Jun 20 2004

Time for Palestinians to take the initiative

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The determined decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to go through with his plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip mandates a second look at the concept of “unilateral.”

Unilateralism has properly been painted in a negative light. Negotiations between enemies should lead the way out of conflict. However, if either  party refuses to negotiate, as the position of Israel has been, other options must be explored.
At times when leaders are stubborn and the issues seem intractable, a political argument for short-term relief through unilateralism can certainly be made. And if unilateralism is the flavor of the month, it is necessary to look at how the Palestinians should respond.

While seeking a bilateral agreement should continue to be the priority of leaders, one unilateral act certainly provokes another. If the Israelis refuse to negotiate and choose to act alone, the only short-term option left to the Palestinians is unilateralism.

Palestinians have tried unilateral acts before. More than once during the past three years both Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the leaders of Islamic militant groups, have made efforts to break the cycle of violence by declaring a unilateral cease-fire.

Unfortunately, and despite the passage of weeks without a violent Palestinian act, the Israeli response was very violent. The assassinations of a Fatah leader in Tulkarm and a Hamas leader in Gaza ended Palestinian unilateral acts.

The past few weeks have seen another attempt by the Palestinians to unilaterally end the violence. This time the act was carried out without a public announcement. But this is clearly not enough.

And while it is not fair to expect symmetrical political action from the occupier and the occupied, Palestinian leaders cannot idly sit by. What is desperately needed is for the Palestinian Authority to try and carry out additional political acts that can help jump-start real bilateral negotiations.

THE POSSIBILITIES of what the Palestinians can do are obvious. Peace initiatives by Palestinians like Yasser Abed Rabbo (a signatory of the Geneva Accords) and Sari Nusseibeh (who together with Ami Ayalon head The People’s Voice campaign) have already received informal support from the Palestinian leadership.

President Arafat has refrained from expressing full formal support so as not to commit himself before talks actually begin. But with the Israelis agreeing to quit Gaza and some of the settlements in the northern West Bank, the time might be right for more formal support of one or both of these peace initiatives.

The Palestinian leadership can also think of other creative ways to remain in the limelight. There are a variety of political options. For example, it can try to bring Jordan into the political process. The access of Jordan’s King Abdullah to the White House, as seen recently in the G8 summit, shows that the Palestinians can advance their cause by making use of the good offices of some of Palestine’s neighbors.

Previous attempts to delegate sovereign powers to other parties have been opposed by both the Palestinian leadership and delegates to the PLO’s highest ruling body, the Palestine National Council.

Much of the worry stemmed from the fact that in the past the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had annexed the West Bank. This strained relations between Palestinians and the late King Hussein. However, it should not be a source of worry for the young King Abdullah, who has clearly shown that he and his government have absolutely no interest in regaining Jordanian sovereignty in the Palestinian areas.

One idea for unilateral Palestinian acts can be some kind of joint action with Palestine’s Arab neighbors. The joint Palestinian-Jordanian committee, established during the Madrid peace process, did not cause any harm to the Palestinian quest for independence. This formula, or something like it, can help get the Palestinian cause back to a more central track.

With a strong partner such as Jordan’s King Abdullah, Palestinians can expect stronger results with the US and Israeli public. It can also provide a political mechanism to help move the real bilateral peace talks back to center stage.

Palestinians and Israelis are hurting more than most people realize. Their respective political leaders are obliged to find both short- and long-term solutions to ease the pain that occurs every day. Bilateral talks aimed at ending the Israeli occupation and promoting the creation of an independent Palestinian state are certainly the best and fastest way ahead.

Short of that, with the Israelis refusing to talk and opting to act unilaterally, not doing anything is simply not an option. The Palestinian leadership must not limit its actions to only reacting to what others say and do.

It is high time for a proactive Palestinian position.

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