The Middle East Channel

Déjà vu all over again

Déjà vu all over again

Observing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis one can’t help but be struck by a sense of déjà vu. Kerry, who visits Israel and the Palestinian territories this week, has launched an initiative to improve the economic conditions of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This proposal might be considered innovative if a plan to "improve the Palestinian quality of life" — which in practice means improving the conditions of Israel’s Palestinian subjects while ignoring their subjugation — had not been mooted in 1983 by Secretary of State George Shultz. In the intervening decades, Palestinian "quality of life" has worsened considerably.

Similarly, there are reports of Kerry touting an Arab peace plan that would reaffirm the 1967 boundaries as the basis for a settlement. The same plan was originally put forward by Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah at the 2002 Arab summit meeting and reiterated in 2007, both times to general Israeli and U.S. indifference. The core principles in the original initiative were far from novel: they simply recapitulated the terms of U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967. Like its nearly-identical predecessors, the plan was ignored by the Israeli government, even though it includes explicit reference to the possibility of territorial "swaps" Israel has long insisted on.

Finally, there are again rumblings of a new U.S. initiative to re-start bilateral negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. After over two decades of failed U.S.-brokered talks on the basis of the Madrid-Oslo model, this proposal too is far from novel.

Why should the reiteration of these failed approaches reverse the steady entrenchment of Israel’s settlement project and its 46-year old occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, when they failed to do so in the past? Indeed, I have argued in my book Brokers of Deceit that this outcome has been largely the result of these U.S. approaches: via unstinting support for Israel, the United States has done much to reinforce Israel’s occupation, its settlement project, and its continued denial of Palestinian rights. This willful blindness to the lessons of the past can be partially explained by U.S. policy-makers’ dread of straying from a narrow range of tepid bromides guaranteed not to arouse the ire of the Israeli government and its vocal supporters in the United States.

If the aim is to change the status quo, rather than consecrate it, a radically different approach by the United States and others will be necessary.

Firstly, there has to be a U.S. willingness to consider the views of other consequential actors where the Palestine issue is concerned, from Europe and Russia to China, India and Turkey, and including countries farther afield like Brazil and South Africa. After three and a half decades of failed efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, going back to the 1978 Camp David Accords, the United States is no position to insist on monopolizing peacemaking, or to claim that it is the only party qualified to offer constructive proposals. Indeed, the enforced closeness between the U.S. and Israeli positions on all substantive issues where Palestine is concerned (originating in a confidential 1975 pledge from President Gerald Ford to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhadk Rabin) makes the United States unfit to serve as an intermediary on this issue.

Secondly, all concerned, including the United States, must insist that a solution be grounded in first principles like international law, the Geneva conventions, and U.N. resolutions, and in basic notions of equity and comparable human, national and political rights for all. This is necessary whether or not this pleases Israel and its claque in congress and the media. A just and lasting settlement cannot result from inherently skewed frameworks concocted mainly to meet Israeli desiderata like the Madrid and Oslo formulas, and all of their deformed offspring. Indeed, these very formulae have produced the abysmal situation that worsens daily in Palestine. This is precisely what schemes like Oslo, based on "autonomy for people not land," and on an "interim period" that has gone on for over a decade and a half, were meant to do by Menachem Begin and others who inspired them. They can produce nothing else. After two decades, it is irrational to assume that the Oslo process can lead to anything but further dispossession of the Palestinians by their Israeli overlords.

Thirdly, whatever the supposed aspirations of U.S. leaders, where Palestine is concerned the U.S. political system has demonstrated sclerotic immobility. This is true in spite of stirrings of change at the grassroots, among young people, on many campuses and in numerous churches, and even in some quarters of the mainstream media. Until these stirrings translate into concrete political outcomes that politicians and the media are obliged to take notice of, however, it is essentially up to others to make the first moves if things are going to change. These others include the international community, the Arab states, and the Palestinians themselves.

