The Missed Opportunity


Ha’aretz, Nov. 15, 2005




November 15th  is Palestinian Independence Day, marking seventeen years since the PLO issued a Declaration of Independence proclaiming the State of Palestine. To most Israelis, if this is remembered at all, it appears a strange and quixotic episode in the history of the conflict. This is unfortunate, and reflects a continuing failure of Israeli society to understand an important chapter in its own history.

            In 1988 it was the Palestinians that were acting unilaterally, but Israel was largely blind to what was happening in the Palestinian national movement, and as a result, missed a remarkable opportunity to bring the conflict to a close.

            What is probably remembered about Palestinian diplomacy in the fall of 1988 is that in early December the US/PLO dialogue was opened, after Yasser Arafat, at a press conference in Geneva, met the American conditions for official contact with the PLO: acceptance of Resolution 242, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and a renunciation of terrorism. This was correctly perceived as key turning point in the PLO’s relation with the United States. But all this was preceded and made possible by a still more fundamental step that occurred a month earlier.

            Seventeen years ago, in November of 1988, after a long process of grudging accommodation to painful realities, the Palestinians came to terms with Israel’s continued existence.  Without negotiations, and without any Israeli or American quid pro quo, the PLO launched a unilateral peace initiative to end the conflict. The specific vehicle was a unilateral Declaration of Independence. Meeting in Algiers, in the midst of the first Intifada, they proclaimed the State of Palestine. What made the now forgotten, and even then, largely ignored Declaration of lasting historic importance is that it was through this unilateral declaration that the Palestinians reversed their multi-decade rejection of the two-state solution.

            Following the example set by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the text of the Palestinian declaration specifically addressed the United Nations General Assembly Partition Resolution of 1947 (UNGA Res. 181) . While the Palestinians retained their view that partition was unjust, they reversed forty-one years of rejectionism and accepted partition as international law, citing Resolution 181 as the basis in international law for the Palestinian State. That is to say, they linked the international law basis for their own state to that which provided for Israel as well.

            Astonishingly, the Declaration went even further. Referring to the Partition Resolution as part of “international legitimacy” the Declaration explicitly noted that the resolution called for “two states, one Arab and one Jewish.” Thus, not only did the Palestinians accept the international law validity of Israel’s creation, they accepted that under international law, Israel was created as a Jewish State, this in the founding document of their future state.

            Beyond this, the Declaration offered a characterization of Palestinian history and a conception of the Palestinian State, quite unlike what is generally heard in the Arab or Islamic world, a perspective that challenges the notion that there is a war of civilizations between the West and the Arab/Islamic world. 

            The Declaration opens with a dramatic characterization of Palestine as “the land of the three monotheistic faiths.” The perspective is that of a single Abrahamic civilization, not of foreign implants violating a uniquely Islamic possession. Then, contrary to the dominant political culture of the Arab states, the Declaration goes on to affirm that the State of Palestine will have a “parliamentary democratic system” based on principles of “equality and non-discrimination in public rights…on ground of race, religion, color or sex” and “will allow no departure from Palestine’s age-old spiritual and civilizational heritage of tolerance and religious co-existence.”

            Over the next year, as the Intifada continued, the PLO sought to obtain international recognition of their newly proclaimed, but occupied, state. They hoped to be admitted to the United Nations, and to enter into state-to-state negotiations with Israel to end the conflict. Over one hundred countries offered their recognition.  Unfortunately, Israel did not seize the opportunity, and the U.S., under President George H. W. Bush, launched a campaign to block recognition by the Europeans and by international bodies. After being defeated in their effort to gain admission to the World Health Organization, the PLO abandoned its unilateral effort to cut the Gordian knot. Instead, some five years after the Declaration, Israel, in Oslo, agreed to a drawn out process, which only gave rise to permanent status negotiations in the summer of 2000—thirteen years after the Declaration. And now, President George W. Bush, eschews “timetables” which would call for a Palestinian state by the end of his Administration in 2008-some twenty years after this historic opening.