Road to Nowhere

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May 4, 2010

Mahmoud, a Palestinian taxi driver, isn’t taking proximity talks seriously. “They just talk and talk and talk,” he says, as we wait at a red light in Jerusalem. “Nothing changes.”

His cynicism is shared by both the Palestinian Authority and Netanyahu’s administration. Israel is concerned with what Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon calls an “unprecedented wave of incitement”—the PA-led boycott of settlement-produced goods and the naming of public locales for Palestinian militants. The PA points to the fact that Israel won’t stop building settlements.

Stakes are always high when it comes to peace talks. But, in light of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plans to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, this time they’re even higher.

“In terms of sheer casualties, a state before peace could be a very risky move,” says Dr. Uriel Abulof, an assistant professor in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Political Science.

Problems with Jewish settlers, a sticking point in the peace process, would be sharpened. Dr. Abulof uses Ariel, deep in the West Bank, as an example. “Israel could say ‘We didn’t agree to this solution… You know what? Let the Palestinians take them.’”

Armed and left to their own devices, the settlers could revolt. Violence could spill over the Green Line and lead to open fighting in Israel, as well. A state before peace, Dr. Abulof concludes, might be “a prelude to a civil war.”

Some analysts have also warned that it could lead to clashes between PA forces and the IDF.

There are other scenarios. With Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party firmly opposed to the move, the PA could split. And if the Palestinian government collapsed, the fledgling state might go along with it.

Too weak to stand alone, we could see the West Bank become “a zombie state,” Dr. Abulof says, like the now-defunct Yugoslavia. “These states are formally alive but practically dead.”

Could the West Bank become something like a formalized Gaza?

“Gaza is an extreme example of the worst of all possible worlds,” says Sari Bashi, founder and executive director of the human rights organization Gisha and an expert on international law.

“A lot of it would depend on not just the declaration but what control is exercised by the PA….” Bashi explains that for a state to be recognized by international law and the international community, it must show that it is in control.

Without an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the PA would only have power over part of the West Bank, as it does now. “It certainly is a danger that statehood would be recognized in part of the territory and not in others,” Bashi says.

This could result in a fragmented Palestinian state that, Bashi says, “could be prejudicial in the future or could be seen as a starting point” for future negotiations with Israel.

Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst based in Amman, explains that such a body would be an “obstacle to Palestinian self-determination and ending the conflict.”

“I’m not saying this is the entity Fayyad is attempting to establish,” Rabbani, the son of Palestinian refugees from Haifa, adds. “But if you proclaim a state under the current conditions, there is a significant risk that this is what you’re going to end up with…. You can’t establish a meaningful Palestinian entity unless you terminate the occupation.”

That would mean an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the implementation of a two state solution. While the occupation must end, and urgently so, Fayyad’s declaration is unlikely to stop it.

“It is interesting that some Israelis and foreigners are comparing Fayyad to Ben Gurion,” Rabbani says. “I find the analogy inappropriate because Ben Gurion and Zionism would have come to nothing without the British Mandate. Fayyad doesn’t have a British Mandate.”

So it looks like, unfortunately, that leads us back to politics.

But the same parties that have supported the peace process have done little to encourage Israel to comply, Rabbani says. “What they have done instead is laid the foundation for consolidation of Israeli rule.”

And Fayyad’s declaration could help Israel tighten its grip on the West Bank. “Israel could see that as an opportunity to make declarations of its own, to seek annexation of the settlements.” Depending then on the reaction of the international community, the occupation could deepen, only making things worse.

“If he proclaims a state without the military or political resources to actually establish one and if he lacks sufficient international support… at best, it would be a meaningless statement.”

As is Netanyahu’s current posturing, Rabbani adds.

When Dr. Norman Finkelstein speaks about Netanyahu, he uses the same word as Rabbani. Meaningless. “What does [the peace process] have to do with Netanyahu? There are international legal principles which were ratified by the international court of justice which call for a full Israeli withdrawal, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, for a just solution for the refugees.”

Dr. Finkelstein adds, “The only possibility is grassroots.” The people, he argues, must stop looking to leaders for change and must mobilize to bring about the change themselves.

While Fayyad has clearly been attempting to align himself as a part of the bottom-up movement—burning goods produced in Israeli settlements and joining the anti-wall protest in Bil’in—his declaration remains a political move that won’t do the trick.

“What will end up happening is self-predictable. The Israelis will declare that since he unilaterally established a state, they will unilaterally annex the settlements,” Dr. Finkelstein says. “We’ll have a crisis and we’ll be back to where we are now…. It won’t advance the Palestinian goal by a jot.”

Some critics have also pointed out that Fayyad could damage Palestinian aspirations by offering refugees the right to return to the newly declared state, diminishing claims to property within Israel. And after 60 years without a state, the right to return to their homeland, bolstered by UN resolution 194, is considered sacred to many.

A Rafah-born Palestinian refugee who now resides overseas remarks, “We will never agree to relinquish our right to return.” He hopes for a shared, bi-national state and adds that he and many other Palestinians will not recognize unilateral steps made by Fayyad, who “lacks electoral legitimacy.”

Sometimes Mahmoud, the taxi driver, gets fed up with it all. The tensions, politics, clogged intersections, and snarled traffic. On those days, he fills a thermos with coffee, buys a fresh pack of cigarettes, and heads to Tel Aviv. He parks where he can see the water, an unending blue. He turns up the radio, gets out of the car. Alone, he dances a slow, sad step.

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