Will a Palestinian Autumn follow an Arab Spring?

With much of the Arab world experiencing uprisings in recent months, there has been one resounding question among Palestinians: why not us? It is a sad irony that the Palestinians, under Israeli occupation for nearly 44 years, watch from the sidelines as other Arabs shake off their repressive shackles by pouring into the streets –” a tactic employed by Palestinians in the first intifada two decades ago.

But the transformational moments of this “Arab Spring” may be outdone by a Palestinian Autumn. Indeed, a combination of events taking place around September may reorient the Palestinian struggle for liberation in a fundamental way.

This autumn marks 20 years of failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Since the Madrid Peace Conference initiated in 1991, the interminable process has failed to secure a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.  Instead, Palestinians have witnessed the expansion of illegal Israeli colonies on Palestinian land with the number of Israeli colonists nearly tripling, from around 200,000 then to well over 500,000 now.

Palestinians disenfranchised by this process will be seeking new approaches this Autumn.  As a consequence of 20 years of failure, the Obama administration will face a major test.

September is the deadline for Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s two-year development plan. Fayyad’s plan has been lauded by the administration and supported vigorously and financially, despite receiving mixed reviews from Palestinians. But when the deadline arrives, President Barack Obama will have to decide whether to embrace a Palestinian state or stand down under the expected pressure of the Israel lobby and a Congress more comfortable with Israeli occupation than Palestinian freedom.

Even those Palestinians most supportive of American-led negotiations with the Israelis cannot bring themselves to negotiate anymore while Israel builds settlements. They realize the only Israeli motive behind a peace process that is ‘all process and no peace’ is to deflect international criticism from their treatment of an occupied people and to postpone addressing the legitimate Palestinian right to self-determination.

This Israeli obstructionism is why Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ alternative strategy of appealing to international institutions is just as likely to succeed, if not more so, than U.S.-led negotiations.

It will not, however, be easy.  Last month, Palestinians brought a resolution before the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements. Washington fought hard in opposition and ultimately issued a veto, putting it in the awkward position of voting against a policy for which it claimed to stand.  The veto underscored how partial to Israel the United States remains and further convinced Palestinians that American-mediated negotiations are useless.

The next step in this alternative strategy will feature an attempt to gain recognition of a Palestinian state from the September UN General Assembly through a “Uniting for Peace” resolution. This US-veto-proof tactic is likely to win majority support in the General Assembly since most nations already recognize the state of Palestine.  

But then what? The recognition of Palestine by the UNGA will not end the Israeli occupation. While it may afford the Palestinians a greater seat at the international table and permit them to redress their legitimate grievances with Israel in forums like the International Court of Justice, it won’t dismantle an apartheid infrastructure of walls, colonies and checkpoints that dismember the West Bank, nor will it end the inhumane siege of Gaza.

What it will do, however, is effectively demonstrate that Palestinians exhausted all possible options for a two-state solution based in international law. This paradigm, which for decades has dominated the discussion about a potential settlement, will be firmly put to rest. And Palestinians will not be at fault for its passing.

If the demise of the two-state solution occurs, and all indications are that we are bolting down that road, the Palestinian Autumn of 2011 may very well lead to Palestinians making the same demands of Israel that their Arab counterparts made in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere: freedom from oppression and equal representation in a single state.

If Israel continues to reject the two-state solution, only one question will remain: Will the United States of America continue to stand in the way or will it choose the right side of history and embrace voting rights and equality for Palestinians long dominated by an expansionist Israel?