Endless Negotiations: Palestinian Quicksand

What the peace process needs is the application of meaningful pressure on the stronger party -- not a room full of warm fuzzy good feelings.
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News of resumed peace talks have hit the headlines -- on September 1st, international leaders will break bread and on September 2nd, ostensibly well-rested and full-bellied, they will resume direct peace negotiations. Sadly, the photo opportunity will provide little more than the occasion for spectators to juxtapose this photo alongside similar ones over a span of nearly two decades. While this may make for a lovely Sunday afternoon activity with our children as we instill in them their first lesson in distinction versus difference, it can only signal worsening conditions for the Palestinians whose livelihoods deteriorate in the cold and ominous shadows of diplomatic overtures.

The peace process's inability to shift from a paradigm of conflict management to one of remedial measures is structurally rooted. In content, Oslo failed to deal with final status issues, did not affirm the primacy of international law, and did not establish any type of accountability mechanisms. Structurally, its overdependence on the U.S. as a broker, whose systemic provision of impunity to Israel in the UN Security Council as well as its own domestic chambers, demonstrates its unwillingness to exert pressure on Israel.

Moreover, the Palestinians lack negotiating leverage save for their moral authority as a landless people fighting for their freedom and self-determination. However, since the initiation of the peace process which created false parity between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people, and especially since the death of former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, whose charisma and legacy managed to maintain national Palestinian unity and evoke third world solidarity, even this moral high ground has been slowly eviscerated leaving Palestinian negotiators with little more than fading pens, weathered maps, and tattered Security Council resolutions.

Under conditions of mounting systematic violence and racism, the Palestinian Authority should step away from the negotiating table and return to their Palestinian base which includes rapprochement with Hamas and its supporters as well as an unwavering commitment to end the blockade of Gaza. Its unwillingness, or inability, to represent the will of its people makes the PA part of the problem rather than the solution among Palestinians in the OPTs and throughout the global diaspora. If there is half a reason why the PA is engaging in this process aside from its desperate hold onto power and its attendant succumbing to U.S. pressure, it has not been articulated in any compelling way.

With neither the authority of international law, the strength of enforcement mechanisms, nor popular legitimacy, Oslo is quicksand for the Palestinians: the more they tread, the deeper they sink politically and the quicker Israel confiscates Palestinian lands under the guise of a peace process. What diplomats have failed to account for, is that unlike their Palestinian counterparts, Israelis benefit from the status quo of negotiation deadlock.

While Oslo tabled the most difficult issues to final status negotiations, Israel's "facts on the ground" have rendered the negotiations increasingly irrelevant. Consider that between the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 and the resumption of the latest round of peace talks in 2010, Israel has not left a final status issue unhampered. A grotesque case in point is the proliferation of settlements throughout the West Bank. During the first seven years of Oslo (1993-2000), arguably when good faith was at its peak, Israel's settler population increased by 42 percent, more than the seven years immediately preceding or following Oslo.

Today, Israel continues these policies in the shadows of buoyant proclamations in Washington. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the OPTs reports that in 2010, Israel has displaced 1100 Palestinians from their homes, including 400 children and 2/3 of said activity has occurred in July alone. This is to say nothing of the ongoing illegal blockade of Gaza, the economic and social paralysis of its inhabitants since the close of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, and the U.S. Administration's wayward decision to exclude Hamas all together from the renewed process.

Like President Obama, President Bush also attempted to relaunch peace talks in 2007. Ten months after the venerated resuscitation in Annapolis, Robert Serry, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General, reported to the Security Council that Palestinians had been responsive to the peace process and had made "real strides in the implementation of its security plan," while Israelis continued to expand settlements, had failed to reopen Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, and had allowed settler violence against Palestinians to intensify without sanction.

Even the most casual observer cannot help but note that stagnant negotiations and an enduring status quo has benefited Israelis and harmed Palestinians. A more nuanced commentator may argue that Israel has suffered tremendously because its failure to establish a two-state solution has transformed the one state solution, wherein Jews no longer constitute a majority and where Palestinians will be unequivocally engaged in a struggle against Apartheid, from a dismissive vision among radicals to a realistic political scenario. Evidently, however, such theoretical injury has neither induced Israeli compliance with previous peace agreements nor deterred them from breaking nearly every withdrawal deadline in accordance with Prime Minister Rabin's declaration that "there are no sacred deadlines."

Notwithstanding the dire need for the implementation of well-established principles, in a State Department press conference on August 20th, Senator George Mitchell described the impasse as one rooted in societal differences that the U.S., as primary peace broker, plans to treat "with patience, perseverance, and determination." He goes on to dismiss criticisms of Israeli intransigence in the face of US pressure to halt settlement expansion as cursory explaining that had negotiators quit in the face of obstacles there would never have been no peace in South Africa or Bosnia for example.

Yet what Mitchell fails to note is that in South Africa, civil society and states alike applied pressure on the Apartheid regime to conform with international law through boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Also, before a peace agreement was achieved in Bosnia, Serbian aggression was brought to a grounding halt as a result of US-led NATO bombing and a UN Security Council embargo. Yet in the case of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, human rights proponents are asked to channel positive energy so that the conflict miraculously transcends the power imbalance inflicting the negotiations. What the peace process needs is the application of meaningful pressure on the stronger party -- not a room full of warm fuzzy good feelings.

This point is not lost on Palestinians or on an international civil society sincerely invested in a viable peace with justice. Accordingly, in 2005, 170 Palestinian organizations issued a call to the global solidarity movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel until it complied with international law. The BDS movement works to apply the much-needed pressure upon Israel as well as rehabilitate the Palestinians' high ground as a people struggling for its self-determination. To date, the movement has been much more successful in Europe where unconditional commitment to Israel at the expense of long-term national interests and human rights principles is not embedded in its political establishment. However, even in the U.S. the movement has made significant strides and managed to permeate mainstream discourse. In all likelihood, these renewed talks will either fizzle without fanfare or be declared successful to the detriment of Palestinian rights. Either way, ordinary citizens will continue to spearhead the BDS movement and apply the political pressure upon Israel that government leaders, world superpowers, and international multilateral organizations have failed to exert.

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