A quarter century ago, when the two-state solution was still possible and we were optimistic that there was a path to get there, I was co-chairing Builders for Peace (BfP), a post-Oslo project launched by then Vice President Al Gore. It was created to support the on-going peace process by promoting economic development and employment in the Occupied Palestinian lands. As we repeatedly made clear, our goal was not to substitute economic progress for peace, but to create the prosperity and hope needed to sustain the process until the "final status negotiations" that were to occur at the end of a five-year transitional period.
After frequent trips to the region in those early years after Oslo, I became deeply concerned that things were not going well. New hardships were being created for Palestinians by the closures and expanded checkpoints Israel put in place after a Jewish extremist massacred Palestinians at al Ibrahim Mosque. The brutal and demeaning behaviors exhibited by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and in Hebron were deepening animosity. American businesses that had initially expressed interest in investing in Gaza or the West Bank gave up after realizing that Israelis weren't interested in allowing Palestinians to freely import raw materials or export finished products. Nor were the Israelis allowing Palestinians access to resources in the territories. Meanwhile, settlement expansion was continuing at a rapid pace.
At one point, I met President Clinton and he asked me how Builders was progressing. I told him that honestly we weren't doing well at all. After relaying my observations and concerns to him, I said, "Since Oslo, Palestinians have become poorer, less employed, less free, and have lost more land to settlements. They aren't experiencing the benefits of peace and are losing hope." What troubled me most, I told the president, was that his negotiators were ignoring our entreaties to take seriously these Israeli-imposed impediments to Palestinian prosperity and freedom. They saw our work as a nuisance and a distraction from their "important peace negotiations."
If this mindset of ignoring Palestinian rights and the impediments being created by the Israelis continued, I warned Clinton, Palestinians would lose trust in us, the process, and the hope that they would ever be free of the occupation. President Clinton was upset by my report and asked me to write him a detailed memo — which I did. Nothing, however, was done to correct this downward spiraling trajectory — which has continued until the present day.
I have been prompted to write these reflections because of two recent developments.
The first is a discussion taking place in Israel following the meeting between Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by reports of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's plan to "shrink the conflict" by offering economic palliatives to improve life for Palestinians under occupation. Instead of the Oslo formula of "land for peace" the "new" idea (actually, it's an old idea) is to exchange "economic benefits for security." This turns the initial logic of the peace process upside down. Instead of ending the occupation, the Bennett/Gantz proposition is to make life easier for Palestinians so they will accept its continuation. "Shrinking the occupation" is merely a cynical ploy to mask Israel's consolidating control over the lands occupied in 1967.
The second development that prompted me to recall what the US failed to do in the post-Oslo period is a bill — the "Two-State Solution Act" (TSSA) — being introduced by a number progressive members of Congress. It is difficult to find fault with much of what's in TSSA, other than the fact that what it proposes is 25 years too late to make a difference. It calls for conditioning US aid to Israel in order to stop settlement expansion (which TSSA affirms are illegal) and violations of Palestinian human rights. These are all well-intentioned gestures, but as the saying goes, proposing them now is like "closing the barn door after the horses have all escaped." TSSA ignores the ugly realities that have been created by decades of US neglect that have allowed Israel to run roughshod over the occupied lands resulting in what Human Rights Watch calls an apartheid regime.
There are well over 650,000 Israelis living in strategically located West Bank settlements. They are connected by Jewish-only highways and protected by checkpoints that carve the territory into pieces. The TSSA may make its sponsors feel good that they've taken a principled stand for human rights, and I salute their courage — since I know pro-Israeli groups will make every effort to punish them. At the same time, I must also acknowledge the sad truth that a viable two-state solution is no longer possible given the immense settler presence in the occupied lands — placed in locations specifically designated to make it impossible to allow for an independent viable Palestinian state. Given that reality, it's pointless to try to give a transfusion to a cadaver that's been eaten up by cancer.
And so, 25 years after I wrote my memo to Clinton, we have arrived at this sorry state of affairs. Israel, acting with impunity born of the neglect of Palestinian rights and the enabling hand of successive US presidents and Congresses, is cynically proposing to make Palestinian life better as it consolidates its hold over the occupied lands. Meanwhile, some members of Congress, thinking they are doing the right thing, are proposing a bill (that will never pass) that tries to save the two-state solution (that is beyond saving). It’s all both sad and maddening — because it didn't have to be this way.
* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.