"Moving Forward: Palestinian Strategy Document Sparks Needed Debate"
Palestine Center Information Brief No. 166 (12 September 2008)
By Will Youmans
Palestine Center Fellow
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An informal group of prominent Palestinian academics, politicians and activists published a stimulating document that raises questions and offers solutions about Palestinian national strategy. It follows a growing sense of doubt that two decades of negotiations will culminate in an outcome fair to the Palestinians. This document was covered by the New York Times1 and the Arab press, among other news sources.
The recently-released Palestine Strategy Study Group (PSSG) report2 mapped out the Palestinian strategic landscape, posed different scenarios and offered a forward-looking plan. "Regaining the Initiative: Palestinian Strategic Options to End Israeli Occupation" summarized the current circumstances: a recalcitrant and further encroaching Israel and continued American support for Israeli policies. Their paper seeks to address Palestinian options in the context of an unlikely "peace process" marked by the increasingly distant finality and historic resolution it once promised.
This information brief summarizes and analyzes the PSSG document in order to forward its goal of framing much-needed discussion on Palestinian national strategy.
The PSSG met on a few occasions in different parts of the region, including Jordan and Turkey, under the initiative of the British organization, the Oxford Research Group. The meetings were funded by a European Union grant. The paper that came out of those gatherings targeted at different audiences, including American and Israeli policymakers, but largely meant to promote inner-Palestinian discussion about national strategy. It was less of a rigorous strategic assessment but could have value in sparking more badly needed internal debate about moving forward given the current deadlock. The document has been covered in the western press and has been featured prominently in Palestinian media.
The PSSG was composed of dozens of Palestinians from Israel, the Occupied Territories and the diaspora. Among those who participated in meetings was a diverse array of activists and academics of different political outlooks and affiliations, including some closely tied to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The final document was signed by 27 individuals, though many more participated.
As a collaborative effort taking into account various political orientations, "Regaining the Initiative" is a thoroughly political document. It painted a broad outline of how Palestinians can take positive agency through a "radical reorientation" of their national strategy from a perspective individuals of diverse Palestinian backgrounds could agree on. This included a cold and sober description of the current non-active track of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and described the Annapolis initiative as insufficient. It also urged national unity as a prerequisite to effective political action.
In terms of collective discourse, it suggests bringing back the language of liberation and ending Israeli occupation. The prevailing discourse of "peacemaking" and "state-building" obfuscate the central challenges facing the Palestinians. This analysis of language reflects the group’s emphasis on taking proactive measures towards accomplishing longstanding national objectives, even if that means questioning conventional thinking about the solution.
The report suggests Palestinians should consider a strategic re-thinking of the 1988 declaration for Palestinian statehood. This is required to respond to the four likely scenarios stemming from the current political situation: 1) perpetual "negotiations" during which Israel pursues its current policies 2) a "pseudo provisional" Palestinian semi-state in which the PA governs while key issues are left open to future Israeli tinkering 3) unilateral separation by Israel and 4) Egypt and Jordan take custody of the territories. None of these, the group argues, meets Palestinian objectives.
By emphasizing Palestinian agency, it suggests that Palestinians have more power than generally recognized to block various Israeli strategies. The general wait-and-see approach at the essence of the negotiations approach is faulty, and Palestinians should begin considering strategic alternatives such as: 1) withdrawing the 1988 declaration of Palestinian statehood as the collective objective 2) reconstituting the Palestinian Authority, including its transformation into a "Palestinian Resistance Authority" 3) engaging in a new "smart" resistance campaign and 4) shifting the objective "from a two state outcome to a (bi-national or unitary democratic) single state outcome."
The paper concludes that the Palestinians should give the peace process one more firm go with clearly demarcated benchmarks, a definition of success and a credible alternative strategy to fall-back on-thus imposing costs on Israel that it does not face in the current dynamic. This makes for an ultimatum signaling that continued Israeli obduracy carries repercussions-namely the end of Palestinian acquiescence to the vision of two states living side-by-side, which is in Israel’s interests. It would give any strategic redirections that follow clear justification.
Overall, this discussion is long overdue. As a strategy document funded externally and authored by a diverse set of officials, academics, activists and politicians, this should further promote such central conversations about the fate of the Palestinians and strategies based on agency rather than dependency. These discussions have already been taking place widely and intensely among Palestinians outside the official power structures. This paper helps by taking on some big questions and articulating common, long-held doubts about the current track.
