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Direct Negotiations

The U.S. government has now announced that direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will resume after a September 2 launch ceremony at the White House. In making this announcement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated that this new round of negotiations should be “without preconditions”, as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted they should be. However, she also stated that both Mr. Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have agreed that the negotiations should be subject to a one-year time limit, which was not Mr. Netanyahu’s preference.

Almost 17 years after the “Oslo” Declaration of Principles, with its five-year deadline for reaching a permanent status agreement, was euphorically signed on the White House lawn, why should anyone take this new “deadline” seriously or see any reason for hope in 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.

In an interview published on November 29, 2007, in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, 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 article helpfully referred to a prior Ha’aretz article, published on March 13, 2003, in which Mr. 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.”

If Israeli public opinion could be brought around to sharing the perception of Israel’s position and options reflected in Mr. Olmert’s perceptive public pronouncements, the Palestinians would be entering this new round of direct negotiations in a position of overwhelming strength, intellectually and psychologically difficult though it would be for Palestinians to imagine such a role reversal.

All that the Palestinian leadership now needs to do is to state promptly that, if a definitive peace agreement on a “two-state basis” has not been reached and signed by the agreed deadline of September 2, 2011, 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 September 2, 2011.

Framing the choice before Israelis with such clarity would ensure that the Israeli leadership would be inspired — indeed, compelled — to make the most attractive two-state offer to the Palestinians which Israeli public opinion could conceivably find acceptable.

At this point — but not before — serious and meaningful negotiations could 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.

This latest one-year deadline for achieving an agreed settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be meaningful. It must have clear and unambiguous consequences. Whether the future of the Holy Land is to be based on partition into two states or on full democracy in one state, a definitive choice must be made in the coming year. A fraudulent “peace process” designed simply to kill time can no longer be tolerated.

More articles by:

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who as advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.

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