If U.S. leaders continue to insist on monopolizing a process they themselves have rendered dysfunctional, and will not allow others to play a constructive role, the rest of the world must take the lead. The Middle East is too important in terms of regional instability and emigration flows to the countries surrounding it, or to states which are dependent on the region for their energy, to leave it to the feckless stewardship of a Washington that has been utterly paralyzed on this issue for generations. Moreover, it is worth recalling that the international community, embodied in the United Nations, irresponsibly refused to address the inevitable consequences of its own decisions on Palestine in 1947 and 1948 — consequences such as the expulsion of most of the country’s indigenous population in order to make possible the creation of a Jewish state in a country with a two-thirds Arab majority. It thereby helped to create the current tragic situation. It is thus not just a matter of many countries’ vital interests, but also the moral weight of a heavy historic international responsibility that should drive them to play a part in resolving it.

Most Arab states have yet to develop stable, smoothly functioning democratic systems that would lead their foreign policies to reflect their peoples’ strong desire for justice for the Palestinians. Nevertheless, these states could forthrightly advocate positions rooted in the Arab public’s support for Palestinian rights, instead of trying to curry favor in Washington. Such forthrightness should be apparent not only in private diplomatic meetings with U.S. policy-makers, but as part of a sustained effort to speak directly to the U.S. public and media, exactly as Israeli diplomacy skillfully and relentlessly does, day in and day out.

If Arab governments were seriously committed to a just and lasting resolution of the Palestine question, they would long ago have done much more in this regard, and on many other fronts. After festering for over six decades, the Palestine problem is not a matter for an isolated Arab summit meeting communique, or a random visit by an individual foreign minister or a single head of state. These states could exert themselves effectively today to explain some of the basic realities of the situation in Palestine to U.S. and international public opinion, if they were willing to act with coordination and focus as part of a sustained effort over many months and years.

The Arab states could also coordinate effectively with other international actors that have major interests in the stability of the Middle East and in regional energy sources. There is a shared global urgency about the Palestine issue that could be tapped by a focused diploma
tic campaign. If such things are not done now, no one in the United States will take Arab governments’ protestations of their commitment to resolve the Palestine question seriously.

What the Palestinians themselves must do is even more central to progress for their cause. They must find ways to overcome the impact of the divisions that have been imposed on them, as well as others that are self-inflicted. The former include the separation of the majority of Palestinians living outside historic Palestine from those living inside, as well as the cantonization of those inside into Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jerusalemites, West Bankers, and Gazans, with escalating levels of deprivation of rights for each group.

The self-inflicted divisions include the debilitating Fatah-Hamas split, which has exacerbated the existing geographical separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It has also created two separate versions of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which according to the invitation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference was originally intended to be an interim body supposed to have been wound up by 1997. Neither PA has full jurisdiction or ultimate authority, while both are subject to the overall security control of Israel, which is the only sovereign entity in the entire territory of the former Palestine mandate, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Neither of the leading Palestinian factions has a serious strategy for achieving Palestinian rights, and it is urgent that such a strategy be developed, and that the virtually moribund Palestinian national movement be revived. No state, no international body, no deus ex machina, will be able to act for the Palestinians if they cannot do these things themselves. This will require making difficult choices, and overcoming external interference designed to preserve the status quo.

Among these choices is how to deal with the PA, which has become an incubus that saps the vitality and combativeness of the Palestinians under occupation, providing thousands of them with jobs on condition that they police themselves. In practice, this means preventing resistance to the occupation, and protecting the expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise, which are the purposes for which the PA was originally created (in the eyes of the Israeli officials concerned). In the West Bank, this function is performed in direct coordination with Israel and the United States. In the Gaza Strip, some of the same objectives are achieved, albeit more discreetly and without overt collaboration, and with frequent deadly friction. Beyond this, the PA provides the illusion that it is possible to build the structures of a state and an independent economy under occupation. Two decades of cruel disappointment of hopes for the "peace process" have disabused most Palestinians, but sadly not all of their leaders, of these false notions.

Daunting though a new approach may appear in Washington, where bankrupt consensus policies sail on indefinitely in spite of repeated failures, only a radical break can change the atrocious status quo in Palestine and make possible peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and author of Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013) and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006). He is a former advisor to Palestinian negotiators and an editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.