These last four years of Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, the most violent and bloodiest period since Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories, prove that the longer the occupation continues, the worse both peoples suffer.
It was no coincidence that the confrontations started after negotiations appeared to have failed. Despite four years of death and suffering, and despite the complicated historical and religious layers of this conflict and their regional and international impact, a political solution is nevertheless feasible. And that solution remains two states for two peoples. This solution is accepted by a majority of Palestinians and Israelis, and it is a solution supported by the international community and consistent with international law.
Although no peace accord was reached during the Camp David summit of 2000, Palestinians and Israelis were very close to finalizing an agreement during the Taba negotiations shortly thereafter. But Israeli domestic factors, particularly then prime minister Ehud Barak’s call for early elections and Prime Minister Sharon’s subsequent refusal to negotiate, have prevented concluding where the negotiations left off.
The necessity of a two-state solution as a basis for any agreement is understood clearly by the majority of Palestinians and Israelis. The question is whether the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships can bridge the gaps between the two sides on the most sensitive issues. Bridging these gaps first requires a desire to do so, something that Israel’s current right-wing government — whose leaders opposed the Oslo peace process — totally lacks.
Israel’s current government refuses to negotiate a final agreement leading to the establishment of a viable Palestine side by side with Israel. The Israeli right does not negotiate; it imposes its will. This is best demonstrated by Sharon’s insistence on unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza without the slightest coordination or negotiation with the Palestinians, while continuing the construction of the apartheid wall in the West Bank, expanding illegal Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories and completing the closure of occupied East Jerusalem under the pretext of not having a Palestinian partner for peace.
This mindless refrain of “no Palestinian partner” is used to justify policies that continue the conflict, not resolve it. Logic dictates that any successful partnership requires a sound basis and a shared goal. A partnership based on inequality, in which one party’s goal is to continue its occupation of the other party’s land, is sure to fail.
There will never be a Palestinian partner that will accept a settlement that delivers anything less than the full national rights of the Palestinian people. Sharon has not yet accepted this fact, and instead seeks through military pressure to change the democratically elected Palestinian leadership or its positions. This, of course, takes place with a nod from the American administration.
This strategy of political, diplomatic and even military coercion to effect a change in the Palestinian leadership, or to inflict such suffering on the Palestinian people that their desperation is taken out on their own leaders, will not bring about a change in leadership. Rather, it jeopardizes the existence of any Palestinian leadership whatsoever.
Israel’s strategy could actually lead to a collapse of the Palestinian governmental structures formed after the Oslo agreement. This may well be part of Sharon’s plan, but certainly no institutions would emerge thereafter that would be ready to accept less than what the current Palestinian leadership has already indicated it would agree to as part of an agreement ending the conflict. Israel’s strategy is a recipe for ongoing strife.
Before either side hastily concludes that there is no partner for peace, both should understand the basis and purpose of the partnership. For Palestinians, the goal of the partnership is to end the occupation of the territories occupied in 1967 (including East Jerusalem), establish a sovereign Palestinian state next to Israel, and achieve a just and agreed upon resolution to the plight of the refugees consistent with international law, the Arab peace initiative and the positions of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
These goals are consistent with the peace proposals I and other Palestinian officials developed with a group of prominent Israelis through the Geneva Initiative. This initiative represents the possibilities of a partnership based on equality and justice. The only thing missing is the lack of political will to transform it from an initiative into an agreement.
Such political will, however, will not emerge spontaneously. It requires the United States to fundamentally change its goals from conflict management to conflict resolution. In other international crises — Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo and apartheid in South Africa — the international community demonstrated a clear resolve and a commitment to the rule of law and justice. Bringing peace to the region and ending Israel’s occupation will likewise require international commitment. Without it, the conflict will continue to rage. Waiting for internal developments in the Israeli and Palestinian societies to bring peace is a failing strategy.
Many have pinned their hopes for peace to reform in Palestine. The right way to achieve fundamental reform is to carry out comprehensive legislative, presidential and municipal elections, as well as free elections within all political parties, starting with my party, Fatah, the largest Palestinian political party. True reform must go beyond the government and extend to civil society as well. Elections in professional unions, for instance, would allow the unions to play their rightful role in building democracy. But it is impossible to conduct free elections while Israeli checkpoints restrict movement of voters and candidates and the Israeli army refuses to withdraw from Palestinian towns.
On September 13, Israel closed election registration offices in occupied East Jerusalem in an attempt to block elections. This proves that Israel has no interest in Palestinian elections, or the kind of reform that could emerge from them. Consequently, it is up to the international community to help create the conditions in which an election may take place.
Holding Palestinian elections in a peaceful atmosphere — in which there is an active partnership to achieve a settlement and a sense of hope among the Palestinian people that they will be able to rid themselves of the occupation — would strengthen those who believe in a balanced political settlement, democracy and reform. But if elections are held while occupation soldiers roam the streets, most Palestinians would not go the polls. Islamic groups would have a greater chance of electoral success under these conditions, since they rely on the state of poverty, desperation and frustration resulting from continued Israeli repression. Most Palestinians are more liberal and would support a balanced political settlement and the creation of a democratic political system. But the current situation keeps this majority silent, avoiding internal Palestinian politics.
The new generation of Palestine — the generation that grew up knowing nothing but occupation, suffered Israeli arrests and torture, and witnessed the occupation in its most brutal forms — is seeking not only its freedom, but also a democratic Palestinian state based on the separation of powers, rule of law, pluralism, protection of women’s rights and the development of a political culture that places Palestine among the world’s democracies. This generation wants a state that rejects violence, seeks coexistence, is not a party to any military alliances and does not allow its land to be used for attacks against its neighbors. This generation is yearning for a state that lives in peace and security with the State of Israel and the Jewish people, whose historical suffering we understand. But it is time for these victims to feel and acknowledge the suffering of their Palestinian victims.
The visions and beliefs that I mentioned above represent the position and ideals of the new generation of Palestinians — a generation whose values are best reflected in my friend and colleague, Marwan Barghouti, who is now being held in an Israeli prison.