Almost immediately after the hollow show in Annapolis, a ray of hope has appeared from an unexpected source — Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.
In an interview published on November 29 in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, he declared, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”
This Ha’aretz article helpfully referred readers to a prior Ha’aretz article, published on March 13, 2003, in which Olmert had expressed the same concern in the following terms: “More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against ‘occupation’, in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle — and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”
Briefly, the Palestinian leadership appeared to have noticed Mr. Olmert’s nightmare. On January 8, 2004, Ahmed Qurei (then the Palestinian prime minister and, more recently, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the run-up to Annapolis) declared that the wall being built through the West Bank represented an “apartheid solution” which would “put Palestinians like chickens in cages” and “kill the two-state solution” and concluded: “We will go for a one-state solution. There is no other solution.” Three days later, he reaffirmed this position as he stood before the wall.
Unfortunately for the Palestinians and for the causes of justice and peace, there was no Palestinian follow-up. Now, almost four years later, Mr. Olmert has flung open the window of opportunity so wide and so publicly that it is barely conceivable that any Palestinian leadership could fail to notice and jump through it.
Throughout the long years of the perpetual “peace process”, deadlines have been consistently and predictably missed. Such failures have been facilitated by the practical reality that, for Israel, “failure” has had no consequences other than a continuation of the status quo, which, for all Israeli governments, has been not only tolerable but preferable to any realistically realizable alternative. For Israel, “failure” has always constituted “success”, permitting it to continue confiscating Palestinian land, expanding its West Bank colonies, building Jews-only bypass roads and generally making the occupation even more permanent and irreversible.
In everyone’s interests, this must change. For there to be any chance of success in the new round of negotiations, failure must have clear and compelling consequences which Israelis would find unappealing — indeed, at least initially, nightmarish.
If Israeli public opinion could be brought around to sharing the perception of their position and options reflected in Mr. Olmert’s public pronouncements, the Palestinians would be entering the “continuous negotiations” due to commence on December 12 in a position of overwhelming strength — intellectually and psychologically difficult though it would be for them to imagine such a role reversal.
All that the Palestinian leadership now needs to do is to agree, very publicly, with Mr. Olmert. It should state promptly that, if a definitive peace agreement on a “two-state basis” has not been reached and signed by the agreed deadline of the end of 2008, the Palestinian people will have no choice but to seek justice and freedom through democracy — through full rights of citizenship in a single state in all of Israel/Palestine, free of any discrimination based on race or religion and with equal rights for all who live there, as in any true democracy.
The Arab League should then publicly state that the very generous Arab Peace Initiative, which, since March 2002, has offered Israel permanent peace and normal diplomatic and economic relations in return for Israel’s compliance with international law, will expire and be “off the table” if a definitive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has not been signed by the end of 2008.
At this point — but not before — serious and meaningful negotiations will begin. It may already be too late to achieve a decent two-state solution (as opposed to an indecent, less-than-a-Bantustan one), but a decent two-state solution would never have a better chance of being achieved. If it is, indeed, too late, then Israelis, Palestinians and the world will know and can thereafter focus their minds and efforts constructively on the only other decent alternative.
It is even possible that, if forced to focus during the coming year on the prospect of living in a democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens — which, after all, is what the United States and the European Union hold up, in all other instances, as the ideal form of political life — many Israelis might come to view this “threat” as less nightmarish than they traditionally have.
In this context, Israelis might wish to talk with some white South Africans. The transformation of South Africa’s racial-supremicist ideology and political system into a fully democratic one has transformed them, personally, from pariahs into people welcomed throughout their region and the world. It has also ensured the permanence of a strong and vital white presence in southern Africa in a way that prolonging the flagrant injustice of a racial-supremicist ideology and political system and imposing fragmented and dependent “independent states” on the natives could never have achieved.
This is not a precedent to dismiss. It could and should inspire.
JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck“.