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Giving up is not an option

By: Ziad Asali, Huffington Post

08.12.2010

Introduction

The Administration has mercifully, and honestly, admitted that the time has come to abandon its policy of seeking a settlement freeze as a path to negotiations. It will pay a political price and will be blamed and endure the gloating of its critics. However, at the end of the day, the US government will be the one that everyone else will look to for providing answers and driving policy. The two-state solution is the unchanging American policy because it is in our own national strategic interest.
 
The indispensable American role and the twin pillars of negotiations and state-building remain unchanged. The lessons learned have more to do with how to proceed on these tracks rather than questioning our assumptions about the two-state solution and the stake holders. Bending to political reality and adjusting political approach neither means, nor does it entail, a strategic shift in policy.
 
A major lesson to be learned is that while high diplomacy is complex and might prove to be elusive for some time to come, more attention needs to be paid to development on the ground both in terms of deliverables, and imbuing these deliverables with political significance.
 
Negotiations: Necessary but Elusive
 
The politics surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli peace process have never been more difficult to discern or more troubling to witness. While there is a deep freeze on negotiations, there is none on settlement expansion. President Mahmoud Abbas' responsible assistance in battling the raging fire in Carmel was met with a thankful call from Netanyahu, yet these two leaders cannot move one step forward to discuss the policies and resolve the politics that stand between them and the resumption of talks. Across the whole region, the smoldering confrontations on religious, ethnic and factional fault lines threaten to erupt while a mountain of diplomatic leaks yields a river of fatuous statements by regional politicians that have further polluted the landscape.
 
Over the course of the past two decades, the status quo between Palestinians and Israelis has been defined by a simmering conflict that is prevented from erupting by the pursuit of a political process or, at the very least, by the appearance of serious negotiations. While the negotiations have served the purpose of keeping peace, lack of progress has regularly resulted in episodic violence. The current impasse in negotiations, in the midst of a multitude of interconnected bubbling regional conflicts, brings us perilously close to explosion.
 
The only policy that actually offers a solution which would permanently end the conflict is the one of a two-state solution based on the '67 borders. However, turning that policy into reality is impeded by the politics of Israel, Palestine and the United States, all the places that must come to agreement if we are to have any hope. Leaders do not seem prepared for painful compromises they must make, and for the public pushback they will face. On both sides, the loudest public voices are the vociferous and cynical lamentations of professional victims warning politicians against "betrayal" of sacred and historic "rights." The fates of Sadat and Rabin linger in the minds of the leaders who prefer to lead and to live.
 
A concerted effort must be made to shape expectations and to explain to people that the future is more important than the past and that sanity, let alone civility, must prevail in public discourse. History should be a guide to the future rather than a cave where one dwells. However, such reorientation of the political landscape is a complex - and time consuming - effort.
 
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Progress on the Ground: It is Political
 
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How to Do It?
 
Progress - particularly on the security front - needs to result in Israeli territorial withdrawals and increased Palestinian jurisdiction over further areas of the West Bank. This requires an Israeli political decision to allow the military echelon to make security-based, not politically-driven, assessments on when such withdrawals and extension of jurisdiction are feasible. These assessments should then be turned into decisions and actions. This should not be subject to negotiations - which would only turn it into a political football - but rather should be part of a process of coordinated unilateralism. The Palestinians should pursue their institution building programs separately, as the Israelis make their assessments separately. Each side should be guided by its own internal assessments, goals and interests. What is needed is exchange of information, security cooperation, and a third-party - the US - to shepherd them along.
 
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Conclusion
 
While trilateral negotiations have come to an end in the immediate future, the quest for the resumption of negotiations cannot end. The Administration will continue its bilateral conversations with both parties. As new political realities and public perceptions are being reshaped, there needs to be positive concrete and political deliverables on the ground.
 
Israeli policy makers who understand the security and demographic imperatives of a Palestinian state to Israeli national interest, must engage in a strategic dialogue with those who view this effort as a threat to be stymied rather than a vehicle to deliver peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians. We, and the whole world, are helping the Palestinians build their state and its institutions as we help change the dynamics between them and Israel on the ground. Negotiations under our auspices are unavoidable and both parties must understand that they need each other to achieve permanent peace. The Palestinian state that will end the conflict is already on its way.
 
 
Ziad Asali
American Task Force on Palestine, President