I and many others applaud and are surprised by the speed and persistence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s engagement in diplomatic efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I applaud his initiative because it can only result in something positive, whether it succeeds or fails. If the effort is successful, it could result in resumed formal peace negotiations that presumably would have a better chance of success than previous talks over the past 20 years, because they would only take place if both sides feel there is a serious will to make them succeed. The chances are slim, but we should never give up trying to resolve the conflict peacefully, on the basis of international law.
If, on the other hand, Kerry’s mission fails, all sides will have to adjust to the continued stalemate and the stultifying consequences of the long-term Israeli occupation, colonization, annexation and siege of Palestinian lands. A failure to restart negotiations would also finally lay to rest the notion that there is any credible chance of diplomatic breakthroughs under the current circumstances. This would force all concerned to explore other options. The current situation is not sustainable and in due course will certainly lead to a new explosion of some sort – as has happened with predictable regularity since 1947-1948 when the conflict began in its current form.
An intriguing third option that is particularly prevalent in Israel is the idea that in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement we should focus on improving the socioeconomic conditions of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This complex and slippery idea comprises three elements that are, in fact, totally opposed to each other, making it hard to endorse or reject it with any clarity.
The first is that socioeconomic development is the right of the Palestinians and anything that promotes their improved well-being must be supported. The second, as manifested most emphatically in Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s development plan in recent years, is that economic development and the building of Palestinian institutions are prerequisites for eventual statehood. This compelling argument also should be supported unequivocally.
The third aspect of this idea reflects the Israeli government’s perception of economic development potentially as an alternative to ending its occupation, colonization, annexation and siege of the Palestinian areas and population. Though Israeli leaders often speak of promoting Palestinian development as a goal that would enhance conditions for a diplomatic agreement, many fear that they actually see Palestinian economic development primarily as a means of reducing the pain of occupation to an extent that would allow existing Israeli policies to continue in perpetuity.
In the meantime, the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation enjoy neither freedom and sovereignty nor socioeconomic well-being, making the status quo very fragile.
It is important to separate the three dimensions of the argument to make Palestinian socioeconomic development a priority, by supporting the right of the Palestinians to live a better life and prepare for statehood one day. This also involves opposing the cruel Israeli view that socioeconomic development can substitute for ending the Israeli occupation.
A new danger is that the United States may be lining up with the Israeli government view, which sadly would provide yet another reason why Washington has been an incompetent and failed mediator in this conflict.
A few days ago Kerry said initiatives to promote the Palestinian economy were a central aspect of his ongoing explorations for a new diplomatic initiative. He said, “We are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts, to promote economic development and to remove some of the bottlenecks and barriers that exist with respect to commerce in the West Bank.”
Kerry went on to say that economic growth “will help us be able to provide a climate, if you will, an atmosphere, within which people have greater confidence about moving forward.”
His nuanced view of economic growth as promoting the greater goal of peace negotiations is heartening, but it is also unclear. In such matters the modern historical record shows that where there are different perceptions, the Israeli view almost always prevails over the American view. This is a good moment for the U.S. government to clarify its position on this matter, so that all concerned can better grasp if Kerry is acting as a truly impartial mediator, with integrity, or whether he is really just surrogate for the Israeli government.
It is important for all concerned to note honestly the correct order of things: Palestinian socioeconomic conditions are bad mainly because of the prolonged Israeli occupation and restrictions. As the late Palestinian economist Yusif Sayegh said many years ago, socioeconomic development is an inherent Palestinian right that we should always seek to promote, but the antidote to long-term Israeli occupation is not economic development, it is liberation.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on twitter @RamiKhouri.