By Saeb Erakat
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 5:56 PM
It comes as little surprise that Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are at an impasse. The lesson after nearly two decades of bilateral negotiations is that direct talks alone are not enough to guarantee peace. A principled, unshakable commitment to international law is also required.
International law sets the benchmark for a just peace and helps ensure that Palestinians and Israelis are treated equally. It also maps a path toward lasting reconciliation rooted in a culture of rights and mutual respect.
One of the most serious rights violations occurring in the occupied Palestinian territory is the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements. Involving the large-scale theft of Palestinian land and water, Israeli settlements stand at the heart of an apartheid system whose network of segregated roads, barbed-wire fences, concrete walls, permits and checkpoints reinforce the systemic discrimination and institutionalized violence that Palestinians face under occupation.
By eating up what little Palestinian land is left, Israeli settlements render a viable Palestinian state impossible - posing the greatest threat to the two-state solution. Without an immediate and comprehensive settlement freeze, there will be no Palestinian state left to negotiate and no two-state solution to speak of.
In the past, Israel sought to use negotiations as a cover behind which to continue building settlements and to further entrench its occupation, while minimizing international scrutiny and condemnation. From 1993 to 2000, the number of settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory doubled. So long as Israel is allowed to act with impunity and in violation of international law without repercussion, little will change.
The contradiction between settlements and peace should not be lost on anyone. While peace requires an end to Israel's occupation, settlements highlight the occupation's permanency. One need only look at the location and number of Israeli settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank, or think of the billions of dollars invested in their construction to understand this. Designed to maximize Israel's territorial ambitions by colonizing ever more Palestinian land, and to prevent Palestinians from establishing a viable Palestinian state, settlements run counter to the formula of "land for peace" on which the entire Middle East peace process is built.
For us, this contradiction meant that in the years following Oslo, more of our land was stolen and more of our homes demolished, while our hopes for freedom and dignity continued to fade. Israel's policies led not to peace but to more restrictions and hardship for Palestinians across the West Bank, while in Gaza, Israel maintains its occupation by siege, waging an indiscriminate war against innocent civilians and causing untold human suffering. Is it any wonder that the peace process lacks credibility?
No Palestinian can accept continued settlement construction and the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land, whether in occupied East Jerusalem or any other part of the occupied Palestinian territory. And no one who supports the two-state solution can support ongoing settlement construction.
A full and comprehensive settlement freeze is a litmus test of Israel's seriousness about the two-state solution and negotiations. So far, it has failed that test. The so-called settlement moratorium was never a substitute for a full freeze. All it offered was more of the same: more settlement construction, more settlers and more incitement and provocation. In just the first six months of the "moratorium," Israel continued construction on 3,000 settlement units while it demolished more Palestinian homes and built more segregated roads for settler use.
Palestinians have repeatedly tried to engage the Israeli government in serious negotiations on permanent-status issues such as Jerusalem, recognition of the 1967 borders, the rights of refugees, water and settlements. Israel continues to evade these issues and to undo the progress made under previous agreements. Why pretend that we are discussing the two-state solution? Indeed, what chance do Palestinians have of reaching agreement with Israel on any of these core issues when the international community cannot even get Israel to implement a settlement freeze?
What the Middle East peace process desperately needs is credibility. Only negotiations that are based on internationally recognized terms of reference, and that hold both parties accountable to international law and their respective obligations under existing agreements, have any chance of delivering a just and lasting peace. If Israel refuses to implement a settlement freeze in keeping with international law, the answer is not to force Palestinians to make further compromises to accommodate Israeli violations. The answer is to hold Israel accountable to what a just and lasting peace demands.
The writer is the chief Palestinian negotiator.