After more than two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we are at a turning point in the history of the region. As a Palestinian negotiator for over 20 years, I see that tough decisions have to be made. The stakes are too high – not just for the Palestinian people, but for the entire region’s stability.
Since Palestinians first made our historic compromise calling for a two-state solution 22 years ago, we have entered numerous negotiations processes with the hope of finally achieving a comprehensive end to our conflict. But Israel’s continued settlement enterprise will defeat any prospects for real peace between Palestinians and Israelis. By refusing to extend the expired moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel sends a clear message that it is not serious about negotiations. And this message fundamentally undermines the peace process.
Palestinians cannot negotiate at any cost. Coming to the table without a halt in settlement construction undercuts our government's credibility with the Palestinian people and may give ground to extremists who are against the peace process. Instability in the occupied Palestinian territory is bad for the region, and it’s bad for Israel.
Call for settlement freeze not new
Our call for a settlement freeze is not new. Under international law and previous agreements, including the “Roadmap to Peace,” which was endorsed by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, Israel is obliged to freeze construction in occupied Palestinian territory, including that for natural growth.
Of course, we know that peace requires compromise. In the 1993 Oslo accords, Palestinians made the very painful decision to recognize the state of Israel and its right to exist over 78 percent of our historic homeland, taken from us by Israel in 1948. Since that time, we have focused our efforts on gaining our independence through the establishment of a state on the remaining 22 percent.
But peace also requires fairness and equality. As President Yasser Arafat often said, we are not looking for an agreement that solves only some of our issues, but one that provides Palestinians and Israelis with a just agreement that leads to lasting peace between us.
For years, the path for Palestinian freedom and statehood has been obstructed by Israel’s continuing policy of occupying and colonizing Palestinian territory. Israel has done this through the implementation of its so-called “facts on the ground” policy: the imposition of a settlement enterprise designed to unilaterally annex Palestinian land, water, and natural resources.
Settlement towns cut deep into Palestinian territory, dividing Palestinian land into distinct and isolated areas (“Bantustans”). Further, Israel has developed an infrastructure to support these settlements, including Israeli-only roads and an illegal wall built on our land that de-facto segregates Palestinians from Palestinians, farmers from their farms, and students from their schools.
Negotiations as guise for settlement activity
As a member of the Palestinian negotiations team for over 20 years, I have often witnessed the negotiations process succeed in making progress, leading to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and West Bank cities in 1994 to 1996, providing both Israel and the Palestinian authority with security, stability, recognition, and economic growth. But I have also seen the process turned into a public relations campaign, whereby Israeli politicians repeat the word “peace” over and over, while their actions in settlement building actually worsen the situation on the ground.
Historically, Israel has used every negotiation process as a guise for ramping up settlement activity. Since the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory and East Jerusalem has increased considerably, far exceeding even natural growth rates in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territory. In fact, it has more than doubled, numbering more than half a million illegal settlers today. This is not only a serious threat to Palestinians, but an insult to the very credibility of the peace process.
Currently, Israeli settlement construction is moving at a pace that is much faster than it was prior to the freeze, which ended this September. We also know now, that hundreds of violations were committed during the freeze.
Participation in negotiations cannot be motivated by a cynical and politically opportunistic blame-game. It must sincerely and steadfastly aim to achieve justice and regional peace. Israel’s feigned commitments to peace while disregarding international law burns in the hearts of Palestinians.
Make Israel respect international law
People skeptical of the peace process will say that Israel does not have any incentive to respect international law. But here is where the international community must play a critical role.
As a Palestinian, I appreciate the support and efforts of the Obama administration to reactivate the Middle East peace process and to finally bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land through the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But for the peace process to work, the international community must provide real incentives and disincentives – such as banning the import of products produced in illegal settlements – for Israel to respect international law.
To show its commitment to a two-state solution, Israel, as a first step, must preserve the possibility of two states by freezing all building in settlements, including in occupied East Jerusalem. Only then can the negotiating teams decide how settlements within the Palestinian territory will be dismantled.
Peace is possible
As a negotiator, I firmly believe that peace is possible. Two thirds of the Palestinians support negotiations with Israel, and the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians back a two-state solution. It is clear that both peoples see there is no alternative to a negotiated peace, that war will not provide any solution, and that the status quo is untenable, and in fact very dangerous.
We were able to reach agreements with all the governments of Israel up until the Camp David summit in 2000, including agreements signed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself from the years 1996 through 1998. The roles played by President George H. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker and President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher were quite helpful in reaching these agreements.
The leadership of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Arafat played a crucial role. This success can be repeated, if Israel decides that peace is more important than a land grab.
Putting words into actions
Palestinians have once again entered this peace process in good faith. But there is little sense in negotiating the end of occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state while Israel continues to build and reinforce its settlement enterprise. Internal Israeli politics cannot impose the standards for peace. It is time to stop thinking of “creative ways” towards a “more tolerable” occupation and make the tough decisions needed to end it.
The United States and the rest of the international community must transfer their words into actions and take a firm stance to bring the parties closer to peace. As time runs short and prospects for peace are fading, only bold actions and positions can bring the change needed to end this protracted conflict.
Peace must succeed. There are no other viable alternatives. Israel must realize this. And for the sake of stability in the region and global security, the international community must see this, too.
Dr. Nabeel Shaath is a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations team. He has been involved in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis for more than 20 years, including as chief negotiator of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in 1994. He also leads Fatah’s International Relations Commission and is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.