Here are excerpts of my latest piece in the Hill’s pundits blog, which asked me to respond to the question:
Can the Obama administration forge a peace agreement, and what steps should it be taking in Mideast policy?
I’ll be honest. From my vantage point here in Gaza, where I’ve been for the past two months, it’s really, really difficult to approach this question seriously. Besieged and prevented from developing or prospering, with no exports and few people being allowed out and minimal raw materials being allowed in, Palestinians here are wondering what exactly we are negotiating over and who exactly Mahmoud Abbas is representing. (As one astute observer on Twitter noted, “himself, of course, who else”.) A peace agreement with no broad representation, head by a president with no legal authority or credibility, generally speaking, is not a good way to kick things off.
This is leaving aside the question of what exactly these direct talks will be about.
Palestinians have tired of piecemeal agreement with empty promises, a showcase of handshakes and ceremonies. They have become desensitized to the word “negotiations” — offended, even, by the mere notion of negotiations and their implications in their current context. For them, negotiations have meant nothing but concessions, emboldening Israeli security, and further strangulation.
Take the last much-publicized “back on track” attempt: Annapolis. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly went so far as to promise not to build new settlements or expropriate land! Well, by that measure (which, needless to say, didn’t pan out according to promise), we’ve gone backwards, granting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his wish of “talks without preconditions” (we’ve gone backwards in any case, but you get my drift). . .
Even if there was a commitment to freeze settlements, there will inevitably be a way around it. More Palestinian land will be expropriated and current settlements expanded to account for their “natural growth”, until they resemble towns, not colonies, and have them legitimized by a U.S. administration looking for some way to save face. And then there will be promises to raze outposts.
Oslo has been around for 17 years now. Almost two decades. It’s really mind-boggling when I say it out loud like that. Simply because if you take a good, hard look at the reality on the ground for Palestinians and what has happened in those 17 years, you would be hard-pressed to believe that any new negotiations will bear any fruit without a fundamental shift in the underlying process.
During that period, Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise doubled while Palestinian poverty and unemployment rates reached historic heights, due in no small part to Israel’s closure regime and policy of de-development. More than 300,000 illegal Jewish settlers now live on 42 percent of the West Bank land where the Palestinians want to establish their future country, according to a July report by the Israeli human rights group BTselem. Meanwhile, the prospect of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state has been rendered next to impossible, leading many Palestinians to consider new options.
There is increasingly talk amongst Palestinians now of a desire for a strategic shift of their own vis-a-vis their political aspirations: from a two-state solution toward a call for one democratic country, with equal rights for all. This is the only sustainable, viable, and just option for both peoples.
Gaza has been cast aside for the moment, but in thought and in words. Yet if any new negotiations stand any chance of succeeding, they must include Gaza — and its government — in the debate. Never mind talk of dedication to Israel’s destruction. The charter of Netanyahu’s Likud Party flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet miraculously, America not only negotiates with Israel but allows Israel to push it around, by many an Israeli prime minister’s own admission…
As one prominent Palestinian-American tweeter put it Thursday night, “Now that Israel got its wish of talks ‘without preconditions’ I expect [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal will soon get his invitation to Washington.”
If the Obama administration is indeed serious about peace, the parameters are clear, and have been for decades. The Israeli government must explicitly endorse a viable, contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state, something they have not yet done. Israel must suffer consequences for non-compliance.