Senator Mitchell, you have been asked by President Obama to undertake an almost unimaginably difficult task. You arrive with unique credentials and goodwill. We, like you, believe that no conflict is intractable - conflicts are made by humans and they can be ended by them. But to succeed, there will have to be a fundamental reassessment of failed approaches, openness to new ideas, and a willingness to give voice and power to those who have been systematically marginalized, demonized, and made voiceless.
We have seen that where politics fails, violence takes its place, at ever greater and more horrifying levels. But violence is not the cause of this conflict, it is the symptom of a lack of justice and a lack of alternative paths to justice.
So your task at its core is to help open an alternative path to justice so that there can be peace.
Today in 2009, there are 11 million souls in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip together. Half are Israeli Jews and half are Palestinians. They live in conditions of radical inequality that sustain and fuel a bloody and violent conflict. There are several million more Palestinians dispossessed and exiled from their land who have been waiting for justice for sixty-one years.
The two peoples are interspersed throughout the land, and historically have proven no more separable than blacks and white in South Africa, or Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. They have fought bitterly to remain in the same small piece of land.
As Palestinian Americans, we have a double stake, on the one hand as Diaspora Palestinians and refugees whose rights and voices have not been recognized by the peace process, and on the other as Americans, who want to see the United States act justly. We are duty bound to advocate for justice and peace holistically.
No peace process will succeed unless there is a sharp break from the Clinton and Bush administration habits of acting as Israel’s “attorney,” unconditional apologist, defender, arms supplier and financier.
US domestic politics act as a double-edged sword. Irish America helped the Northern Ireland peace process by encouraging the US to apply pressure on behalf of the weaker side, leveling the playing field for meaningful negotiations. The pro-Israel lobby, by contrast, has blocked peace by weighting the scales even more radically in favor of Israel. There can be no real negotiations when there is so much inequality of power and influence.
Other lessons from Northern Ireland:
1. No outcome can be predetermined, ruled-in or ruled-out. Whereas all parties in Northern Ireland were free to pursue any political goals, in the Middle East peace process, Palestinians have usually been dictated to what the outcome is supposed to be in advance (a severely circumscribed two-state solution and recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” relegating Palestinians to permanent inferior status).
2. Any solution must have the consent of all stake holding groups, not just the approval of leaders whose mandates (particularly on the Palestinian side) have been severely compromised or even deliberately curtailed to secure an agreement on terms more favorable to Israel and the status quo. Palestinian refugees and Palestinians inside Israel are key groups without whose participation and consent there can be no lasting peace. Yet they have been systematically excluded.
3. Peace is made between enemies and you do not get to choose who your enemies are or who represents them. Throughout history, there have been attempts to tell Palestinians who their leaders are instead of asking them, with disastrous results. Today Hamas is being boycotted even though it is the most powerful and popular party among Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories. Just as there could be no peace without Sinn Fein and the IRA, there can be no peace without Hamas. A mechanism must be found to bring them in as soon as possible that does not require them to submit to Israeli preconditions, and which treats the weapons, violence and ceasefires of all sides consistently, transparently and fairly.
Broadly speaking there are two paths to a solution:
1. Two fully independent states - Palestine and Israel, based on UN Resolution 242; or
2. A single unitary or bi-national state guaranteeing equal rights and protections to all who live in it;
Under either scenario:
1. The rights of Palestinian refugees, as set out in UN resolution 194 must be fully respected including the right of return, restitution, and compensation.
2. Palestinian citizens of Israel (whose inferior status is analogous to that of Catholics in Northern Ireland prior to the Belfast Agreement) must be guaranteed full civil, political, economic and cultural rights.
We have a unique opportunity to abandon the past misconceptions that the issue of peace between Palestinians and Israelis is limited solely to those who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The rights of Palestinians inside Israel and in the Diaspora (who together actually constitute a majority of all Palestinians) cannot be traded away for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians should not be forced to choose among their human rights. They are entitled to all of them.
The Two-State Solution
The two state solution requires:
1. A complete, rapid and guaranteed end to Israeli military occupation, presence, remote control, blockade and siege from all the territories occupied in June 1967 including east Jerusalem;
2. Land occupied by Israeli settlers/settlements to be returned to Palestine as well as the existing infrastructure and full compensation to Palestinians for loss of use of their land during the period it was occupied by settlements;
3. The removal or integration of settlers into the Palestinian state. No right for Israel to insist on ruling anyone within the Palestinian state;
4. Guaranteed free movement without Israeli interference between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and full Palestinian control over airspace, water, land, electromagnetic spectrum, borders, immigration, commerce;
5. Full political and economic sovereignty and equality for the Palestinian state;
6. Mutual, equal and independently monitored demilitarization;
The One-State Solution
Within a few years, Palestinians will constitute the absolute majority in all the territories today controlled by Israel. Already, the prospects of a workable and durable two-state solution are doubtful. Even if Palestinians could be made to accept a truncated state in 15 or 20 percent of their historic homeland, would that hold when they form, say, two-thirds of the total population?
Ultimately it must be admitted that the core of this conflict -- like in Northern Ireland -- is about a lack of equality and a gross imbalance of power and rights. Therefore, any solution, whether based on one state or two cannot work unless it guarantees equality. There is a mantra that only a two-state solution could work, although it has failed to materialize despite intense efforts.
The best guarantee for the future of Israeli Jews in the region is a strong ethos of equal rights for all populations whether they are part of a majority today or a minority tomorrow. Hence, there must be a serious consideration of some form of Northern Ireland-like power sharing that guarantees:
1. Strict equality for Israeli Jews and Palestinians and just and equal treatment;
2. Power-sharing that guarantees both communities a full share of political power but does not allow one to abuse the other;
3. Full protection for the language, cultural and religious rights of all communities, but no special rights or privileges for one group over another.
Israel can be expected to oppose any solution which requires it to substantially give up power; this is the crux of the matter. Israel will agree to a two-state solution that maintains its dominion over Palestinians, but this would not be a real peace. This was tried with Oslo and failed. Israel is in effect already imposing a one-state solution, but it is an apartheid state.
Oslo, aside from the substantive flaws in the initial agreement and subsequent accord was doomed because of the vast asymmetry in power between Israel and the Palestinians, made even greater by the Unites States siding with Israel.
It was also doomed because the whole concept of the peace process was about prioritizing Israeli security in the context of continued Palestinian dispossession and occupation, instead of removing the sources of conflict by addressing the rights issues at the core. (Indeed, Oslo deferred indefinitely all the key issues!)
Given the above, what resources of power are you and the president prepared to bring to bear to ensure Israel is willing to make meaningful concessions bearing in mind that no president has ever brought sufficient pressure to bear?
Will the president use the financial resources the US provides Israel as a means of enforcement and pressure?
Is the president willing to anger and confront pro-Israel constituencies who cannot countenance any American policy except one that simply endorses whatever an Israeli government puts forward?
Will the US stop using its veto power in the UN to protect Israel from international scrutiny?
If it becomes apparent to you that a two-state solution is unworkable or unachievable, will you be prepared to put democratic alternatives on the table?
Finally, if the process fails -- and we hope that it does not and will do all you ask us to do to ensure success -- will you be prepared to give a full accounting of why it failed?