Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is revealing in its simplicity. The deal acquiesces to every Israeli whim and leaves the Palestinians in the cold. This is hardly surprising. The path forward now rests solely with the Palestinians. They must acknowledge that their leaders’ strategy since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s has failed. It is time for fresh elections and new leaders.
There is an additional problem: most people on both sides of the conflict now accept the demise of the two-state solution as envisioned by the Oslo Accords. From secular Israelis living in Tel Aviv to Palestinians harassed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, few actually believe the two-state solution is possible in the current circumstances. Israel’s steep power imbalance with Palestinians and its relentless expansion of West Bank settlements have destroyed all hopes of a viable two-state solution. Yet, there is one major player that is still fighting for the unattainable, and that is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) through the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Under PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in his 15th year of what was supposed to have been a four-year term, Palestinian negotiators have regularly returned to the Oslo Accords, first signed in 1993, as the primary vehicle to peace. PA security forces have dutifully served Israeli interests by crushing Palestinian protests and imprisoned hundreds who have protested the PA’s claim to legitimacy. The PLO, of course, scored one win in service of the two-state solution: its bid for recognition as a state by the United Nations in 2012, which won international backing despite Israel’s best efforts to derail the campaign.
But it hasn’t exactly done Palestinians any good. Israel has invested the full weight of its economy, military and diplomacy to ensure that a Palestinian state can never be realized. It has deeply embedded hundreds of thousands of settlers into the West Bank in such a way that it is now impossible to uproot them. They have taken control of vital natural resources, including the West Bank’s largest aquifer, over which now sits the Israeli mega-settlement of Ariel. The occupation of the West Bank is the best funded and resourced state project in Israel’s history.
Faced with such Israeli cynicism toward peace, why do Palestinian leaders keep returning to the negotiation table? Why are they still committed to a solution that has for years now shown itself to be an impossibility? The answer is that their jobs depend on it. The PA, which receives millions in foreign aid every year, was a creation of the Oslo Accords. While it was only meant to be a temporary form of self-government, it has remained an unending source of revenue for Palestine’s leaders. The old colonial trick of enriching a select group of natives and then have them administer the colonial regime has worked all too well in Palestine.
Now, the Trump “peace plan” should rightly be the last straw. Palestine need new leaders. This will require, at long last, new elections. But a reality check is of course necessary: Getting the PLO to hold new elections won’t be easy; and equally challenging will be to ensure they are free and fair, given Israel’s vested interest in continuing the collaborationist leadership of the PA. On this matter, then, Palestinians need all they help they can get from honest brokers in the international community.
Should they get this far, what should new leaders do? Look to the next generation. Over the past decade a grassroots form of nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation has grown among young people in the West Bank. Given the dramatic power imbalances in the conflict, a return to violent conflict won’t serve anyone’s interests. It’s time to fully embrace nonviolence.
With the emergence of new leadership, there are several nonviolent steps that Palestinians can exercise, which had brought impressive results in the past. First and foremost, it is critical to end the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There is no practical, rational reason why Palestinians should help administer Israel’s occupation over Palestinians. In reaction to the disdain among Palestinians to the Trump deal, which impinges on his ability to stay in power, Abbas has called for an end to all cooperation with Israel, including over security. However, he hasn’t yet said anything about dissolving the PA, which is the primary enabler of cooperation with Israel. Time will tell if he is playing politics or if he is serious about changing the status quo.
Then, what else should the new leaders do? They could encourage the widespread acts of civil disobedience that the current PA leadership has suppressed. Sit-ins at Israeli checkpoints, boycotts of Israeli products and other acts of nonviolence would have immediate and dramatic effects. And once that gains traction and recognition by the international community, the next step would be to contemplate what conditions are necessary for a viable solution to the conflict based on the rights of all parties. That will require a more honest arbitrator than the United States has been under Donald Trump.
The tactics mentioned above proved exceptionally efficient during the First Intifada, which pushed Israel in the early 1990s to the negotiation table. After decades of Israeli intransigence and a White House prepared to give Israel anything it wants, the Palestinians do not have anything to lose by returning to nonviolent resistance. The only barrier that stands in their way is an aging, corrupt and out-of-touch leadership. Free and fair elections in Palestine is the best response to Trump’s meaningless “deal of the century,” and to reset the terms of what is both desirable and achievable.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.