The Obama administration has been persistent about the Middle East peace process. But is it serious about peace? If it is, and I believe that President Barack Obama is personally serious in spite of widespread skepticism among Arabs and Palestinians, then this administration needs to understand why its predecessors have failed. There were serious flaws in previous peace processes, and I saw how they played out firsthand from my posts in London, Washington and Moscow.
Flaws in Previous Processes
First, the two parties were left to reach an agreement on their own. Given the asymmetry between the power Israel could bring to bear and the fact that Palestinians have lived under occupation since 1967 and in exile since 1948, this meant that the international community effectively allowed the Israelis to dictate the parameters of peace and the pace of progress, if any.
Second, Israel was allowed to hold the peace process — and the Palestinians and Arabs — hostage to its domestic politics. Lost in the Likud-Labor, Shimon-Sharon, Bibi-Barak struggles was the fact that Israel had the obligation, under international law, to withdraw from the occupied territories irrespective of who ruled Israel at any given time.
Third, Israel made sure that it did not deal with the Arab world in a comprehensive way but through separate tracks, each one of which could be revived at a different point, only to see the illusory progress towards peace fade away.
Process Took the Place of Peace
Such a process could not — and did not — succeed. Instead, what we have today, 19 years after the Madrid conference and 17 years after Oslo, is a durable process rather than a lasting peace.
Truth be told, I never once felt, during the past two decades, that peace might be at hand. Throughout, our negotiating teams faced deliberate Israeli ambiguity about the final outcome and a lack of commitment to the 1967 boundaries. Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000 wanted to keep the Jordan Valley as a so-called security zone, as well as almost all of Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs that deliberately fragment the West Bank into disconnected Bantustans and that are strategically situated on our water aquifers — all the while rejecting any responsibility for the Palestinian refugees.
Although the Taba talks in January 2001 progressed further, it was clear to our negotiating team that the Israeli negotiators did not enjoy Barak’s support. And, in any case, Barak’s coalition was by then in tatters. That was the closest the Middle East came to peace during these endless years of negotiation, when the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories more than doubled.
Path to Israeli Legitimacy
So where do we go from here? There has been an Arab peace plan on the table since 2002 that offers a comprehensive peace in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just and agreed-upon resolution for Palestinian refugees. As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has noted, this would bring Israel not only a two-state solution but a 57-state solution because it is also supported by the entire Muslim world. Israel has been saying for decades that it is looking for acceptance and legitimacy. Well, here it is.
Obama must learn from the failures of the past. He should treat America’s partners in the Quartet — the European Community, Russia and the United Nations — as more than an echo chamber, and engage them fully in the process. A lot of heavy lifting is going to be needed to convince Israel to relinquish the spoils of war, by showing it the benefits of peace as well as the costs of occupation, and it would be best for the U.S. to have others share that burden.
If America and its Quartet partners are willing to let international law — particularly U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention — rather than Israel dictate the terms of peace, that will make up for the asymmetry of power between the two sides. Even though it would not solve everything, nothing would do more to shore up the American position in the region than a deal that is welcomed by the Palestinians and fully integrates Israel into the neighborhood.
The Palestinians are going into these talks with no illusions, given the bitter experience of past negotiations. But at least we can, through our presence, show that we are still willing to give America a chance to deliver on its commitments. We need peace as Israel is rapidly swallowing up more of our land and water, demolishing Palestinian homes and driving more Palestinians into exile.
Palestinians are not the obstacle to peace. We have respected all our commitments to the international community. It is now up to the international community to respect its commitments to us. Φ
Afif Safieh served as the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to London, Washington, D.C. and Moscow. His new book, The Peace Process: From Breakthrough to Breakdown (London, Saqi Books), is to be launched in London on Sept. 15. Read this article here: