Although much remains to be done to ensure that the August cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians is not a mere lull in hostilities, many have already started looking beyond that basic requirement, arguing that it is time to address the root causes of the conflict. I agree. But I do not believe this should mean a rush to hit the reset button on the stalled peace process. That has repeatedly failed, and it is virtually certain to continue to fail in the absence of fundamental adjustments to the existing paradigm, the Oslo framework.
The adjustments I propose fall mainly in two areas. The first relates to Palestinian representation in the context of both the peace process and national governance. The second relates to the question of continued validity of the Oslo framework, especially given that it was designed on the basis of a timeline that long since expired in 1999.
The question of who exactly has the power or privilege to represent the Palestinian people has been a prominent feature of Palestinian and Arab political discourse since the early days of the contemporary Palestinian revolution. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, the drive to vest that power solely in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) gained momentum, and it ultimately culminated in Israel’s recognition in 1993 of the PLO as “the representative of the Palestinian people” in the context of the highly asymmetrical formulation of recognition in the Letters of Mutual Recognition. Conspicuously, but not coincidentally, missing from that formulation was the characterization of the “representative” as the “sole legitimate” representative.
But that is not why the agreement should be regarded as highly asymmetrical. The more relevant fact is that the PLO received only a qualified recognition from Israel, in the sense of it being conditioned on the PLO’s recognition of “the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security” and with the PLO settling for much less than a reciprocal recognition of the right of Palestinians to a state of their own. This in essence signaled acceptance of the Israeli historical narrative at the expense of the Palestinian narrative. In addition, the recognition was formulated in such a way that it arguably gave Israel a veto power over the possible emergence of a Palestinian state if it could represent that Palestinian statehood in any way undermined its own security. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the asymmetry of it, the mutual recognition of 1993 paved the way for the PLO to become universally accepted as the representative of the Palestinian people.
A downside to this success, however, was that, as of the signing of the Oslo Accords, the PLO was judged no longer on the basis of its past glory but entirely by the success of the Oslo framework in delivering a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the territory Israel occupied in 1967. Unfortunately, when judged by this criterion, the PLO’s record must be considered a dismal failure. Oslo has obviously failed to deliver Palestinian statehood by the end of the “interim period.” Moreover, the prospects of that happening anytime soon are decidedly dimmer today than they were then. This has contributed to a progressively receding sense of possibility about Palestinian statehood, with the ensuing sense of gloom undoubtedly reinforced by a completely unbearable state of the human condition in the occupied Palestinian territory, both in Gaza — where, in addition to the tragedy associated with periodic military escalation, people had to always contend with severe water and power shortages, inadequate public services, and a virtually complete ban on travel — and in the West Bank, where Palestinians’ right to live with dignity on their land has been constantly and severely undermined by a highly capricious and oppressive military occupation, as well as settler extremism and acts of outright terrorism.
These factors, combined with the fact that the Palestinian Authority did not always govern well, did a lot of damage to the PLO. However, probably more than anything else, the PLO’s standing was ultimately compromised by the defeat of its platform of nonviolence. Over time, the view that “violence pays off” started to gain favor with the public at large, leading non-PLO resistance factions to become more popular.
An adjustment to Palestinian representation is therefore necessary. But such an adjustment could also facilitate dealing with the fundamental problem of the Oslo framework — namely, it having transformed from an interim arrangement to a de facto open-ended arrangement. Failing to address this problem would perpetuate an absurd situation whereby Palestinians would continue to have to choose either to accept what Israel was prepared to offer in negotiations or to live under its oppressive occupation.
In essence, the adjustments I propose aim at redressing the fundamental asymmetry in the balance of power between the occupying power and the occupied. They consist of the following key elements. First, 21 years after Palestinians granted it recognition of its right to exist in peace and security, Israel should reciprocate symmetrically by recognizing the Palestinians’ right to a sovereign state on the territory it occupied in 1967 in its entirety. Second, Israel should be prepared to accept an internationally mandated date for ending its occupation and a mutually agreed path for getting there. Third, in the interim, Palestinians should not continue to be hamstrung in their effort to achieve national unity by an insistence, on the part of the international community, on a rigid application of “the Quartet principles.” As they require any Palestinian government to fully accept the Letters of Mutual Recognition, those conditions obviously derive their validity from a framework whose premises no longer are valid. Fourth, Palestinians need to see a cessation of all practices that undermine their right to live with dignity on their land, as they proceed to attain full national unity and persevere in their effort to build their state and prepare for statehood.
The key to quickly working toward securing these adjustments lies in a fully determined Palestinian effort aimed at achieving unity through a more inclusive representation framework. Toward that end, consideration should be given to the following elements.
Until such time as it becomes possible to expand the membership of the PLO, whether through elections or some other objective mechanism that may be agreed upon, I would propose that the PLO, together with its platform, be left alone, while permitting it to retain the title of “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The Unified Leadership Framework (ULF), which includes all PLO factions and those not affiliated with it, should be tasked with collectively informing the decisions of the executive committee of the PLO on matters of high national interest. Membership in the ULF by non-PLO factions does not require acceptance on their part of the PLO’s platform. Consideration could, however, be given to having the ULF adopt a time-bound commitment by all factions to nonviolence, keeping in mind that it would make sense to have the term of the commitment to nonviolence correspond to the time judged to be needed to enable the government to unify the state institutions and laws after more than seven years of separation.
It would also be important to ensure that the government is representative of the full political spectrum and empowered to the fullest extent afforded by the Basic Law. The government should commit to holding fair, free, and inclusive elections no later than six months before the end of the period during which the commitment to nonviolence, building, and reunification is to stand. In the meantime, Palestine’s current legislature should be reconvened and the political system should be opened up to a broader base of participation.
What is critically needed at this stage is a national consensus on these, and possibly other, issues. But this national consensus, especially the timeline embodied in it, can be used as a basis for approaching Israel and the international community with the chief aim of setting a date certain for ending the Israeli occupation and moving to resolve all outstanding issues.
However, beyond trying to forge a Palestinian national consensus on issues of the kind outlined above, it would be important for that consensus to reflect an adequate appreciation of two other elements. First, good governance is always and everywhere important. In the Palestinian context, it is also hugely important as an enabler in the quest for greater legitimacy and international attention and support. Second, against the backdrop of a region tragically caught up in unprecedented extremism and violence, the foundational principles on which the Palestinian state should stand acquire added importance. Thus, it is incumbent on Palestinians, and as a matter of conscious decision-making, to build a state that is founded on the basis of the universally shared progressive values of equality, tolerance, nondiscrimination, openness, and full sensitivity to the unabridged rights and privileges of citizenship. In any event, that, to me, is the only kind of state that would be worthy of the aspirations and great many sacrifices of the Palestinian people.