Once upon a time, Palestine was the Arab world's unifying cause. Justice for the Palestinians was considered a basic pre-requisite for regional stability and peace, and it was an idea that had global resonance. Today, the picture is different and the Palestinian cause has been falling off the political agenda ever since the onset of the Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict, and Israel's success in placing Iran's nuclear programme at the centre stage.
This month, a study by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies confirms this slide. A survey of over 20,000 respondents in 14 Arab countries revealed a widespread engagement, not with Palestine, but with the Arab revolutions and their future, with Syria and the need for democratic systems of government. Only a third cited Israel as the greatest regional threat, about the same percentage as Iran amongst those living in Iraq and the Gulf.
This change comes on top of a gradual loss of Palestinian unity due to the fragmentation of Palestinian society into those under occupation, divided between the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, those in Israel, those in refugee camps and the rest in exile. The result has been increasingly to replace the national cause with local causes. For example, in November 2012 and again last week demonstrations against economic hardship erupted in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has a $4.2 billion debt and a World Bank report in March found an economic slowdown, with low exports and long term unemployment; Gaza is isolated and besieged and survives largely on a tunnel smuggling economy. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that people's top priority should be how to feed their families, and Palestinian communities elsewhere will have likewise developed their own local priorities.
Palestinians will need to act urgently if their cause is not to be finally buried. The fact that the West is still engaged in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a cause for optimism. It does not signify a revival of the Palestine cause's centrality, but a push for an end to the conflict on terms most favourable to Israel. The US and Europe, with the recent addition of China, have been urging a renewal of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has visited the region half a dozen times in this endeavour, and has pledged $4 billion in aid to encourage the PA. In April, an Arab delegation was in Washington to present a revised Arab Peace Plan which offered Israel a land swap with the Palestinians, hoping to draw it into peace talks. More recently Sweden, with the same aim, decided to punish the Palestinians for failing to negotiate with Israel by possibly reducing their aid by 200 million kronor ($30 million).
What these parties are pushing for is the two-state solution which has dominated the political discourse for decades and has never, even partially, been realised. Nevertheless, the international consensus still holds that this solution is the only way forward. Yet a glance at the map will show that no such solution is possible.
Currently, the West Bank and East Jerusalem house some 500,000 Jewish settlers living in more than 130 settlements dispersed throughout these areas. In Jerusalem, many settler groups have infiltrated the Old City and the Arab neighbourhoods still left unoccupied by Israel. Another thousand settler homes are planned for June. Gaza, an essential part of any future Palestinian state, is besieged and cut off from the West Bank, and is governed by a Hamas government split off from the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank and likely to remain so.
Two-state solution unlikely
Since the reality on the ground precludes a two-state solution as envisaged in the Arab peace plan - a Palestinian state on the 1967 territories with East Jerusalem as its capital - what is the basis for the continued push towards this solution? It can only be that a variation that suits Israel better is the real plan. This would allow for Israel to keep Area C, 62 percentof the West Bank, as repeatedly advocated by Israel's trade minister, Naftalie Bennett, leaving a Palestinian "state" of West Bank enclaves separated by Israeli-held territory, to which Gaza might possibly be connected.
The present situation could not be better for Israel and its allies: a docile Palestinian leadership which creates an illusion of equivalence between occupier and occupied.
Since these West Bank enclaves could not be viable on their own, their economic and social ties and their access to the outside world would be with Jordan. Gaza's extension would be towards Egypt, as Israel has always wanted, and Jerusalem would remain under Israel's total control. Many reports have quoted such ideas, vigorously repudiated by Jordan and Egypt. But one must assume that the US is pushing for a way to appease Israel and yet offer the Palestinians something, hoping thereby to wrap up the Palestine issue for good. No other land permutation is possible if Israeli settlements remain and no pressure is applied to make Israel remove them.
The fear many Palestinian have is that their leadership, currently unelected and unrepresentative, and they suspect only wishes to stay in power whatever the cost to the national cause, might agree to a version of such a plan whatever their patriotic utterances. In such circumstances, Palestinians must realise that time is not on their side and doing nothing in the face of these plots is not an option for them. The present situation could not be better for Israel and its allies: a docile Palestinian leadership which creates an illusion of equivalence between occupier and occupied, relieving Israel of its legal responsibilities as an occupying power; an endless peace process that gives cover for Israel's colonisation; international inaction; and a fragmented Palestinian people unable to resist. They are the big losers in this arrangement, and they must be the ones to bring it down. What should they do?
An apartheid state
Israel/Palestine is today one state. But it is an apartheid state which discriminates against non-Jews in favour of Jews. The Palestinian task now is to fight against this apartheid and mount a struggle, not for an impossible Palestinian state, but for equal rights under Israeli rule. They would need to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, which is now a liability that only camouflages the true situation, and then confront Israel, their actual ruler, directly. As stateless people under military occupation, they must demand equal civil and political rights with Israeli citizens, and apply for Israeli citizenship if necessary. That puts the onus on Israel to respond: either to ignore the five million Palestinians it rules, or vacate their land, or grant them equal rights.
Israel will reject all of these, but whatever it does will be against its own interests. And Palestinians at one stroke will have broken up Israel's hegemonic hold on the political discourse and changed the rules of the lethal game being played against them.
This strategy will not be popular amongst Palestinians, nor will they want to become second-class Israeli citizens. But are their lives now under occupation any better? And is there another option given the present conditions? I would argue that by adopting this plan, they will lose nothing but their illusions, and at this serious juncture in Palestinian history, it may be the only way to avert the annihilation of their cause. It will be a hard road, but the one chance to build a democratic state that replaces apartheid Israel and eventually enables the refugees to return to their ancestral homeland.
Dr Ghada Karmi is the author of Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine.
Follow her on Twitter: @ghadakarmi
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.