JERUSALEM — Although the crisis over Israel’s naval interventions to defend its blockade of Gaza is gaining all the headlines around the world, something of far more historic importance is taking place in the Middle East. The Palestine National Authority is preparing to issue a unilateral declaration of independence, and it is taking concrete steps on the ground to make any such declaration viable.
When U.S. President Barack Obama appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations, Mitchell’s mandate was to achieve within two years not only an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also overall peace between the Jewish state and the whole Arab world. But, after 15 months on the job, and innumerable visits to the region, all Mitchell has to show for his efforts is an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to start indirect “proximity talks” — which it is hoped will lead to direct talks in due course.
When one bears in mind that both sides have been negotiating directly for 15 years, Mitchell’s achievement appears even more minuscule. Under such circumstances, calling Mitchell’s work up to now a failure is the only polite — and realistic — thing to do.
It is as easy to blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence — his enforcement of the Gaza blockade, for example — as it is to point out that the Palestinian Authority does not control Hamas-ruled Gaza, with its 1.2 million inhabitants, leaving it in no position to speak authoritatively for Palestinians. As a result, one thing that both Israelis and Palestinians agree on is that the proximity talks will most likely lead nowhere, so both sides are currently busy ensuring that the other side will be blamed for the failure. On too many issues — borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem — the gaps between the two sides are too deep to be easily bridged.
In these circumstances, an idea recently raised — tentatively but courageously — by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad should be eagerly welcomed. It may or may not fly, but it is arrestingly novel: If negotiations fail — so Fayyad says — sometime in 2011 the Palestinians should declare independence unilaterally.
This may be a real game changer. Obviously, it would not resolve the conflict; it might not even immediately change the situation on the ground. Indeed, it could even precipitate some unforeseen Israeli countermeasures. But it would certainly mean a paradigm shift for a conflict in which everyone has been treading water for almost two decades.
If the Palestinians declared independence unilaterally, and if, as is expected, some sort of recognition by at least some states followed, the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would change dramatically. Indeed, the conflict would become, if one can use the expression, more “‘normal” — no longer between an occupying power and an occupied people, but between two countries, two states, that disagree about a lot of issues, including borders, mutual relations, and control over populations.
In a way, a unilateral declaration of independence would make the Israeli- Palestinian conflict a bit more like the Israeli-Syrian conflict — an interstate conflict. It might even force Israel to make decisions that until now it found easier to avoid.
Such a declaration would also be an enormous act of self-empowerment for the Palestinians. Until now, they have failed abysmally in institutional nation-building, a necessary requirement for any successful national movement.
Palestinian nationalism is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of most Palestinians — yet, since 1948, when the United Nations proposed partitioning British Palestine into two states, a Jewish and an Arab one, it has failed to move from ideology toward reality. Neither violence nor terrorism nor relying on outside powers (U.N., the Arab League, the Soviet Union, the United States, the European Union) succeeded in delivering statehood, which a people can achieve only by its own agency — what Zionist ideology calls “auto-emancipation.”
Fayyad is the first Palestinian leader who did not emerge from the Fatah movement, and he may thus understand what other Palestinian leaders failed to comprehend, mired as they were in a toxic combination of self-righteous ideology and violence. It may just be that the Palestinians are on the verge of a new chapter in their history — and in the history of Israel and the whole region as well.
Shlomo Avineri, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry in the first Cabinet of Yitzhak Rabin, is professor of political science at Hebrew University. © 2010 Project Syndicate