Nov 15th 2008

Palestinian Hopes for Barack Obama

by Yasser Abed Rabbo

Yasser Abed Rabbo is Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

RAMALLAH - President-elect Barack Obama's defiantly positive campaign for change has inspired hope not only in the millions of Americans who voted for him, but also in the billions of others worldwide who could not. Across the Middle East, as elsewhere, expectations are building that his presidency will herald a new era for America's role in the world.

Palestinians identify strongly with the civil rights movement in the United States. Many recall the dark days when American society enforced racial segregation. That the same society elected an African-American president only a few decades later renews Palestinian hopes that, in our ongoing struggle for justice and freedom, we, too, shall overcome.

Obama's electoral triumph arrives at a symbolic moment in Palestinian history. This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. Drafted by the poetic hand of my late friend, Mahmoud Darwish, the text is nothing short of visionary. Whereas previously the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had campaigned for a single, secular, and democratic state across the entirety of mandatory Palestine, our Declaration of Independence endorsed a two-state solution.

The depth of this compromise can be fully appreciated only in its historical context. In the war and violence that surrounded Israel's establishment in 1948, our losses were immense. Over 726,000 Palestinian Christians and Muslims - the majority of the Arab population of mandatory Palestine - fled or were forced to leave their homes by Zionist militias. Over 400 Palestinian villages in what became Israel were destroyed or depopulated.

Endorsing a two-state solution meant recognizing Israeli sovereignty over 78% of our homeland and exercising our right to self-determination on only the remaining 22% that Israel has occupied militarily since 1967: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Yet we made this historic compromise because we believed that doing so would bring us to the threshold of liberty.

Of course, that is not how things have turned out: Palestinians have been living under Israeli occupation for 41 years. As Obama prepares to enter the White House, we are confident that he will consider the constructive role America can play in the search for peace and security.

In the year since Palestinians and Israelis renewed their commitment to their obligations under the "road map," we may have failed to reach a conclusive settlement to our conflict, but that does not mean that the efforts made were in vain. With the determination of both sides, I am confident that we can reach a final agreement in relatively short order.

The US can take four practical steps to help negotiations move forward immediately. The first step is early engagement. The Bush administration's efforts to assist our peace-making project faltered in part because our conflict was neglected during the early part of its tenure. Allowing this conflict to fester will only aggravate our peoples' insecurity and our region's instability.

Second, the US should establish a credible enforcement mechanism to ensure that the parties comply with their respective obligations, particularly an immediate freeze on Israeli settlement activity throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. Not only has Israel failed to halt its settlement activity since Annapolis - in violation of international law and its renewed road map commitments - but it has actually accelerated such activity.

Construction of settlement housing units is over 45% higher now than in the nine months prior to Annapolis. Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes have also increased, particularly in occupied East Jerusalem. Nothing undermines Palestinian faith in the peace process like watching the homes of our families flattened, while the architecture of our oppression is strengthened.

Third, the new administration should encourage the re-engagement of its Quartet partners - the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia - in the mediation process. International cooperation is key to securing the legitimacy of negotiations, and it will be critical when the time comes for the enforcement and implementation of any agreement. The US cannot be expected to shoulder the post-conflict burdens of peacekeeping alone.

Fourth, the US should renew its respect for international law by recognizing three principles: that the 1967 pre-occupation boundaries must be respected in any negotiations; that Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem must be safeguarded, with guaranteed access for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to their holy sites; and that the plight of Palestinian refugees, whose 60-year ordeal remains emblematic of the Palestinian predicament, must be acknowledged and fairly addressed.

Fortunately, a framework already exists that supports these concerns. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel a unique opportunity: full normalization of relations with 57 Arab and Muslim states in return for a comprehensive peace agreement, including an end to Israel's occupation of Arab lands and a just and agreed upon solution for refugees.

Our Declaration of Independence is now twenty years old. The Arab Peace Initiative has been collecting dust for over six years. Palestinian patience is not infinite. Some have already resigned themselves to believing a viable Palestinian state will never emerge. Others, like me, argue that we must not lose faith. But if we are to realize our dream of freedom and statehood -and prove the cynics wrong- we will need President Obama's help.


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