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State-building and political change: Options for Palestine 2011

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Elizabeth Sellwood

Executive Summary

Across the Middle East, the year 2011 already appears destined to be a period of upheaval. It is not yet clear how the dramatic events of January and February will influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but three factors suggest that this year will also be one of change for Palestinians and Israelis.

First, Palestinian expectations have been moved by the powerful, popular movements that have wrought political change in their immediate neighborhood. The fact that popular action has opened the way for change elsewhere in the region is likely to energize Palestinians and may hasten, at least, a shift in Palestinian strategy. It could elicit more substantial transformation.

Second, the government of Israel has been shaken out of its relative comfort by regional events. With the fall of the Mubarak regime, Israel may lose a reliable regional ally in the peace process. Its relationship with Turkey has already shifted. Israel is consequently facing the possibility of acute isolation in the region, accompanied by a strengthening de-legitimization campaign. Pressure on Israel to tackle the Palestinian issue actively has intensified, though it is not clear in what policy direction regional developments will push the Netanyahu government.

Third, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has created an expectation that something will move Palestinians closer to statehood in August/September 2011. In August 2009, Fayyad launched a finite, two-year institution-building program through which he sought to demonstrate that Palestinians were ready to take on the responsibilities of statehood. The technical achievements of this program are already considerable. Fayyad’s deadline-setting strategy has worked: Palestinians expect some kind of political change in August/September 2011, though no one knows exactly what will happen.

Four sets of options for political action in August/ September 2011 are analyzed in this paper. The first option is ‘business as usual’: PM Salam Fayyad and his government demonstrate that they have achieved the institutional standards sought by the international community, but their achievements elicit no substantial response from the international community or Israel. Such a (non-) response to the Fayyad government program might be expected to have three effects on the political process: First, it would break the connection between institutional reform and political progress; second, it would strengthen Palestinian opponents of Fayyad who argue that he is simply pursuing the “economic peace” agenda and doing the security dirty work of the Israelis; and third, it would erode ordinary Palestinians’ commitment to the Fayyad-led PA and encourage them to pursue alternative routes, including violent and non-violent direct action.

A push for broader international recognition of the State of Palestine prior to a peace agreement is also possible. Could international recognition of the State – via the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, or through recognition by individual states – bring the twostate solution any closer? Within the UN context, options are limited: Palestine can only become a UN member state if the Security Council recommends this to the General Assembly; this would require a fundamental policy shift by the United States. A UN General Assembly resolution, or broader recognition of Palestine outside the UN framework, would be easier to achieve than a UN Security Council resolution. Broader international recognition of Palestine without US support or UN membership would confront the Palestinian leadership with interesting policy dilemmas: who, for example, would be granted citizenship of the new state? How would the PLO relate to the new Palestine? Broader state recognition could not, by itself, lead to effective Palestinian sovereignty, however.

Recognition of Palestine that was not accompanied by measures to implement statehood would not enable the Palestinian government successfully to monopolize the legitimate use of force within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, neither would it enable Palestinians to control borders of the territory or access Jerusalem. Recognition without detailed implementation measures might therefore prove complicated for the Palestinian leadership and profoundly disappointing to many Palestinians.

A third political option is dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, which would return direct responsibility for administration of the territory to Israel. Dissolution of the PA would have an immediate, significant impact on Palestinian living standards in the West Bank, and it would be hard to imagine a handover to Israeli control without some violence. If the PA were dismantled in the West Bank, Gaza might become the only remaining area governed by Palestinians: the Hamas authority would probably remain in place unless Israel chose forcibly to dismantle it. Dissolving the PA is a high-risk option, but it would definitely shift the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Some commentators argue that it would demonstrate to Israelis that a two-state solution is the only way to preserve Israel’s identity as a “vibrant, Jewish, and democratic state.” We look at a fourth option for 2011: new facts on the ground with international endorsement. In Prime Minister Fayyad’s view, Palestinians urgently need to see evidence that the occupation is being rolled back. The prime minister has proposed several possible changes, “political deliverables” that would broaden the scope of the PA, reduce the impact of the occupation, and indicate to Palestinians that their government’s approach is helping them toward statehood. Concerted action to enable the PA to deliver these visible changes, plus an international event marking the completion of the state-building program, could help demonstrate progress and enable the state-building process to maintain momentum. This process would be accompanied by Palestinian political debate about public policy, the route to statehood, and the healing of internal Palestinian divisions.

None of the options discussed in this paper can end the conflict. There is no good alternative to a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. International recognition of Palestine in 2011 would be unlikely to lead to the establishment of a state that monopolizes the legitimate use of force within the territory claimed by the PLO. Two large impediments remain: the Israeli occupation is the first, heaviest, and most obvious of these; the Palestinian political situation is a second serious impediment. Palestinians are not united behind the idea of statehood that is being proposed by President Abbas and promoted at an institutional level by the government of Salam Fayyad.

State-building (as opposed to institution-building) is a profoundly political process, one that involves a progressive strengthening of the relationship between the state and society so that the state comes to be regarded by the vast majority of its citizens as the legitimate source of public authority. State-building requires an effective political process for negotiating the mutual demands between the state and societal groups. Although Fayyad’s government has made substantial contributions toward building Palestinian state institutions, the prime minister has neither the mandate nor the legitimacy to lead the political aspect of Palestinian state-building. The political dimension of Palestinian state-building must now move ahead if Fayyad’s achievements are to be preserved and developed into broader change.

Opening Palestinian political life, freeing up internal dialogue and political bargaining, is of course risky.
However, a transition from the present PA and PLO leadership is inevitable, even if it is not imminent.
New leaders must emerge to articulate options for the Palestinian state, and these leaders can come forward only through dialogue among Palestinians.

The year 2011 offers important opportunities for the Palestinian leadership to encourage political debate around non-violent routes to statehood. Fayyad and his government have helped to keep the idea of two states alive by building institutions, generating a sense of optimism and movement, and providing a credible non-violent way forward for Palestinians. Now, across the Arab world, “moderate” and “hardliner” labels are breaking down and new political players and alliances are emerging. Popular engagement in politics has been re-awakened: people have seen how direct action has wrought transformations that the US has been trying for years to achieve. A transformation of Palestinian political scene is almost inevitable in this regional context. This transformation is more likely to proceed calmly if a political process is agreed, and can take place under the unifying authority of President Abbas.