At the end of December 2021, President Abbas met with Israeli Defense Minister Gantz at the home of the latter. The Palestinians reported that the sides stressed “the importance of creating a political horizon” to end the conflict, while the Israelis reported only that Gantz and Abbas discussed civilian and security measures Israel can take to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The story repeated itself in late January with a meeting between Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh (who has been added to the PLO Executive Committee) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Following the meeting, Al-Sheikh issued a statement saying that he “highlighted the need for a political horizon based on international law.” Lapid’s office declined to comment. But Lapid has told reporters that if, as agreed, he becomes prime minister a year and a half from now, he will fulfill his agreement with Prime Minister Bennett that neither of them would hold negotiations with the Palestinians.
In the absence of a credible political horizon, the PA remains in the midst of an ever-deepening legitimacy crisis. If Israel intends permanent occupation, then the PA, against its will, is inevitably made into part of the structure of occupation.
The current Israeli Government, headed by right-wing Prime Minister Bennett, is concerned about the possible collapse of the PA and is prepared to take some economic and other palliative measures to ease the daily burden of the occupation. But the unfortunate reality is that it will offer no credible political horizon. Bennett is explicit in his opposition to the two-state solution and views the West Bank as an inseparable part of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Even if he were to enter negotiations, which he has refused, they would have zero credibility.
Singular Moment of Unilateral Peacemaking
The existential crisis facing Fatah has a solution, but it requires that the Palestinian leadership break with a mindset of dependency that has dominated its thinking except for the brief period of the Palestinian peace initiative of 1988. In November of 1988, Arafat took major steps to cut the Gordian knot of a conflict that had endured for almost a hundred years. On November 14th of that year, the PLO issued a unilateral Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the establishment of the State of Palestine and reversing their long-standing position on the Partition Plan adopted in UN Resolution 181 of 1947, which was the basis for the establishment of Israel in 1948. Indeed, they tied their own statehood to that of Israel, saying that the partition resolution retains its international legitimacy and noting that it provided for the establishment of “two states, one Arab and one Jewish.”
In that singular moment of unilateral peacemaking, the PLO embarked on a path to independence without getting the permission of Israel to do so. The key was not unilateral statehood itself but a willingness to move boldly toward a two-state peace, even without an Israeli partner. This is a strategy that they should have maintained through nonviolent state-building without Israeli permission but sustained by the indefinite continuation of the first intifada. Instead, lured by the chimera of negotiations with Israel and recognition by the United States, they entered the Oslo peace process and again accepted that Israeli agreement would be a precondition to Palestinian independence, a stance incompatible with the right to self-determination.
Today, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds the same ideological perspective as did Prime Minister Shamir in 1988. What is needed is for President Abbas to stop looking to the Israelis, or the Americans, to provide a political horizon but to provide it unilaterally, through bold Palestinian peacemaking.
Need for UNSCOP-2
The partition resolution of 1947, the basis of international legitimacy for the two-state solution, emerged from the United Nations General Assembly. In May of 1947, it established UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. UNSCOP came to the region, held hearings, visited displaced person camps with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, returned to New York, debated alternatives, and then developed a fully detailed plan for the partition of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. This became UN General Assembly Resolution 181.
What is needed today, and can be done if the PLO calls for it, is for the UN General Assembly to again establish such a commission, UNSCOP-2. This idea was originally published in The New York Times a decade ago in an essay by Javier Solona, Shlomo ben-Ami, Thomas C. Schelling, and Jerome Segal. It would be empowered to develop a fully detailed end-of-conflict proposal based on the two-state solution along the lines put forward by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016 at the close of the Obama administration. The Kerry parameters — two states with the border being the 1949 Armistice line, modified by equal land swaps to accommodate settlements, and a shared Jerusalem — are much in line with similar outlines in UN Security Council resolutions, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the parameters secretly agreed upon by President Abbas and then Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in the run up to Israel’s 2015 election. Herzog is now Israel’s president.
UNSCOP-2 would be boycotted by the current Israeli Government but, while unfortunate, this would not prevent it from going forward. Such a boycott would mirror the foolish 1947 Palestinian boycott of the original UNSCOP. Moreover, the absence of Israeli participation would enhance the ability of the commission to consider “creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns,” to use a phrase from Yasser Arafat’s New York Times 2002 op-ed, “The Palestinian Vision of Peace.” Once the new commission completes its new partition plan, the General Assembly should call on the PLO and the Israeli Government to negotiate for three months to see if they can agree on any improvements and then put the plan to referenda of the two peoples. The parties would be free to oppose the plan if they so decided.
Creating a New Reference Point
Again, it is likely that the current Israeli Government will refuse to negotiate on the basis of the UNSCOP-2 proposal and will also reject the idea of a referendum on the plan. It is at this point that the Palestinians must push ahead unilaterally. Acting without coordination with Israel, they should go ahead and put the UN plan to a referendum of the Palestinian people, including the refugees worldwide. The polling would be supervised by the UN. And with or without permission, Palestinians in Jerusalem would vote.
If, as can be expected, the new partition plan wins the referendum, then the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people should sign it and return it to the UN Secretary General. At the same time, the General Assembly should call upon Hamas to honor its long-standing commitment to abide by the results of a Palestinian referendum on peace with Israel, even if it opposes it. Hamas made this commitment in a Fatah-Hamas negotiated accord in 2006, which followed the Prisoners Conciliation Document, and has reaffirmed it on several occasions since that time. It is very likely that with the above sequence of events, Hamas will do so again, adding to the power of the initiative as an offer of peace to the Israeli people.
A historic point in the history of the conflict will have been attained. The Palestinian people, for the first time, will have agreed to a specific endof-conflict/end-of-claims treaty that is consistent with Israel’s remaining a Jewish-majority state. This will totally undermine the “no Palestinian partner” dogma that is dominant in Israel. If the current Israeli Government turns its back on the Palestinian offer, this new partition plan will nonetheless put making peace with the Palestinians into the center of the Israeli political discourse. Internationally, it will remain in place as a point of clarity of both the possibility of peace and of responsibility for continued conflict. It will be the reference point for all future diplomatic and popular actions to bring an end to the occupation. Most importantly, it will bring clarity in America and underscore that the Israeli Government has abandoned the democratic values that most Americans see as the basis of the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States.
The PLO leadership has it within its power to provide this political horizon, even in the face of Israeli opposition and American passivity. It simply needs daring and determination.