By Zulaikha Abdullah
This week marks twenty one years since the November 18, 1988 declaration of a Palestinian state. To coincide with commemorations of this event, and amid increasing frustration and disillusionment over the stalled and ineffective peace process, particularly with regard to the issue of settlements, come the announcement by the Palestinian Authorities’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat of the Authority’s decision to seek recognition from the UN Security Council of an independent Palestinian state within the June 1967 boundaries.
The idea was first presented in a lecture by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Should the proposed state, which is to include the West Bank and the Gaza strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, gain international recognition, Israeli settlement activity will be rendered invalid and an act of aggression against a neighbouring state. The PA is currently working toward gathering a far-reaching international base of support for the proposal. It has been discussed on a number occasions with European and American representatives and has received a positive response from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as Russia. During an upcoming visit by Abbas to Latin America, he is expected to promote the idea there also. The Arab League’s monitoring committee on the Arab peace initiative have unanimously approved it.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has acknowledged that without a peace accord, international support for a unilateral Palestinian state or a bi-national state will no doubt increase. Nevertheless, the principal sentiment emanating from Israel in response has been blustering. Information and Diaspora minister, Yuli Edelstein commented that Erekat’s announcements “prove that among the Palestinian leaders, there are many who still believe that they can achieve their goals through violence and terrorism” and expressed a hope that the international community would not co-operate in the project. The hard line Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau commented that should the Palestinians take unilateral measures, Israel should annex the parts of the West Bank that contain major Jewish settlement blocs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “Any unilateral action will undo the framework of past accords and lead to unilateral actions from Israel.” He also called on the Palestinian Authority to restart negotiations “without preconditions.”
The failure of peace negotiations in recent months has been variously blamed on ineffectual U.S efforts and Israeli intransigence with the core point of contention being that of the settlements. The Palestinians demand a complete freeze in settlement construction on their land prior to the resumption of peace talks, however, Israel is insisting only on a temporary and limited ease in activities. The Obama administration, after having initially supported the Palestinian position but later having failed to force Israel to accept its demands, eventually backtracked completely on the issue. So much so that in a visit to Jerusalem earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in a baffling statement that claimed Tel Aviv had made ‘unprecedented’ concessions on settlement policies.
The level of disillusionment over the deadlock in negotiations over settlements, the feeling that Israel is not interested in a just peace and the lack of good will toward America felt not only by the average Palestinian, but also by the leadership is highlighted by Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that he does not want to run for re-election in January. Should Abbas step down before the elections, the speaker of the parliament, Abdel Aziz Duaik of Hamas would become acting president. There has been some speculation that should Abbas resign, it could be followed by mass resignations across the PA and even lead to the dissolution or collapse of the authority. The dissolution of the PA would leave a power vacuum that could only be filled by Israel or Hamas.
This announcement by Erekat, along with other proposed options for Palestinians should talks remain deadlocked, such as of unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state, calling on the UN to determine the final borders of a state and threatening dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, may be viewed as pressure tactics reflecting the desperation being felt and a measure aimed at kick starting the process by any means available.
The Palestinian Authority was set up in 1994 following the Oslo accords with Israel to prepare for the creation of a Palestinian State. However, as Erekat pointed out last Monday, that plan had failed due to the fact that “18 years of negotiations since the two-state solution was raised have gone nowhere.” He also articulated the belief that the PA had reached its “defining moment” and lamented the fact that after all this time, they were still trying to convince Israel to stop settlement activity on land occupied in 1967.
Perhaps the failure of both the peace process and advocacy for a two state solution lies in the attempts to simplify the problem by reducing it to a reversal of the outcomes of the 1967 war; the notion that peace can be achieved by bringing an end to the occupation and the creation of a state within the 1967 borders as proposed by Erekat. Such an approach fails to take into consideration that the conflict began in 1948 and thus sidesteps the fundamental issues and the source of the conflict. In view of this, Jonathan Freedland proposes the necessity for a radically new approach and argues that “Peace has not remained out of reach because the peacemakers did not try hard enough or because the moment was not ripe. Peace may have stayed out of reach because for too long we refused to confront the true causes of this war.”