Tipping Point? Palestinians and the Search for a New Strategy
Middle East Report N°95
26 Apr 2010
To those familiar with the rhythms of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, this has been a year of surprises. Palestinians, suffering most from the status quo, so most in need of a resolution, balk at resuming talks even as Israel expresses eagerness. In Obama, they have a president more willing to engage and to confront Israel, yet they have denied him the chance to advance talks. Seventeen years after Oslo, the best he can do is get the parties to talk indirectly – and even then, not without overcoming huge Palestinian reluctance. What is going on? The Palestinian approach may seem tactically suspect or politically self-defeating but is not without logic. It is rooted in almost two decades of unsuccessful U.S.-sponsored bilateral negotiations and manifested in embryonic efforts to change the balance of power with Israel. It is premature to speak of a new Palestinian strategy but not to respond and rectify past flaws. After an often perplexing, ineffective start, the U.S. seems poised for a more fundamental policy review involving the presentation of American ideas to resolve the conflict. Done right and at the right time, it would be welcome.
To many, the biggest shock has been President Mahmoud Abbas’s resistance to return to the negotiating table. In a striking turnabout for a leader who built his political life around engagement with Israelis, close ties to the U.S. and faith in a negotiated two-state settlement, he has refused to resume direct talks despite American pressure until Israel agrees to both a comprehensive settlement freeze and clear terms of reference. He has obvious, immediate motives. Since late 2008, indignities have been piled upon him: the Gaza war, to which he was a passive spectator; the election of a right-wing Israeli government; the U.S. change of heart on a settlement freeze; and his own ill-inspired decision to postpone a UN vote on the Goldstone Report – condemning both Israel and Hamas for war crimes – which unleashed a wave of Palestinian and Arab criticism. More broadly, the Ramallah-based leadership feels vulnerable, challenged by Hamas, constituencies within Fatah and large segments of public opinion. Those hardly form propitious circumstances for risk-taking. Awaiting somebody else’s next move seems the surer bet.
But it would be wrong – and, to Palestinians, profoundly misguided – to see in the leadership’s current attitude a matter of mere personal frustration or political apprehension. If the political manifestation of the diplomatic paralysis is of recent vintage, its roots run deep. Abbas is among the last among his people to arrive at the point he has reached; he is the restrained and belated expression
of a visceral and deep popular disillusionment with the peace process as they have grown to know it. There is equal disillusion with the U.S., a reflection not so much of the new administration but of a broader historical experience with Washington. That Obama has had to bear the brunt of Palestinian disenchantment is but one of the conflict’s many ironies.
Neither the PLO nor its leadership has given up on negotiations. They have invested in them too much for too long, and their power depends too heavily on the process to accommodate a swift and radical shift. Nor have they deeply reflected about, let alone developed, realistic substitute strategies. Still, they have begun to give them some thought. They are focusing on three forms of action to increase their leverage and reduce their dual dependency: on Israel to end the occupation of its own volition and on the U.S. to pressure Israel to do so.
A first idea making headway is to turn to the international arena, where the balance of power tilts more in the Palestinians’ favour. The suggestion of a UN Security Council resolution either endorsing the contours of a final settlement or recognising a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders is a prime example. Israelis resent or fear others as well, including Palestinian recourse to international legal bodies or boycott of settlement products. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wishes to go about the goal of statehood in a different way: painstakingly building institutions from the ground up to prompt both international recognition and pressure on Israel to end the occupation. A newly re-politicised civil society in the West Bank, backed to a degree by the Palestinian Authority (PA), is pushing a range of hostile but largely non-violent initiatives directed at Israel as a path between the two dominant (and so far failed) paradigms of the past – peaceful negotiations and armed resistance.
Something is brewing, though so far there is less of a strategy than meets the eye; instead, one sees tentative steps of a leadership playing catch-up with a population whose faith in negotiations withered long ago. This ad hoc set of approaches also suffers from internal limitations and contradictions. Each of these contemplated roads – whether going to the UN to pressure Israel; building and seeking recognition of a state; intensifying acts of resistance or a combination of the above – involves Palestinians openly challenging Israel even as they need its everyday cooperation in the West Bank; indeed, in the case of state building, success depends directly on Israeli goodwill.
That will be no easy balancing act. Circumventing negotiations to gain statehood would meet only certain Palestinian aspirations and perhaps not the main ones. Most of the West Bank would remain occupied; Jerusalem would not become that state’s capital; there would be no satisfactory resolution for the refugees. Fayyad’s institution building – should it prove successful – paradoxically could diminish the urgency of international efforts and leave Palestinians with a mini-state in parts of the West Bank. Popular forms of resistance still have far to go before they can become an effective mass movement, and they face the recurrent risk of slipping into violence. Till now, Israel’s reaction to steps it sees as defying both the traditional foundations of bilateral relations and the negotiations paradigm that underpinned them has been relatively mild. It could get much harsher.
The backdrop to Palestinian thinking throughout the recent period has been steeply declining faith in Washington’s ability to rectify the imbalance of power inherent in negotiations with Israel. Might that be rectified? After over a year of false starts and wrong turns – hurting Abbas even as it tried to help; setting the unrealistic if desirable goal of a full settlement freeze; picking the wrong fight with the Israeli government at the wrong time – the administration appears to be toying with a different approach. There is talk of presenting its vision for how to resolve the conflict – a course Crisis Group first advocated eight years ago – albeit no indication it has been decided or that it might happen soon.
It is a potentially promising approach but also a risky one. Conditions have changed dramatically in the last decade and not in ways that boost the chances of a U.S. plan. Palestinians are divided, Israelis have turned to the right, both sides are far more disbelieving of peace, Washington’s Arab allies have lost authority, the region is more fragmented, and the U.S.’s reputation has been in freefall. Rejection by one or both sides is more likely now, an outcome that could leave the administration with nowhere to go and with its credibility badly shattered. That is not sufficient reason to drop the idea but good reason to take the time necessary to implement steps that will maximise odds of success.
Some of these should take place before any proposal is unveiled – repairing strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem without backing down from U.S. core principles; adopting a more flexible policy toward internal Palestinian reconciliation; reaching out to typically ignored constituencies such as refugees, settlers and religious groups; deepening engagement with Damascus and efforts to restart its negotiations with Israel so that the peace proposed is truly comprehensive. A distrustful Israel, split Palestinian entity and divided Arab world hardly provide the ideal context for a successful U.S. initiative. Other steps involve the campaign that would have to follow U.S. articulation of its views: a broad international effort, chiefly involving Arab states, to provide political backing to the Palestinians and the genuine pay-off of regional recognition and normalisation to Israel. Assuming it is done, putting forward an American vision should be neither the beginning nor the end of the process. Instead, it can only be the midpoint: the culmination of one energetic diplomatic effort and the launching pad for another.
Ramallah/Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, 26 April 2010