Saeb Erakat: Israel's Step Back From Peace

March 28, 2009

The Washington Post
By Saeb Erakat

Emphasizing diplomacy and engagement over isolation and confrontation, President Obama has spoken eloquently of a new era of American leadership. Of the changes he has promised, the most important to Palestinians is his commitment to reinvigorating the Middle East peace process.

Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains crucial to achieving stability and peace in the Middle East as well as to advancing vital U.S. interests. The Obama administration clearly understands this, prioritizing the peace process as part of a more integrated approach to U.S. policy in the region. America's renewed commitment to brokering a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis offers a measure of hope to Palestinians living under the weight of occupation. But it also comes at a time when Israel's own commitment to peace is in doubt after the formation of a right-wing coalition government.

Peace is not a word that sits comfortably with the Israeli right, which will dominate Israel's new government, even with Labor's decision this week to join it. Among its ranks are those who have long opposed peace with Palestinians, no matter the cost; who use the cover of religion to advocate extremist views; and who have supported the expulsion of Palestinians or now devise loyalty tests designed to achieve the same result.

Many of this government's members exemplify some of the worst traditions in Israeli politics, traditions that find common cause in advocating the expansion of Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights and independence.

One irony not lost on Palestinians is that incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself rejects virtually all the preconditions that the international community demanded of the newly elected Palestinian unity government in 2007, given his refusal to formally endorse the two-state solution and commit to implementing past agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Rather than ending the occupation, Netanyahu has proposed an "economic peace" that would seek to normalize and better manage it. Instead of a viable Palestinian state, his vision extends no further than a series of disconnected cantons with limited self-rule.

Palestinians have not engaged in years of negotiations to see them fail. But neither is our patience unlimited. If efforts to reinvigorate the peace process are to have any chance of success, three factors will be crucial.

The first is intent. Palestinians and Israelis must renew their commitment to the vision of two states existing side by side in peace and security.

Since 1988, when the PLO made the historic decision to formally accept the two-state solution as the basis for a negotiated settlement with Israel, this vision has been at the heart of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and it has remained our consistent position throughout negotiations.

The new Israeli government must unequivocally affirm its support for the two-state solution and the establishment of a viable, independent and fully sovereign Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, and it must commit to past agreements between Israel and the PLO. Without these commitments, Palestinians have no partner for peace.

The second factor goes to the heart of credibility. By repeatedly violating its obligations under previous agreements, Israel has undermined the very credibility of the peace process. Restoring that credibility is vital.

This requires that Israel implement an immediate and complete freeze on settlement activity, including all natural growth and the construction of Israel's wall, in keeping with both international law and its obligations under the 2003 "road map." Without a settlement freeze, there will be no two-state solution left to speak of.

Israel must also lift its crippling regime of closures and restore normal movement in and out of, as well as within, the occupied Palestinian territory. Checkpoints, Israel's wall, the permit system it imposes on Palestinians and other restrictions on movement frustrate Palestinian life, fragment Palestinian society and strangle our economy.

Tied to this is the urgent need to reopen Gaza's border crossings to allow the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, especially desperately needed humanitarian supplies and reconstruction materials.

The third factor concerns accountability. A credible enforcement mechanism designed to hold both parties accountable for their obligations under previous agreements must be established by the "Quartet" of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. And America must serve as the honest broker capable of creating a level playing field between Palestinians and Israelis during talks.

Fortunately, a sound basis for moving the process forward exists, one that complements America's drive for a comprehensive regional peace. First proposed in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel full normalization with 57 Arab and Muslim states in return for an end to Israel's occupation of Arab lands and a just and agreed-upon solution for Palestinian refugees.

The peace process lives on borrowed time. With its credibility at stake, it will not survive another round of failed negotiations -- and neither will the two-state solution. It is in this context that the choices made by Prime Minister Netanyahu will be judged. And it is in this context that the promise of change that President Obama offers becomes so important.

The writer is chief Palestinian negotiator.
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