Samir Abdullah
The Daily Star
February 12, 2008 - 7:13pm

In his final State of the Union address, US President George W. Bush said he believed that a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal would be a reality by the end of his term. Despite the optimism that his remarks generated in the Palestinian government, the goal of reaching a Palestinian-Israeli agreement by the end of 2008 - which Bush set at the Annapolis summit last year and again during his visit to Ramallah last month - remains subject to question, and this is a matter that merits immediate attention.

In the broadest terms, what we in the Palestinian government want is support in creating a new kind of political environment, one in which moderates can translate their goals and aspirations into credible policies while sustaining the confidence of the Palestinian public. This is why we presented a bold economic and administrative reform plan at the Paris conference in December 2007. Our plan treats law and order, good governance, increased national prosperity, and improved quality of life in the Palestinian territories as top priorities.

All in all, our plan reflects the determination of moderates on the Palestinian side to take control of Palestinian affairs and build frameworks and mechanisms that will foster hope among our people and build trust with our neighbors. These are the sorts of ideas that Bush often evokes when addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Today, we are striving to bring them to life by actions on the ground.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that the right direction is clear, the path ahead is far from easy. The Palestinian Authority is still struggling with the Hamas challenge and trying to find ways, in coordination with friends and allies, to restore its jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip. In this regard, the Israeli measures against Gaza have made our task more difficult. Approximately two-thirds of Gazans are living in deep poverty. With access to basic services limited by Israeli closures, health indicators have been declining steadily. Chronic diseases have risen by more than 30 percent since 2005. Malnutrition and gastrointestinal infections among children, to take two primary examples, are becoming common predicaments for many families there. With shortages in vital supplies and equipment, hospitals have been forced to limit services dramatically.

In addition, the troubling contradictions that lie at the heart of Israel's policies in the West Bank have reinforced Palestinian concerns about Israel's commitment to a two-state solution. In fact, only a few days after the Annapolis summit Israel resumed the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even after his meeting with Bush in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear that his government would not halt settlement expansions in East Jerusalem, claiming that the "status of Jerusalem is different."

On top of that, the Palestinian economy remains terribly fragmented and vulnerable as a result of hundreds of checkpoints that effectively suffocate commerce and mobility across the West Bank. A recent United Nations report indicated that despite commitments made by the Israeli government to reduce them, the number of checkpoints in the West Bank had risen from 528 to 563.

The situation is worse in Gaza, where the private sector is teetering on the brink of complete collapse because of the Israeli shutdown of all passages to and from the strip. The prolongation of these conditions will ravage the potential for our government's reform and development plan, and as a result render any hope for a two-state solution groundless.

Bush must realize that the two-state solution is in real peril, and that salvaging it will be his greatest legacy. It is safe to say that the outcome of this final drive to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and establish an independent and viable Palestinian state will largely determine the kind of regional sentiments that the incoming US president will face in 2009. In helping Palestinians fulfill their deepest yearnings to escape the fetters of foreign occupation, the United States would be establishing a framework for an entirely new relationship with the Arab world; one based on reciprocal respect, compassion, and understanding.

We therefore ask that Bush emphatically demand that Israel bring to an end all ongoing expansions of its existing settlements, that it terminate all plans to construct new settlements, that it lift its brutal and inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip, that it present a detailed timetable for the dismantlement of all checkpoints and outposts in the West Bank, and that it discontinue its military operations in Palestinian territories.

The task of devising a workable diplomatic strategy to support the Palestinian government and prevent the complete collapse of the two-state solution is the challenge at hand today. With all the advantages of hindsight, Bush today understands that the most sensible solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict now rests on the slender hope of full-fledged Palestinian recovery, sovereignty, and independence. He must therefore muster the political will and courage to persuade the Israeli government to change its current course in the Occupied Territories; not only because this is a matter of commitment to ideals and principles the American people stand for, but also because it is a realistic and prudent approach that will empower moderates everywhere in the Arab world. Washington has much to gain from pursuing such a policy.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017