Whether she was serious or not, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at least managed to create the impression of seriousness on her last trip to the region. After roughly six years of total American abandonment, the US administration seems to be trying hard to convince the parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and their publics that there is change.
Many Palestinians and Arabs, and indeed some Israelis, blame this abandonment for the unprecedented deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations over the past years. After a quarter of a century of attempts, it can be observed that Palestinian-Israeli relations always deteriorate when left to their own devices. The only way to prevent this or make any progress is through third party intervention.
The “good” years, relatively speaking, from a peace-building perspective were the years between 1990 to 2000, and were a result of the heavy involvement first of George Bush senior and his secretary of state James Baker, and then the third party efforts of Norway and the Clinton administration.
Thus, the new attitude evinced by Rice is cause for some optimism. The question is how to make use of that new attitude and how to make it work. For this, we must look at the lessons we have learned from previous efforts when the US and others invested heavily to bring a resolution to the conflict but failed.
One of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from previous experience is that while efforts are undertaken on a political level there must be an absolute ban on any kind of unilateral activity to create facts on the ground that will prejudice the final outcome of negotiations.
There are two ways to do that. One would be to start by fixing the end result of the process, i.e., to agree officially that the solution is two states on the basis of 1967 borders. Such an approach would reduce the tension between the two sides that we have witnessed in previous efforts and neutralize the time factor, which was previously used by one party against the other. Many parties have recently advocated this approach, especially on the Arab side as witnessed by the Arab Initiative.
The second way is a to cement a clear agreement on freezing all kinds of Israeli practices in the occupied territories that aim to consolidate the occupation and violate the political, national and human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, especially the settlement expansion process. If there was one single factor that above all else contributed to the failure of the peace process it was the settlements.
Another major conclusion to be drawn from previous experience is the need for a neutral third party mediator. One of the main defects of previous peace efforts has been the almost instinctual American bias in favor of Israel. This bias must end, especially on issues where international law is compromised as a result. In the Washington negotiations, where the US was sponsor and mediator, there were major differences in the two parties’ negotiating positions. The Palestinian position was clearly and intentionally based on the stipulations of international law on issues such as the jurisdiction of the Palestinian interim authority, the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in the occupied territories and the need to stop illegal Israeli settlement expansions on territory whose future was the subject of the negotiations. On all these issues, unfortunately, the mediator was only too willing to compromise international law in favor of Israel.
And maybe, before all of the above details, the US has to understand that there are basic conceptual differences between the two sides over what constitutes the required compromise. The starting point from the Israeli perspective is that negotiations are about the future of disputed territory and hence that territory is up for compromise. The Palestinian perspective is that the conflict did not start in 1967 when the territories in question were occupied, but in 1948. And since Palestinians have basic rights not only in the 1967 territories but also in the rest of historic Palestine, ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders is the compromise.
Another reason for caution from a Palestinian perspective regarding this apparent new American interest in the conflict is the linkage with other regional conflicts, especially Iraq. Although Palestinians, like everybody else, understand the impact of the continuing injustice against Palestinians on American policy in the wider Middle East, especially in terms of credibility vis-a- vis the Arab “street”, it has to be understood that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stands on its own and should be resolved because it needs to be resolved. It should not simply be used as a means to improve the image of the US in the wider region and consequently facilitate American policy there.