Most Palestinians, from the general public to officials, have already concluded that the current negotiations, initiated at the Annapolis conference, have very little or no chance of success. For that reason, several debates have been held and initiatives offered to find an alternative strategy for the Palestinian leadership to pursue.
Public opinion polls show there is little faith in the ongoing peace process and that the level of optimism is declining. Prominent officials, meanwhile, have been making pessimistic public statements. The most prominent one was Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's declaration, during his last visit to Washington, that he does not expect an agreement in 2008, contrary to the express wishes of US President George W. Bush.
The most obvious two reasons for this are the Israeli practices on the ground and domestic Israeli political constraints. Israel continues its consolidation of the occupation mainly by continuing the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially in and around East Jerusalem. Domestic political constraints, meanwhile, have ensured that negotiations have led to no real engagement.
Hence the proffered range of alternatives that are being entertained. They fall into three main groups: dissolving the Palestinian Authority, unilaterally declaring independence and resorting to resistance. The most popular, yet least likely, option is the first. That option was raised recently by a prominent former Jordanian prime minister of Palestinian origin, Adnan Abu Odeh, who suggested in an article that Palestinians, who have no real authority, should dissolve the PA and do away with the pretence. It is interesting to note that the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, has distributed copies of the article on two separate occasions, during the last PLO Executive Committee meeting and at a meeting with prominent Palestinian journalists and columnists.
Meanwhile, the relatively successful unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo seems to have inspired some Palestinians to suggest Palestinians do the same, most notably veteran negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo. Abed Rabbo's suggestion is to declare the intention now to unilaterally declare independence at the end of the year should negotiations fail, as they seem certain to at the moment.
While there was little and mostly shortsighted Palestinian reaction to this suggestion, many Israelis politicians and analysts asked themselves what they would do if Palestinians should take such a step. The consensus seemed to be that at the very least, such a move would make a deep impressions on Israel and its allies, because not only would it not contradict international legality, it would be consistent with it. A positive international response to this idea could be useful for the peace process. The current conviction among Israeli leaders and negotiators that negotiations are the only option open to the Palestinian side only contributes to the stagnation.
While the first two options--dissolving the PA and declaring independence--are in the hands of Palestinian politicians and diplomats, who have become increasingly dependant on Israel and the United States, the third-resistance--is not. The failure of the peace process to bring Palestinians closer to an end to the occupation is already leading the motivation for resistance. With the prevalence of arms in Palestinian society, such resistance will most likely take the form of violence. This option remains the most probable scenario, especially with Israel continuing to provoke and encourage Palestinian violence. Israel has good if shortsighted reasons for doing this: it is on the battlefield that Israel has its most obvious and largest comparative advantage.- Published 3/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
If the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations fail--at the time of writing they have been suspended by the Palestinian side in protest at Israel's military response to rocket fire from Gaza--the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah ostensibly have a number of options. They can launch a third intifada in the West Bank. They can petition the international community to compel Israel to accept a single bi-national state solution. And they can declare independence.
The latter option was considered by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat during the more difficult stages of the Oslo peace process, and rejected. It has now been resurrected by PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo and others. Their inspiration is Kosovo. They advocate declaring independence within the June 4, 1967 borders as a means of galvanizing Arab and international support.
The differences between the Kosovo model and a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence are numerous and substantive. To take three of the most obvious: First, the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership does not control the Gaza Strip as well as much of the West Bank, whereas the Kosovars controlled the entirety of their territory with the help of an international force on the eve of independence. Second, the Israeli leadership welcomes a two-state solution based on the June 4, 1967 lines, whereas Serbia insists that Kosovo is part of that state. And third, the PLO already declared independence once, in 1988, and enjoys diplomatic representation throughout the nations of the world, yet the benefits of that act for the cause of a genuine Palestinian state have been limited.
