The international community’s final test

The number of Israel’s illegal settlements doubled in the years since the Oslo agreement. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

Negotiations between two unequal parties cannot succeed. Success in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations requires a reasonable balance of power, clear terms of reference and abstention of both sides from imposing unilateral facts on the ground. None of that existed in the talks that were re-initiated in September.

Much like previous rounds of talks, these negotiations were dominated on one side by an Israeli government that controls the land, roads, airspace, borders, water and electricity, as well as the trade and economy of the Palestinian side, while possessing a powerful military establishment (now the third military exporter in the world) and a robust gross domestic product, which has tripled in the last decade.

This same Israeli “partner” now also boasts a general public that has shifted dramatically to the right, and to which an apartheid system for Palestinians has become an acceptable norm.

On the other side is the Palestinian Authority — one that paradoxically holds little real authority, and exists as a sort of fiefdom within the Israeli matrix of control. Further debilitating the PA is a protracted internal Palestinian division, total dependence on foreign aid and a decline of democracy and human rights. Finally, the Palestinian Authority is constantly pressured to provide security for its occupier while failing to provide any protection whatsoever to its own people from that same occupier.

How did we get here? The answer, in large part, has to do with the continued and unabated construction of settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in the 17 years since the Oslo agreement.

In this time, the number of settlers has increased by 300 percent and the number of settlements doubled. The settlements are only the front line of a complex and profitable system that includes checkpoints, road segregation, security zones, the “apartheid wall” and “natural reserves.”

This matrix has for years eaten up the land, water resources and the economic space of the independent Palestinian state supposedly being negotiated in this same period. About 60 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of water resources have been consumed this way.

We have reached, and probably surpassed, that critical point at which any more settlements mean the death of the two-state solution.

The Israeli establishment knows this better than anybody. They also know that their hard-line positions on issues like Jerusalem and borders mean transforming the idea of Palestinian statehood into something much less: isolated clusters of land in a system of segregation.

The International Court of Justice and endless United Nations resolutions have ruled that settlements are illegal and should be removed. Even the Road Map issued by the so-called Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) in 2003 said that all settlement activities must stop. Yet neither the United States nor the Quartet as a whole has had the guts to exert serious pressure on Israel to stop settlements.

So what is left?

The only way to save the two-state solution is for the Palestinians to declare the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and to demand that the world community recognize it and its borders — as it did in the case of Kosovo.

That would also mean supporting the right of Palestinians to struggle nonviolently to end the occupation of their state. Any future negotiations, therefore, would not be about the right of the Palestinians to have their own sovereign independent state, but rather about how to apply and implement that right.

This would be the true test of the state-building strategy of the United States and the donor community. It would be the real instrument to finally demarcate the difference between support for free Palestinian institutions in a sovereign and viable state, or footing the bill of occupation and using EU and US tax dollars to maintain under various guises what will never amount to anything but an apartheid system denying Palestinians their human and national rights.

If the world community turns its back on such a declaration of independence by using the well-worn and insulting argument that every step should first be verified with the Israeli government, then the message will be clear: peace based on two states is no longer an option.

Mustafa Barghouthi is the founder of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. This essay was originally published by the International Herald Tribune and is republished with the author’s permission.