this end, there's no way we can get through them. If you heard President Mahmoud Abbas' speech to the 300 Israeli students who came to visit him in Ramallah, you know that he explained his willingness to see Jerusalem as one city that encompasses two capitals just like the Vatican and Rome. He presented a solution, answered questions and tried his best to explain where we stand. But that is not the issue today. Kerry is a brilliant man. His heart is in the right place and I have absolutely no doubt about his personal integrity, but the current negotiations are not the best way to do it.
If you begin with an interim agreement, you have to remain within the same rules and parameters. You can't keep changing the terms as you negotiate.
It took us 14 years to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242. Between 1974 and 1988, your government insisted that we recognize Resolution 242, and we recognized it. your government insisted that we recognize Israel as a state in peace and security, and we did. Your government insisted that we denounce violence, and we did, and your government still occupies all of the West Bank.
I have not seen a Palestinian leader like Abbas who wants to be remembered as a man who brought peace. And I think you can verify that by "googling" how much violence there has been in the West Bank in the last eight years: very, very little. This is not just a matter of having a capable security force. Abbas was able to sell to the Palestinians the idea that nonviolence is a much better way to get where you want to go - to change our heroes from Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is clear evidence that demonstrates that both on the ground and in our hearts, we are committed to nonviolence and to a two-state solution. And that we understand that our only future lies in peace with Israel - a peace in which not only will there be two states, but there will also be open borders for trade, tourism and technology and everything that will make us like Holland and Belgium. This is the way to go. We now have this motivation, and, what's more, if this is achieved, then all the Arabs and Muslims will recognize Israel and normalize relations with it.
What we saw in 1994 was a drop in the bucket of what could happen if real peace were to come our way. Can it be done? I think it can. Can it be done by Kerry? I don't know. I am not sure. I don't think we should take a failure of the Kerry talks as the end of the world. I refuse this apocalypse theory. We have to also look at other options. I'm not representing Abbas when I say this, but if 22 countries can be convened in Geneva in order to attempt and anticipate negotiations between the government of Syria and its opposition, couldn't the international community play a similar role here? Can they not bring together the two parties in an international forum in order to move toward future peace and partnership, including security for both Israelis and Palestinians? I think it would be worth a try.
This article is the development of a presentation made by Dr. Nabil Shaath at a public event devoted to a "Final Status Agreement: Possibilities and Challenges" at Tel Aviv University on March 3, 2014.