Howard Sumka
The Huffington Post (Opinion)
July 24, 2011 - 12:00am

Weeks away from the anticipated and highly contentious United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, it's timely to ask what went wrong and what might move the issue in a better direction. Despite fears of the Palestinian streets reacting in frustration, it is appropriate now to look to the street for the solution.

Hand-wringing about the coming "diplomatic tsunami," as the Israelis have dubbed it, has dominated the attention of Middle East analysts. While the elites bumble along, public opinion polls consistently demonstrate broad support on both sides for a two-state solution. It may not be clear exactly what end-state they envision or what process they think might get them there, but that a large majority aspires to a stable, conflict-free future is unmistakable.

The United States has made clear its opposition to the matter going to the UN, accusing the Palestinians of unilateralism and sensing a plot to delegitimize Israel. As opposition to the UN vote by the US and, to some extent, Europe has crystallized, the Palestinian political leadership has wavered, many fear the West will follow through on its threats to cut off the assistance that has guaranteed the Palestinian Authority its fiscal viability and largely bankrolled Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's state-building program.

The US, where resolutions threatening to do just that recently won overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, has made clear that it is willing to let four years of exceptional economic growth and institutional development get wiped out. With only sporadic, begrudging, and anemic support from the Arab states, the PA already finds itself in dire financial straits, having been unable to meet its payroll fully or on time for two months.

Ironically, the US, which has invested about $2 billion to help the PA realize its vision of statehood and which has enthusiastically and repeatedly touted its success, now finds itself arguing vehemently against international recognition of their statehood. It is working to undermine moves in that direction -- no matter that the US has recently recognized the new states of Kosovo, East Timor, and South Sudan, all with governments no better equipped than the PA to run a state. And now it has awarded diplomatic recognition to the Libyan rebels, who have no government at all.

That the Obama Administration would likely take a very different approach but for its fear of the implications for the 2012 elections matters little to the Palestinians, who no longer feel they have a friend in America. The clearest signal came with the UN Security Council vote on the settlements resolution, when the US found itself vetoing the very language it had been using for decades. America's UN Ambassador Susan Rice found herself hard-pressed to make a coherent post-vote statement. And for the first time in recent memory, Palestinian youth went to the streets in Ramallah to denounce America. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's masterful manipulation of US politics, however, the handwriting was clearly on the wall. The US position will not budge. Senator George Mitchell's resignation as the Special Envoy and the recent failed Quartet meeting capped the nearly universal pessimism.

The US, cautioned by many to stay out of the Middle East morass until the parties themselves show more commitment, has unfortunately done grievous injury. A process that was moribund is now in crisis. An exceptionally unified Israeli leadership is unwilling to negotiate except on terms unacceptable to the Palestinians, while the fractured Palestinian leadership is simply unable to bring itself to the negotiating table.

The Arab Spring has demonstrated the power of the masses to effect broad political change even if we still don't know exactly where those changes will wind up. Palestinians too have begun to demonstrate peacefully for change. The March 15 movement helped push Fatah and Hamas to reconciliation talks, and thousands of Israelis and Palestinians marched through Jerusalem to voice their frustrations and support for a sovereign Palestinian state.

Despite the unlikelihood that the negotiators will return to the table before September, never mind reach agreement on anything significant, we can't just walk away. It's time to recognize that the political elites have failed and drive the process from the grassroots. Non-violent mobilization on both sides, clearly aimed at the only viable, long-term solution of two-independent states will force the entrenched elites to think again about what they have been doing for two decades. Using social media to catalyze action, as it has throughout the Middle East, activists can get the message out.

Each side needs confidence that it has a partner for peace. Each needs to understand the essential simplicity of the solutions to the core issues. And each must convince its leaders it is ready to make the essential but painful compromises.


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