I must say I wasn’t surprised when I read the statements made by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I had been informed by an Israeli friend of mine about Olmert’s dramatic conversion over the past few years, and especially last year.
The statements can be seen as a refreshing vindication for Abbas’ engagement instead of confrontation. But will they be translated into real change or will these be just more courageous statements made after a senior politician has lost power?
Olmert’s statements, made after his days in office, remind me of the many statements made by US presidents and senior officials after they left office and were no longer under the pressure of the pro-Israel lobby.
Of course, the problem for Palestinians is much more complicated. The decades of struggle and fighting produced no substantial results. On the ground, Palestinian control over their land and future has been gradually deteriorating since 1948. Palestinian efforts to attain freedom and liberty have passed through the entire ambit. From commitment to the armed struggle, as the only way to liberate Palestine, to the use of diplomacy and negotiations, they passed through a partially nonviolent Intifada and a much more violent Intifada in between.
Palestinians are also starting to question the shape of the state they want to live in. Ever since the PLO was established, the Palestinian charter had specified that the inhabitants of the area need to live in a secular democratic state. But in 1988, with Yasser Arafat declaring a Palestinian state on part of Palestine, Palestinian nationalism shifted to embrace a two-state solution. Nonstop Jewish settlements in the Palestinian part of this two state has rendered this territorial idea impractical and nearly unexecutable.
The coming months are certainly going to force Palestinians to choose a strategy and an overall direction. The Islamic Hamas declared that January 9, 2009, is the final day for President Mahmoud Abbas. According to the Palestinian interim constitution, when the term of a president ends or when he is no longer around (as was the case with Arafat), the speaker of the parliament rules the country for 60 days, during which preparations for presidential elections are to take place.
Parliament speaker Aziz Dweik is held administratively by the Israelis ever since an Israeli soldier was captured. Hamas and others are demanding Dweik and other prisoners (reportedly including Marwan Barghouthi) to be released in return for freeing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
There is, of course, a dispute irrespective of whether Abbas’ term ends on January 9, or one year later, when the parliament’s term also runs out. Much can happen between now and then, but unless agreement is reached for early parliamentary and presidential elections, it will be difficult to see how this problem can be easily resolved.
Early elections are unlikely to take place without Hamas’ voluntary agreement. And with polls showing them not regaining a majority or winning the presidency, it is unlikely that they will voluntarily agree on early elections.
In Cairo recently, Hamas was reported to have backed down on contesting a possible extension of Abbas’ presidency.
A number of Palestinians feel the entire discussion about elections, presidency and parliament illogical while the siege of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank and the illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands continue unabated.
A study by the Palestine Strategy Study group calls for a serious change of discourse. It notes that terms like peacemaking and state building have become code words for the continuation of the status quo in which Palestinians react, not act. This must be replaced, they argue, by "smart resistance" and self-determination".
The Palestinian strategy, they say, might have to resort to the decolonisation strategy rather than waste time and effort on useless nation building and peace making discourse.
Naturally, the study group, made mostly of Palestinians living in occupied Palestine, calls for national unity as one of the most strategic points of power for Palestinians. Their call is not limited to Gaza and the West Bank but, more importantly, to the need for Palestinians to have unified goals and strategy. The group insists that Palestinians must clarify to the Israelis and third parties the meaning of the loss of the two-state solution.
While not agreeing on the alternative, they note that if needed, the new Palestinian strategy might have to pursue the one-state solution and, possibly, if and when appropriate, dissolve the PA and let the Israelis take legal, moral and financial responsibility, thus exposing their real ongoing occupation. Their argument is summarised by the need to use strategic tools to make whatever option Israelis choose costly
The ideas of the study group have not gathered enough steam among Palestinians. It will take some time before such ideas reach critical mass. But this 80-some-page document at least outlines in clear, logical terms a direction that Palestinians need to look at in order to get out of the decades old policies of reacting instead of taking the initiative.