Under these circumstances, a Palestinian move to (again) declare independence is liable to be perceived widely as desperate and pathetic rather than heroic and triumphant. Abed Rabbo himself notes that his embrace of the idea is largely an attempt to stimulate the current unproductive two-state negotiations and fend off pressures by some of his fellow Palestinians to demand a bi-national state solution. Nevertheless, the Kosovo declaration of independence raises some interesting and relevant issues for the Israeli-Palestinian case.
One is the fact that, from the Serbian standpoint, this is an imposed solution. As Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic warned on February 28 (IHT), "Recognizing the unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence from Serbia legitimizes the doctrine of imposing solutions for ethnic conflicts." Needless to say, it is Serbia's horrific behavior toward the Kosovars over the years that led the West to impose this solution, while Israel has consistently avoided any similar situation in its conflict with the Palestinians. But there are Arabs, Israelis and others who insist that the only possible solution for our conflict is an imposed one, and they will draw encouragement from the Kosovo model.
A second relevant issue-area emerging from Kosovo is the role of the European Union. In effect, the EU is trying to embrace both Kosovo and Serbia and highlight the huge benefits for both of solving this conflict within a European community context that offers economic prosperity as well as a diminution of the significance of national borders and a downgrading of ethnic conflicts. Here, too, there are Arabs and Israelis who see the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a similar European context. They note that, despite its difficulties with Turkey, the EU is anxious to absorb Muslim Kosovo, thereby accelerating the precedent for membership by additional non-Christian countries.
Under present circumstances, an EU solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears far-fetched. But the notion of a regional solution has already been embraced by the Arab League in the form of the Arab peace initiative. Hopefully the League, where voices have recently been raised threatening cancellation of the initiative, will now draw encouragement from the Kosovo model and more actively pursue its plan.
Finally, the Kosovo drama is not over. The partition borders imposed on Serbia are untenable for that country largely because of the historic memory of the Battle of Kosovo, lost by the Serbs to the Ottomans in 1448. That battlefield is in a small sector of Kosovo that borders on Serbia and has a large Serbian population. While the Serbs and Kosovars refused to discuss partition of Kosovo to accommodate the Serbian national narrative prior to Kosovo's independence, doing so now might be a way to end the standoff created by that act.
In other words, an imposed solution that leaves one of the parties as desperate as the Serbs may be only a prelude to additional negotiations and compromises. This is a message that resonates with Israelis and Palestinians.- Published 3/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Inevitable deadlock looms
an interview with Yasser Abed Rabbo
bitterlemons: You recently urged the Palestinian Authority to follow the example of Kosovo and unilaterally declare statehood. Why did you come to this conclusion?
Abed Rabbo: I don't claim that this is an official position of the PA. This is an initiative I declared in my capacity as part of the Palestinian leadership. I am warning that if the current negotiations continue as they are at the moment, then there will be an inevitable deadlock in the coming few months.
This will lead to a political catastrophe, i.e., the conclusion by many parties that the last chance was missed. This is the last chance and I don't see any future for the process after this. If it happens, then the Palestinians will be obliged to look for another option, which is the unilateral declaration of independence.
bitterlemons: This has been suggested before, in 1999, and the late Yasser Arafat refused to go down that route. What's different now?
Abed Rabbo: He refused, not because he concluded it was not a good idea, but because so many international parties interfered at the time, including Arab leaders, the president of the US and European leaders. They all convinced him that he should give one more chance, one more year, for negotiations to succeed. He did, and the result was the deadlock at Camp David for which they blamed him, even though since then, some influential parties present at Camp David have confessed that the deadlock was not Arafat's responsibility, but that of Israel and the US, the occupier and its main supporter.
But what followed was the second intifada, the collapse of the political process and the building of the apartheid wall.
If we are going to witness another Camp David catastrophe, I don't want to see the renewed eruption of violence (even if violence by Israel still continues) or a third intifada. I don't want to see the flourishing of extremist tendencies, the way they flourished after the second intifada and the deadlock at Camp David. I don't want to see the call for moderation and compromise dying and a desire for endless religious war to replace that call. This is not the future I want.
