The Middle East Channel

Palestinians remove some eggs from the American basket

Palestinians remove some eggs from the American basket

This year may bring a close to American mediation of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Expectations, usually low, have collapsed in the face of an unwilling, and increasingly self-impeding, U.S. peace broker. Indeed, freezing settlement expansion, as opposed to removing them altogether as mandated by international law, was long regarded as the lowest hanging fruit in peace negotiations. President Obama himself emphasized that the Jewish colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories hindered peace efforts and securing Palestinian statehood. 

Yet, on the heels of a rekindled peace process, the Obama administration failed to successfully push Prime Minister Netanyahu to extend a ten-month partial moratorium on settlement expansion. More tellingly, the U.S.’s failure was marked by Israel’s public rebuff of its military aid incentive. Suffering no consequences, Israel chose to continue its expansionist policies and to retain its existing U.S. aid package, thereby demonstrating the hollow nature of American pressure.  

The crumbling negotiations and unwillingness of the United States to exact legally required Israeli obligations has finally compelled Palestinian negotiators to look beyond a U.S.-brokered peace and to a multilateral one overseen by the United Nations.

The Palestinians’ loss of faith in the U.S. was inevitable given the superpower’s myopic focus on absolute support for Israel at the expense of even the bare-bone statelet desired by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. The American position led to the ludicrous notion of establishing a Palestinian state without sovereignty, territorial contiguity, control over air space, borders, trade, security, democratic governance, fair water allocation, and diplomatic relationships in the region and beyond — all of which Israel deems national security threats. Arguably willing to compromise on security matters, land swaps, jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees, even Abbas could not accept continuing negotiations in the face of a defiant Israel and its supine American benefactor.

As 2010 closed more and more observers of the conflict experienced a long overdue epiphany: the U.S. administration is allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to strike the final blow against the two-state solution — casting it, for better or worse, into the mounting bin of missed opportunities.

Simultaneously, Fatah is losing internal support because its long compliance with U.S. prerogatives at the expense of Palestinian national interests has dramatically failed to secure peace and freedom. Instead, the U.S.-favored Palestinian Authority has been marred by its decision to abandon the powerful Goldstone report on Israeli war crimes in Gaza, collusion with Israel and the U.S. in attacking fellow Palestinians in Hamas, and the daunting presence of the Dayton Forces, the Palestinian police forces charged with enhancing Israel’s security as opposed to protecting a civilian population from an Israeli military occupation that repeatedly kills and injures nonviolent civilian demonstrators and bystanders.

Where government has failed, Palestinian civil society is increasingly taking a lead role. This intrepid body is the unsung heroine that launched the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in 2005 and that has demonstrated week after week against the building of a "Separation Barrier" deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. These efforts have come at no small cost as tragically demonstrated by the death of Jawaher Abu Rahmah who, on the first day of 2011, died of tear gas asphyxiation incurred the previous day while non-violently protesting against the barrier stealing her village’s land. Chillingly, Jawaher is the 36-year-old sister of Bassem Abu Rahmah. Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in April 2009 with a high-velocity tear gas canister as he similarly protested non-violently. Another brother, while detained, was shot and injured at point-blank range on the direct order of a commanding officer.

Left with few options, but indirectly buoyed by a resilient civil society, Abbas declared in November that if negotiations fail, Palestinians will pursue recognition of statehood via the United Nations. The next month Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia recognized Palestinian statehood based on the June 1967 borders. And as of yesterday, Russia added its own name to the chorus of recognition by re-affirming the 1988 Soviet position.

A shift from overdependence on U.S. leadership is underway. Quite frankly, the American embrace of Israeli wrongdoing in the territories is making the U.S. approach irrelevant to world efforts to end the Israeli occupation. 

Acting outside of American-imposed parameters, Palestinian officials and Arab League counterparts have prepared a Security Council resolution condemning settlements. While the resolution may have little bearing absent U.S. support, it demonstrates Fatah’s break with the world superpower, with whom it had hitherto placed all its eggs. No longer in lock-step with American prerogatives, the resolution, which Palestinians hope to present for vote in February notes long-held American positions on settlements in order to avoid an American veto. Despite the careful wording, Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley noted on January 13 that "It is our belief that New York is the wrong forum to address these complex issues, that the parties should work to find a way back to direct negotiations as the only way to resolve these difficult issues and the conflict once and for all." An American veto, therefore, may still be forthcoming.

Finally, Palestinian officials may not only be seeking an alternative to American influence, they may also be exploring a different approach to the conflict — one that includes an emphasis on rights. In a recent commentary in the Guardian, lead negotiator Saeb Erekat emphasized the centrality of Palestinian refugees to a viable peace: "When negotiations resume once again, the world must not abandon the refugees of Palestine, nor attempt to coerce their representatives to do so either."

This is a welcome departure, even if merely rhetorical, from the previous Palestinian negotiating posture, which abandoned UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and sought instead to arrive at a politically acceptable solution to the refugee crisis — a contravention of the individual right to return held by each Palestinian refugee. Although it is highly unlikely that this article amounts to more than political muscle flexing in light of the Palestinian negotiating team’s well-established position on refugees, time will tell whether this new approach is a tactic aimed at countering Israel’s own existential arguments — or a fundamental shift in the Palestinian approach to ensure the rights of Palestinian refugees both inside and outside of the territories. If the new approach is merely a tactic, Palestinian civil society will undoubtedly continue to advocate for full Palestinian rights, emancipation from colonial rule, and an end to Israel’s regime of a legalized caste system imposing one set of draconian laws for Palestinians and a different set for Jews. 

Noura Erakat is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and a human rights attorney