Paul Pillar

The Much Too Long Game

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat gave a luncheon speech Thursday at the Middle East Institute's annual conference in Washington that was an impassioned call for moving promptly to a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Erakat's talk imparted a good sense of the frustration and perception of injustice that prevails on the Palestinian side of this dispute, at least as much as the specific positions and arguments coming from that side. There was no one to present an Israeli position; if there were, there no doubt would be an Israeli retort to each of the Palestinian arguments in a debate that has become all too familiar to anyone following the Middle East. The principal take-away from the speech, however, is that the whole debate is the playing of a game that has gone on much too long. It has not only been 43 years since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; it has been nearly two decades since the Israelis and the Palestinians began negotiating. Erakat has been a leading participant in most of those negotiations. So much time gone by, and nothing to show for it. Erakat said, “I have nothing on my CV except negotiating with Israel.”

Since those early talks in the 1990s, there has been not only lack of progress but regression. The continued Israeli creation of facts on the ground, and resulting narrowing of the negotiating space, through construction of settlements is one well-known aspect of that regression. Erakat pointed out a less well known one: the taking back by the Israelis of most of the hints of sovereignty that had been granted to the transitional quasi-government known as the Palestinian Authority. For all the talk from Israel and from American supporters of Israeli policy about building on the West Bank an attractive alternative to Hamas-ruled Gaza, the Palestinian Authority is an Israeli satrapy.

The frustration and impatience on the Palestinian side may lead to the talked-about tactic of going to the United Nations to ask for a declaration of Palestinian statehood. Erakat said this is still just an option under consideration, but he advanced several arguments that strongly point in that direction. One of the more impassioned parts of his speech was when he asked rhetorically, “How does it hurt U.S. interests if we go to the U.N. for recognition?” As I have stated previously, the appropriate U.S. vote if this matter ever came before the Security Council would be an abstention.

Anyone listening to Erakat could better understand the results of public opinion polling from Arab countries that Shibley Telhami presented later in the conference. Results such as the widespread perception of the United States (along with Israel) as a threat rather than a friend are grounded overwhelmingly in Arab sentiments about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The United States has reasons having to do with its wider regional interests, not just with injustice in Palestine, to bring to a productive conclusion this game that has gone on much too long.

 

(Photo by jankie)