But what I am seeing now, is that careless leaders are spending weeks and months in unimportant negotiations and talks to try and convince public opinion that a serious process is going on. This is not a stupid public. This is a public with long experience. This public opinion knows the difference between a serious process and negotiations that are leading nowhere.
bitterlemons: So the suggestion to unilaterally declare independence comes because of your frustration with the process as it is at the moment?
Abed Rabbo: No, it comes because I fear the consequences of the inevitable failure of the process as I see it now. Continuing the process as it is now will inevitably lead to failure for one simple reason: what's going on now is not a serious process. We are only seeing meetings without content.
There is a deliberate attempt by Israel to avoid what is called the core issues and to focus on marginal issues. I don't know what the purpose of this is, unless Israel thinks that at the end of the year it can successfully postpone the core issues for an unlimited time and use whatever agreement on functional issues like the environment, economic relations, whatever they may be, to agree on a state with provisional borders, without Jerusalem, without discussing refugees, without discussing settlement blocs. And this would be a breakthrough from their point of view. Except that it isn't. No one will agree to such a state, and we will be faced with the same conditions, if not worse, than those we witnessed after the failure of Camp David and before the second initifada started.
Those who do not see these dangers are deluding themselves.
bitterlemons: What advantages would there be for the Palestinian side to declare independence, absent any agreement?
Abed Rabbo: This is not my first priority, and it is not a first option. If we are driven into a deadlock, we will be left with no other option than such a unilateral declaration. I don't want anyone to misunderstand what I am saying. I am not a dreamer. I have always been in the camp of realists and moderates. I know this suggestion carries with it many dangers. But I don't want my people to tie themselves to an illusionary option, which is what waiting for the outcome of the current negotiations as they are now is.
I would be happy if there were other options and other ways with less danger that could save the process and the faith of my people and the whole region in it.
bitterlemons: But why is exactly this the last option for the Palestinian side, rather than, say, dissolving the PA?
Abed Rabbo: Look at what might happen if there is a new American administration and it receives the news that the political process has collapsed, that we've reached nowhere, there is deadlock and it's over. The response of any new president will be "again! I am not going to repeat it." Eight years ago we had Clinton, now this. Why repeat the same process?
This is such a grave danger, to marginalize the whole process. Are we going to wait another eight years? Settlements continue being built, the wall is being completed, settlement blocs are expanding every day. Jerusalem is being changed under our noses. Israel is unilaterally imposing a plan to erase the Palestinian character of East Jerusalem.
Israel wants to annex as much territory as it can and limit Palestinians to a number of enclaves. We can then call these enclaves whatever we want: a state, an empire. But this will not be a solution. That's the problem.
bitterlemons: What do you think a new American administration would do if faced with a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence?
Abed Rabbo: I don't know. I don't want to speculate about what will happen after the failure of negotiations. I don't want to anticipate what will be the reaction of the American administration or anyone else. I want the US, now, not in a year, to do something to save the process. What is being done now is not saving the process. It will only help in eroding confidence in the process.
At Annapolis there was promise; there was hope. The whole world committed to progress, to help the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the negotiations. But this will not be repeated every year. I want the US to do something now. I'm telling them, if you don't do something now, we will do something later. The main purpose is to warn them that it will be their responsibility if we take such a step.- Published 3/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yassser Abed Rabbo is a member of the PLO's Executive Council.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The limits of analogy
by Shlomo Avineri
The declaration of independence by Kosovo is an important victory for the ideas of self-determination and national sovereignty. Ever since most of the old Ottoman vilayet of Kosovo was annexed to Serbia in 1912 after the First Balkan War, the province's mainly Muslim Albanian population suffered under Serbian rule. After 1918, Yugoslavia tried to change the demographic balance by encouraging Serbs to settle in the province, viewed as the birthplace of the Serbian nation. In Titoist Yugoslavia Kosovo enjoyed an autonomous status, but with the reemergence of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic this was cancelled, Albanian-language schools were closed, and Serbian functionaries from Belgrade replaced local Kosovar Albanian officials.
