The Obama administration was successful in arranging for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations through “proximity talks,” which began recently. However, expectations in all quarters are understandably low for any near-term breakthrough. Consequently, Palestinians have been systematically developing a new set of peaceful strategies to achieve independence and advance a resolution to the conflict.
Since the United Nations General Assembly meeting in the fall, the whole thrust of American policy has been to try to get the parties back into negotiations, with the apparent hope that this would generate its own dynamics and open spaces up for significant progress.
The idea of “proximity talks” in which Americans would speak alternately to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who would not meet directly, came out of the administration’s efforts to find a way for the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel without a complete settlement freeze. This is, of course, an unfortunate throwback to the pre-Madrid era. An even worse throwback is the renewed Palestinian reliance on “approval” from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.
With expectations for the talks being what they are, all parties are wondering whether or not the Americans have a Plan B. Washington is currently embroiled in significant debates about the alternatives. One camp is urging the possible development of a broad-ranging and specific US peace plan. Another is cautioning against raising expectations and counseling that no significant progress is possible under the present circumstances. A third possibility is for the United States to internationalize the process by calling a peace summit at the end of the year in the event of a continued stalemate.
The Palestinian leadership is committed to negotiations, but has no confidence it can achieve anything significant immediately given the present political climate and makeup of the Israeli Cabinet. At the same time, Palestinian officials are resolutely opposed to armed struggle or a return to another violent intifada. Because of this conundrum, they have been developing a series of creative alternative strategies designed to complement diplomacy and provide additional sources of momentum toward peace.
The most important of these is the state and institution building program adopted in August 2009 by the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, which includes creating a fully functioning bureaucracy and the institutional, economic and infrastructural basis for a successful, independent Palestinian state.
The idea is that as negotiations proceed slowly for the meanwhile, Palestinians can build the framework of their state, making independence not just a theoretical possibility but a potentially practical reality. It calls the bluff of all parties, challenging them to assess if they were ever serious about their stated commitment to a peace based on a Palestinian state.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority has been increasingly promoting nonviolent protests and civil disobedience in the West Bank targeted at the occupation. These protests, such as those at villages affected by the West Bank separation barrier, highlight abusive Israeli policies, and confront the occupation in a proactive but peaceful manner.
A third tactic in this emergent peaceful strategy to confront the occupation is to develop various economic measures aimed at ridding the Palestinian economy of settlement goods, encouraging European and other states to boycott settlement products, and preventing Palestinians from working in settlements. The aim here is to replace the settlement elements of the Palestinian economy with indigenous ones. This would provide alternatives to the Palestinians subsidizing the settlements themselves while simultaneously expanding the Palestinian economy.
All these measures are designed to emphasize the distinction between Israel itself and the occupation, and focus attention on the contradictory nature of the interests of most Israelis on the one hand and extremist settlers on the other. Palestinians are saying to ordinary Israelis, “Our policy is not aimed at you or your country but at the extremist settlers whose activities, because they are antithetical to peace, are in the end are as damaging to you as they are to us.”
All this means that, while the Palestinian leadership is committed to a negotiated agreement, it is not relying solely on American leadership or Israeli sincerity; instead, it is developing parallel, complementary tracks that Palestinians can control and that bolster diplomacy.
All the parties seriously committed to a two-state agreement, especially the international community, should welcome and support these new Palestinian initiatives, especially the state and institution building program.