By Mahmoud Abbas
This month marks 15 painful years since the Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn. Palestinian children who started school when the Oslo Agreement was signed in 1993 are now young adults. They have not known a day of true freedom or genuine security in their lives.
Oslo offered peace on a timetable, freedom doled out in stages. Its promise was derailed by increased Israeli settlement construction, restrictions on Palestinian movement and, correspondingly, by violent resistance to occupation from some Palestinians. The process begun by President George Bush in Annapolis last year offers another opportunity to reach a lasting peace. History will judge none of us kindly if we squander this opportunity.
I continue to believe that we can achieve a lasting peace, with the Israeli and Palestinian peoples living as neighbors in two independent states. But if we do not succeed, and succeed soon, the parameters of the debate are apt to shift dramatically. Israel’s continued settlement expansion and land confiscation in the West Bank makes physical separation of our two peoples increasingly impossible. The number of Israeli settlers in the Palestinian West Bank grew by approximately 85% after the Oslo accords were signed.
We are impatient for our freedom. Yet partial peace, as proposed again by my current interlocutors, is not the way forward. Partial freedom is a contradiction in terms. Either a Palestinian lives free or continues to live under the yoke of Israeli military occupation.
We want our children to live with hope and the opportunity to realize their potential. Yet our daily reality worsens. We are walled into shrinking pockets of land, reminiscent of the Bantustans of South Africa. Increasingly, Israel confines us to separate and inferior roads.
Israeli leaders insist that Jerusalem not be physically divided. I agree. Although Jerusalem’s sovereignty must be divided, the city itself can be shared as the capital of two states — east for Palestine and west for Israel. While claiming to abhor dividing the city in half, Israel nonetheless splits the city through its complex of walls, tunnels and laws that segregate and discriminate between Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Israel continues to encircle the holy city with exclusively Jewish settlements that sever it from the rest of the occupied West Bank.
We acknowledge the hardships faced by our Israeli neighbors. No Israeli child should go to sleep at night in fear. The irony is that although Israel possesses the strongest military in the region, its might cannot guarantee security for its people. The lesson of the last 15 years is that only a just peace can bring true security to Israel and Palestine.
I have long believed that we must resolve our differences at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield. But the goal of these negotiations must be a fair, comprehensive and clear agreement. The negotiations cannot be a cover allowing the stronger party to continue imposing its will.
Rather than a partial outcome, we seek an agreement resulting in two viable and sovereign states based on 1967 borders, including a Jerusalem that is the capital of two states and a just resolution that honors the rights of the Palestinian refugees.
What is often overlooked is the enormous historic compromise we already made in accepting the two-state solution and the creation of our state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on only 22% of our historic homeland. No responsible leader could agree to a peace that further erodes this tiny territory and strips away even more of its natural resources, historic sites and beautiful landscapes. And no responsible leader will accept a "peace plan" that repackages the occupation and makes it permanent.
Israel says its goal is two states, coexisting in peace. Again, I agree. But those states must be real states — sovereign, independent and viable. I cannot subject my people to an Israeli state and a Palestinian canton. Israel cannot have both control and peace. It cannot perpetually and illegally build settlements in the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem, and then argue it must keep that territory because of the existing facts on the ground.
During her most recent visit to the Holy Land, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly noted that Israeli settlement activity is not helpful to the peace process. Israel itself recognized this by agreeing to implement Phase I of its Roadmap obligations at Annapolis — in other words, a settlement freeze. Yet since Annapolis, the pace of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank has nearly doubled.
Israel’s occupation mindset must be exchanged for partnership and peace. And Hamas must come to the table, willing to discuss a true national dialogue based on the PLO political program. Palestinian national consensus and unity is a pressing need for our people who are thirsty for liberation. A critical Fatah conference should be held soon to allow a new generation to take charge of the Palestinian national movement.
I pledge my full cooperation in the days and months ahead. I am thankful for the efforts of the Bush administration to assist in brokering peace. I again extend my hand to the Israeli people, and I urge them and their leaders to make a choice that ensures a secure and prosperous future for both our peoples.
-Mahmoud Abbas is chairman of the executive committee of the PLO and president of the Palestinian National Authority. (This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com by the Institute for Middle East Understanding, IMEU – http://www.imeu.net.)