Peace talks: The missing Palestinians

The rhetoric surrounding the current round of peace talks is seemingly omitting a rather significant constituency.

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Unfortunately, "peace talk" advocates seem comfortable excluding the majority of the Palestinian people, writes Samer Abdelnour [EPA]

There are many advocates of the renewed US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, despite widespread scepticism. One particularly active set of advocates is the group known as The Elders. Three of the Elders – former US President Jimmy Carter, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, and former Algerian Foreign Minister and freedom fighter Lakhdar Brahimi – recently spent time in Washington and London making the case for the peace talks. It is instructive to review their arguments, as I had the opportunity to do during their London visit.

Refreshingly, the talk proved productive and substantial: settlement expansion and the entrenchment of Apartheid is quickly rendering a two-state situation unachievable; the international community has failed the Palestinian people; peace is in Israel’s hands, as Palestinians have little capacity to pressure Israel into any agreement; there is scarce political will within Israel to end the colonisation of Palestine; without serious external pressure, Israel will have little incentive to uphold its obligations under international law; and finally, it is unlikely that the current Israeli political elite will ever take peace seriously.

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Despite these major obstacles it was suggested by The Elders that Israelis and Palestinians would face a ghastly future in the post-two-state world. Thus, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts were seen as not only serious and genuine, but the “last hope” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The two-state template proposed is the same as it has been for decades: two states with borders based on the Green Line and with swaps to incorporate most West Bank Jewish settlements in a redrawn Israel, allowing Palestinians to form a land corridor between the West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, political leaders have suggested that the four million Palestinians under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, could voice their position on a potential peace agreement through a referendum. But what about the Palestinian Diaspora – the millions of refugees and exiles who are not allowed to go home and whose numbers are swelling daily with every new dispossession? What about our rights and aspirations?

Unfortunately, “peace talk” advocates seem comfortable excluding the majority of the Palestinian people, effectively disregarding them as an integral stakeholder in the peace process. Instead of working on an inclusive basis to consider the aspirations of the majority of Palestinians, talks will focus almost exclusively on the issue of borders and land swaps. The status of Jerusalem is occasionally mentioned and what little discussion about Palestinian refugees and exiles assumes that our rights and aspirations are negotiable.

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As a Palestinian, I find these positions highly insensitive and utterly dismissive of our rights. As difficult as it may be for observers to accept, the rights of Palestinian refugees and exiles to return to our homeland are inalienable. The right of return is both an individual and a collective right. Any negotiation of this right must not happen without the full participation of Palestinian refugees and exiles, including the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank. More seriously, the Arab peace initiative, which speaks of a “just solution” for the refugees that would be “agreed upon,” should not be seen as a resettlement carte blanche .

Moreover, there are alternatives to the two-state dogma: a two-state solution is certainly not the only viable peace option. After decades of a failed process, the impending death of the two-state solution should invigorate considerations of alternative possibilities and not rehash the past. More than ever there is a need for strategic thinkers and policymakers to seriously explore the one-state solution as well as bi-national options. Israeli hard-liners may never accept living together with “non-Jews”, or that Palestinians should one day share equal rights, but this ideal is an attractive one for many people of Palestinian and also of Jewish origin.

A rights-based platform would get to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the deeply ideological discrimination that permits the violent colonisation of the indigenous Palestinian people. Peace advocates prophesize doom for Israel if the two-state solution fails because it will lose its Jewish majority – a majority engineered through wars, ethnic cleansing, and Palestinian dispossession. This is not, to say the least, a healthy basis for a real peace based on justice and mutual understanding. The international community must seriously begin to consider and discuss alternatives to the two-state solution.

As for the Palestinians excluded from the peace “process” during these past two decades, we are working globally to engage with one another in unique ways and to influence Palestinian politics. Examples of such efforts are the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which now provides leadership to an international solidarity movement, media outlets with a growing readership, such as Electronic Intifada, new think tanks (such as Al-Shabaka and Masarat), and attempts to reinvigorate representative structures (such as the initiative to register Palestinians worldwide for Palestine National Council elections). Though we are not now at the peace talk table, any viable and sustained peace initiative will have to take our voices into account. The Palestinian Diaspora will not rest until our rights and aspirations are recognised.

Samer Abdelnour is a co-founder of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. He is completing a PhD in Management at the London School of Economics on NGOs and humanitarian response, and the role of community and collective enterprise in post-war peace building and development in Sudan. Since 2005 he has managed applied research projects across Sudan.