The deadline for this round of peace talks has expired. Dissolving the Palestinian Authority is the best course of action for Palestinians.
Nearly two and a half decades have gone by since the Oslo Accords were signed. The Palestinians are further away from their goal than they were then. The latest round of negotiations began in Washington on July 29, 2013, following an agreement between the parties brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The novel feature of this round was that a definite deadline was fixed — nine months, ending on April 29, 2014 — for the conclusion of the talks.
The deadline has expired. Let alone settling the problem, Kerry could not even manage to persuade the parties to extend the talks by six months. He made more than a dozen trips to the region and his effort and dedication deserve recognition, but that will be no consolation to him. He held Israel responsible for the deadlock, stating publicly that Israel’s decision to build 700 more settlement housing units was directly responsible for the breakdown.
The Palestinians gave an additional reason — namely, Israel’s failure to abide by its commitment to release the Palestinian prisoners by the agreed date. Israel says that it was the Palestinian decision to adhere to 15 UN conventions that was responsible for the collapse of the talks. The two sides have always had one thing strongly in common through the past four decades: each wants the other held responsible for the failure of negotiations. But now, Israel feels so confident of itself that it no longer cares if it is blamed for the breakdown.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had a slight upper hand in terms of public diplomacy. Most of the international community was holding Israel responsible for its intransigent attitude. This might have been of little comfort to the Palestinians, but it did make it possible for donors to continue with their financial support. That sympathy has greatly diminished, if not been wiped out altogether, by the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, concluded in Gaza on April 24.
The timing was particularly bad, since it gave the “Jewish state” a plausible excuse to call off the talks before the April 29 deadline. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that Abbas could have peace with Israel or with Hamas, he could not have both. Abbas should have waited until the expiry of the deadline before making peace with Hamas. Having said this, it is clear that Israel was an accessory to this development before the fact; it could easily have prevented the Fatah delegation from crossing over to the Gaza Strip from the Erez Crossing that it tightly controls, thus preventing the agreement from being signed. This shows that Israel wanted the agreement to be concluded.
Israel has been under some pressure internationally. The movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions and products made in the settlements had gained traction in recent times. But the agreement between Hamas and Fatah will probably help Israel to diminish this pressure, since there is no sympathy for Hamas anywhere, except in Qatar and Turkey. All in all, Israel will not be unhappy if the status quo continues. It is the Palestinians who stand to lose. Unfortunately for them, the only power who can help them is the US, but the latter is unwilling and unable to put pressure on Israel to live up to its stated readiness to make sacrifices for the sake of peace. It is not realistic to expect the US to act as an “honest broker”.
What should or could the Palestinians do? They have essentially five options. Live with the status quo, accept Israel’s terms, start another Intifada, adopt Gandhian non-violent Satyagraha, or dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA). The first will leave Palestine in a state of limbo for ever and is not sustainable. Donors will not keep financing them and the lifestyle to which many Palestinians have got accustomed. Agreeing to Israel’s terms would mean reconciling to a state on about 50 per cent of the West Bank, not having the capital in East Jerusalem and giving up forever, even symbolically, the “right of return” of refugees.
No Palestinian leader can accept these terms and expect to remain alive for long! Do they have the stomach to start another Intifada? Doubtful, though a well coordinated and organised popular movement with some violence could prod Israel into serious negotiations, as happened in the late 1980s, when the first Intifada was directly responsible for goading the then Israeli government into joining the Oslo dialogue. A Gandhian struggle needs a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. There might be one hiding somewhere in the West Bank. The late Edward Said told me once that this was the only hope.
Dissolving the PA and handing over the keys to the UN or Israel is the best course of action for Palestine at present. What can they lose? Yes, the leaders will lose their thrones and chairs and those at the top will miss the banquets and five-star hotel stays negotiating with Israel. But for the people of Palestine, those we call “aam aadmi”, it will not involve any additional cost. In any case, they will have to be motivated to face some discomfort for the greater cause. It is Israel that will be put on the mat. A hardline Israeli minister has said, “Who needs good wishes when we have such good news?” But sober Israelis are worried.
The practical consequence of handing over the PA’s keys to Israel would be that Israel would become a full-fledged occupying power over three million Palestinians living in the West Bank. It would be responsible for the more than one million Palestinian civilians employed by the PA, as well as several thousand Palestinian security personnel. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) would not have to worry about the loss of donor support, since Israel would have to provide at least a minimum of security and healthcare, education, electricity, water, etc, to the occupied people. A conservative estimate puts the burden on Israel at $2.7 billion a year.
There will inevitably be isolated acts of terror; the terrorists will have easier access to potential “targets”. Israel will have to react. The cycle of violence and counter-violence, effectively contained across the West Bank for the past several years, ever since the “apartheid wall” was erected, will start all over again. Israel will be perceived once again as an oppressive occupier, generating not only international opprobrium but also rejuvenating the dormant “peace now” movement. It will either have to grant citizenship to all the Palestinians living in the West Bank or treat them as inferior subjects; either way, the demographic factor will work against Israel.
Israel is banking on divisions among the Palestinians for this threat to close down the PA not materialising. Abbas completed his term several years ago, and contenders are waiting in the wings to replace him. Abbas himself would be deprived of all the perks that go with the presidency — state visits, gun salutes, dinners at the White House, etc. But he has enjoyed these benefits long enough. Others are keen to step into his office. There is Mahmoud Dahlan, a former security chief of Gaza during Yasser Arafat’s time; there is also Marwan Barghouti, a darling of the Palestinians as well as of some Israelis, who is in an Israeli prison undergoing five consecutive life sentences. But Abbas should assert his leadership, carry the PLO executive committee and execute his “threat”.
Palestine is a lost cause. The Arab world is busy with its “spring”. The most important Arab states — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — have given up on it. The “street” is empty and silent on the Palestinian issue. The international community is focused on other Middle Eastern issues, especially Syria. Even the jihadists have given up invoking Palestine to justify their jihad; now it is jihad for jihad’s sake. The Palestinians ought seriously to consider the option of dissolving their ineffective state and let the chips fall where they may.
The writer, India’s former permanent representative at the UN, is a former special envoy for the Middle East