If the Annapolis peace conference fails, then Palestinians should abandon their national struggle and demand their civil rights from Israel.
In a draft joint declaration to be issued at next week's Annapolis peace conference, Israel and Fatah have pledged to negotiate “immediately and continuously” to reach a final two-state resolution to their conflict within 12 months.
But before anyone is tempted to drink a toast to this potentially historic turning point, the draft memorandum goes into no details on the core issues of the dispute and has some razor-sharp strings attached: the activation of any eventual peace deal would be contingent on implementation of the defunct roadmap and any peace agreement would be implemented by the parties of the roadmap, effectively excluding Hamas.
Last week, I was asked during a televised debate how I judged the chances of success at Annapolis, and I had to admit that I didn't hold out much hope. This former US capital, where the Treaty of Paris which ended the war between the American revolutionaries and Britain was signed in 1783, is unlikely to herald a similarly historic moment for the Middle East.
Reading between the lines of the draft statement, the Annapolis meeting is an elaborate way of reiterating the current status quo. After all, lest we forget, the paralysed road map – which was supposed to deliver a Palestinian state by 2005 – has gone absolutely nowhere since it was launched in 2004. In fact, if anything, the situation has gone rapidly downhill in the meantime.
This is the same roadmap that gives clear and precise coordinates for where the Palestinians need to be but only suggests to the Israelis the approximate neighbourhood they ought to reach, if they feel like it. This is also the same unambitious roadmap whose four principal international sponsors – the USA, the EU, Russia and the UN – have stood by the wayside and watched this “confidence-building” plan crash and burn.
This is because the USA is as pro-Israeli as ever and, occupied with occupying Iraq, the Bush administration has taken a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the Washington hawks have already swooped down to keep the initiative from taking off the ground properly. Meanwhile, the other Quartet members are unwilling or unable to play a more independent and robust role.
As for the actual parties to the conflict, the Israeli political landscape is fractured and polarised, leaving the scene wide open for the extremists to continue full-throttle in their bid to annex large segments of the West Bank and effectively encircle the Palestinians living there.
Former hardline premier and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, employing his trademark hyperbole, has declared that “Annapolis will bring death and destruction”. In a bid to pre-empt any eventual peace deal that might emerge after Annapolis, a bill requiring a two-thirds majority vote over any changes to the status of Jerusalem passed the first hurdle in the Knesset last week.
As for the Palestinians, they are divided and weak, whether in the Fatah-controlled West Bank or in Hamas-controlled Gaza – they are an “authority without authority”, as Mustafa Barghouti put it during a talk with Ilan Pappé. And the chance to moderate the extremists has pretty much slipped away with the Israeli and international stranglehold on the Palestinians gradually radicalising even the unradicalised.
Crucially, excluding Hamas from Annapolis will mean the Islamic movement will likely as not do its best to torpedo the initiative.
So, if not Annapolis, then what? It's quite simple: let the people decide.
As I've been arguing for some time, top-level diplomacy has failed dismally due to a lack of international will and the vested interests of extremists. The way forward would be for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to admit that they do not possess the mandate to reach a feasible two-state solution.
In order to acquire the necessary mandate and sideline the extremists, they should declare that, since the peace process affects everyone, then everyone should be involved. The first step down this road would be for the international community to help the two sides host a “people's peace conference” on neutral territory.
The gathering would be a broad one in which all Israeli and Palestinian stakeholders, from political parties and movements to civil society and religious organisations would be invited to sit around the table and debate all the core issues until they reach a general consensus. Whatever the majority there agree would then be taken to every household in Israel and Palestine to consider and vote on.
This would, at once, bring an end to all the second guessing that has characterised the peace process. If public opinion polls over the last few years are any indication, a people's peace process would lead to a viable two-state solution. And such an unequivocal indication of popular will would silence the extremists by showing that their position is not representative. It would also overcome the overwhelming sense of distrust on both sides by showing that the two peoples are actually on the same line.
But how likely is it that the political elites will invite the people to the negotiating table? Improbable. So, what then?
Well, continuing in this never-ending vicious cycle is destructive. The Palestinians are the victims of one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes and cannot even leave their town or village without a special permit. The Israelis are as insecure as ever and their increasingly harsh treatment of the Palestinians could draw them into future conflicts with their neighbours.
In addition, the longer this drags on, the more likely it becomes that the annexation of the West Bank will become irreversible. The Israeli premier Ehud Olmert admitted as much when he said that Israel should take the opportunity to create a Palestinian state in order to maintain a Jewish majority in his country.
Although I'm personally in favour of a single, bi-national state, if Israelis wish to live in a Jewish state, then they have to realise that they cannot have their cake and eat it. Short of ethnic cleansing, Israel cannot hold on to all the territory it currently controls and maintain a Jewish-majority state, since its only a matter of years until the number of Palestinians will exceed Jews.
On the other side, the Palestinians cannot continue to live in such dire conditions for much longer in the vain hope of fulfilling their national aspirations. There must come a time when they decide that individual dignity is more important than the deceptive trappings of nationhood. If Annapolis fails, the Palestinians should agree among themselves to abandon their struggle for statehood and transform it into a non-violent civil rights movement in which they demand equal civil and legal status and full Israeli citizenship.
In fact, they need not wait until the collapse of Annapolis. Before they go to the conference, “the Palestinians should announce that if the Annapolis meeting doesn't lead to a Palestinian state within, say, 12 months, they will abandon their claim to a state and launch a civil rights and citizenship movement. If they did that, they would probably get their state in no time,” Brian Whitaker suggested to me last week.
Such a move would certainly focus Israeli minds on the consequences of the course they are steering towards disaster. If they want to hold on to the overwhelming Jewish identity of their state, then they need to end the occupation and dispel the mounting tension. If not, then they are obliged to grant the Palestinians over which they rule their rights and admit that their country is a complex, multi-confessional and multiethnic society.
Empowering the Palestinians in this way would enhance Israel's security, improve its international standing and enable the two peoples to prosper by channelling fully the untapped economic potential of the Palestinians.
For the Palestinians, either of the two outcomes should seem attractive. If they get a viable independent state out of their demand for equality, then they can exercise their self-determination directly. If they get their civil rights, then they can become full and functioning members of a vibrant democracy and pull themselves out of poverty and isolation.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 November 2007.