The ensuing resistance--initially peaceful, later violent--led to ever harsher Serbian measures, culminating in threats of massive ethnic cleansing, verging on genocide. For the first time in modern history, this brought about an effective American-led international humanitarian intervention. Many of the intellectuals and public figures all over the world who supported the intervention were Jewish: Elie Wiesel, Michael Walzer, Richard Holbrooke, Bernard-Henri Levi, Bernard Kouchner and others. They called on the world community, which failed so dismally to protect the Jews from the Nazis, not to abandon Kosovar Albanians. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explicitly mentioned her Jewish roots in her insistence that the US could not leave the Kosovars to their fate.
That Kosovo's independence did not enjoy the support of all European Union members has very little to do with the merits of the case, but stems from the realpolitik considerations of countries with territorially-based national minorities. That is why Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus did not follow the United States and the majority of the EU in recognizing Kosovo's independence. Russia's opposition is similarly motivated by obvious analogies with the Chechen uprising. Even democratic Canada is hesitant, due to Quebec.
Obviously there have been echoes in the Middle East, and from opposing camps. In Israel, the nationalist right-wing expressed concerns that Kosovo may become a precedent for a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, and even for an attempt by Palestinian Arabs in Israel, especially in the Galilee, to secede unilaterally. In parallel, some Palestinians maintained that if the current post-Annapolis Israeli-Palestinian talks should fail the Palestinians might adopt the Kosovo model and declare independence unilaterally.
These analogies seem plausible, but are fallacious for a number of reasons. First of all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not limited to the post-1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is a conflict between two national movements--the Jewish national movement, Zionism, and the Arab Palestinian movement, both laying claim to the same piece of land. The Kosovars, on the other hand, never claimed Belgrade and all of Serbia as their patrimony. Hence in the Israeli-Palestinian case a two-state solution, based on partition, is the only reasonable and fair solution, and is viewed as such almost universally. Such national conflicts can be resolved only by mutual consent and agreement: that this is difficult and may take time is obvious, but there is no alternative to negotiations.
Secondly, while the Kosovars gained almost universal support and the international community, under US leadership, used force to intervene on their behalf, the Middle East situation was totally different. Here it was the Palestinians who in 1947-8 flaunted international legitimacy by rejecting the United Nations partition plan and went to war not only against the emerging state of Israel but also against a UN decision. It was the Arab side in 1948-9 that was repeatedly condemned by the UN, with both US and Soviet support, for its violence against Israel.
Thirdly, since Oslo there exists a legitimate, albeit not sovereign Palestinian Authority. Its legitimacy has recently been greatly attenuated by the Hamas putsch in Gaza--and solving this is a serious challenge to the Palestinian national movement. Moreover, since Annapolis both Israel and the Palestinians have been continuously negotiating. That no agreement has yet been reached is the consequence of both the complexity of the issues and the relative weakness of both leaderships. Nothing similar to this existed in the Kosovo context.
There is, however, a case in the Middle East that is similar to Kosovo: the Kurds in Iraq. Here, like in former Yugoslavia, an ethnic minority with a distinct culture, language and history has been continuously oppressed by a series of brutal Arab regimes. Like the Kosovar Albanians, Iraqi Kurds are entitled to self-determination and sovereignty; that Turkey, Iran and Syria oppose this has as little relevance to the merits of the case as has Spanish--or for that matter, Russian--opposition to the independence of Kosovo. It is difficult, on moral and political grounds, to support the independence of Kosovo while opposing the same rights for Iraqi Kurdistan.
All this shows the limits of analogy and the sometimes cynical and propagandistic use made of it. Each conflict has its own characteristics and has to be addressed--and hopefully settled--on its own merits, difficult as this may be.- Published 3/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Yitzhak Rabin. He is currently visiting professor in the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.