Engage: Message to the Next Administration

By Ghassan Khatib

There seem to be two schools of thoughts among Palestinian politicians and analysts regarding the coming elections in the United States. Some, including President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of the negotiating delegation, Ahmed Qurei, believe that this last year of President George W. Bush is a year of opportunity that must not be wasted. Others, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are convinced that no progress can be expected in the Palestinian-Israeli political process before a new administration has settled in.

However, all of the above agree that the coming elections in the US are crucial for a troubled Middle East in general and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. This is especially true in light of the evident interaction between the different political trends and conflicts in the Middle East.

The main cause of hope regarding the American elections for the people of the Middle East, especially Arabs, is the same as for Americans, namely change. It is difficult for Arabs to believe anything but that US Middle East policy in the past seven years has been the worst, most damaging ever. In parallel, this period coincided with the lowest level of credibility granted to any American administration.

So what is the message to the next administration? The most urgent one, based on past experience, is this: engage. Whenever Palestinians and Israelis are left to their own devices, their relations deteriorate. When the current administration abandoned the diplomacy of the preceding one, what was left was the balance of power between the two sides. This favors Israel to the extent that the country has little motivation to move seriously toward peace, leaving Palestinians little option but to resist and complain. What leaving the two sides alone does not achieve is confidence and an atmosphere conducive to peace-making.

Serious and sustained American and international engagement is the only way to improve hopes for a peaceful and negotiated solution and reverse the growing support for radical forces that promote violent and unilateral approaches to ending the conflict.

Having engaged, a new US administration must influence the behavior of the two sides in such a way that neither acts outside the agreed terms of reference of a solution, i.e., a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, a division of Jerusalem into two capitals and a fair resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

In this regard the current situation is untenable. While the international community continues to support a two-state solution, practices on the ground contradict such a goal. Israel continues expanding its settlements on occupied territory and especially in Jerusalem, while the division between the West Bank/Fateh and Gaza/Hamas is undermining hopes for a single Palestinian polity.

The strategy of keeping all options open for a final agreement has proven unwise. A new administration would be wise to understand that an open-ended approach allows both sides to pursue their own interests regardless of the effect on peace-making. That way offers only more violence and oppression.

– Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (Originally published in bitterlemons.org)

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