The report’s main value lies in its call for Palestinians to re-evaluate the orthodoxy of the two-state solution. The past two decades indicate it cannot be taken for granted. Palestinians, by not collectively practicing strategic flexibility, have committed themselves to a process by which there is no cost to Israel for failure, according to the PSSG. The PA, in effect, has grown to manage Israel’s perpetual occupation rather than facilitating its end. Israel, as the report suggests, is keeping the two-state solution in a "break in case of emergency" box. And the Palestinians have paid the cost of this political failure.
As for weaknesses, the paper does not explore the sustainability of a Palestinian state, a point raised by many one-state advocates. While the PA has demarcated red lines and elaborated clear demands, there ultimately is no way to negotiate for effective sovereignty. States that cannot effectively control and implement their own policies because of external interveners will not succeed. Alas, this question about sustainability should have been asked when Palestinian statehood was proposed as a final outcome. It was likely that even a semi-functioning state is preferable to Israeli occupation for a population exhausted and victimized by it.
In its conclusion, "Regaining the Initiative," includes both views sequentially. The PSSG’s answer is that the ultimatum will seek the most Palestinians can get within the current framework before approaching a new strategy. By creating an ultimatum, the document bridges the political positions of those committed to a two-state solution principally and those seeking an alternative national strategy. Such an ultimatum will strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position since after two decades and little to show, Israel has had no price to pay for its obstructionism. This pragmatic and incremental strategy would give Palestinians an undeniable high ground if the time comes to change strategic directions.
This could provide a basis for unifying those invested in the current approach and the many who are disenchanted with it. However, this all depends on a sincere and disciplined openness by Palestinian leaders to the types of dramatic re-thinking presented by the PSSG. Given that questioning current strategy may be an affront to the policies of powerful external actors, there will be many external incentives aimed at Palestinian leadership to prevent the commencement of alternative strategies.
One dangerous temptation is that this document and the conversation itself will be used by Palestinian leadership as a threat to push negotiations forward. Alternative strategies should not be painted as threats or anti-Israel but be in the best interests of both peoples. Unless alternative strategies are given a substantive foundation on the ground and truly forwarded as visions of peaceful resolution rather than a doomsday scenario to cajole Israel, alternatives such as the one-state solution will be seen as antagonistic to long-term peace. It is important an ultimatum does not devalue alternative concepts of liberation and that alternative strategies account for Israeli narratives.
Given the Israeli propensity to deal with the Palestinians as a servile party, it is unlikely to respect any ultimatum-meaning that the Palestinian national body must assert a credible alternative and begin planning for it. Credible strategy requires a true commitment from leadership. This could be demonstrated, for example, by harnessing a grassroots politics that played important roles in Palestinian political history. Similarly, detractors from the negotiations approach must participate in this conversation and be willing to buy into a new strategy.
Many of the steps required in a strategic re-orientation should be taking place already. For instance, the popular committees-the grassroots organs for popular participation and activism during the first intifada-should be rejuvenated and empowered to broaden the discussion of Palestinian strategy as recommended in the PSSG paper. Past pan-national, representative bodies of Palestinians should be reinvigorated and given useful influence. These are needed no matter which strategies are decided, either for state-building or for the type of national reconciliatory orientation needed for a one-state outcome. Popular participation should be brought back into Palestinian politics since it provides the sole basis of legitimacy, especially after America’s foreign policy and Israel’s antics have discredited them.
There are other weaknesses in the paper, such as the under-appreciation for "solidarity" and diaspora activism, which have existed despite any direction or support from internal political leadership. Just this last month, Palestinian and international activists successfully challenged the Israeli siege of Gaza when they piloted two boats into a Gaza port. Though this did not shift the political landscape, it indicates that energetic and creative external activism is ready to be mobilized in support of a new Palestinian national strategy. These groups could be an essential resource if a new strategy is undertaken.
"Regaining the Initiative" correctly asserts that such conversations should ultimately be collective. Palestinian political culture and discourse should not simply mirror the constraints of American designs and the Israeli agenda. This assertion of agency and unity is badly-needed as external actors stoke internal divisions and weaken the national body. The PSSG, in fact, included visible members of various Palestinian factions from different Palestinian communities around the world. If acted on properly, this document could play an important historic role in bringing together disparate efforts and re-establishing a common strategic agenda.
Will Youmans is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
1Kershner, Isabel. "Support for 2-State Plan Erodes" New York Times September 3, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/world/middleeast/04state.html?em (accessed September 4, 2008).
2Palestine Strategy Study Group, "Regaining the Initiative: Palestinian Strategic Options to End Israeli Occupation," August, 2008, http://www.palestinestrategygroup.ps/Regaining_the_Initiative_FINAL_17082008_(English).pdf (accessed September 4, 2008).