Palestinians understand clearly that any political resolution of their conflict with Israel will require compromises, possibly very difficult ones. But one area in which Palestinians do not see room for compromise is the issue of Jewish settlement activities in areas Palestinians hope will be their independent state.
If the Netanyahu-Mitchell framework for talks muddles this issue — for example by leaving the settlements to the final stage of the peace talks — it will be hard to see how there can be a functional peace process.
President Abbas has understood and complied with the need for Palestinians to address Israel’s security concerns as stipulated in the Road Map. At the same time, the first phase of the Road Map clearly states that Israel must stop all settlement activities including “natural growth”.
Continued settlement construction provides a concrete reminder to Palestinians that the world community is unable to enforce this simple but crucial prerequisite for peace. For Palestinians, failure to produce a settlement freeze will allow one side’s actions to affect the results of the talks. Israeli presence in the occupied territories begins as a security necessity, then a civilian outpost and then a legal settlement — and thus a political fact.
In 2004 President Bush legitimised some of these settlements. Palestinians remember in anger how, under Bush, these facts on the ground became “a reality” that Palestinians “must take into consideration” in talks.
The most recent Palestinian move, namely Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s two-year plan for statehood, which he unveiled this week, turns the tables on the Israelis. By insisting on a two-year ceiling, the Palestinian leader requires Palestinian institutions to work effectively, but also puts the ball in the Israeli court. Lack of progress will mean the Israelis have to accept the Palestinian reality, rather than Palestinians having to react to Israeli settlement activities.
If the Israelis drag their feet, a Palestinian state will exist in reality by the time Mr Fayyad’s deadline is up. All that will then be needed is the political will to declare statehood and enjoy worldwide recognition.