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Accepting a Palestinian state
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 07 - 2009

With even Israel's hawkish prime minister speaking of Palestinian statehood, is there any excuse for withholding it longer, asks James Zogby
With Binyamin Netanyahu agreeing to a Palestinian state (albeit one that meets his specifications), and the European Union's Javier Solana calling for a UN Security Council resolution to recognise a Palestinian state by a date certain, the idea has now become commonplace. Even in the US, it is a near "article of faith" to project a two-state solution as the only acceptable outcome to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. But because this has not always been the case, it is useful to trace the evolution of this acceptance in our political discourse -- recalling, as we do, how difficult it was just a few decades ago to support Palestinian rights.
In the late 1970s I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. We were a coalition that included Arab Americans, African American civil rights leaders, representatives of major US churches and prominent peace activists. We defended Palestinian human rights victims (of torture, imprisonment without charge, and land confiscation), opposed all violence and supported two states. Despite winning broad public support, we were shunned by Washington's political establishment. Even a coalition of progressive groups (the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy) rejected our application for affiliation because some members said our pro-Palestinian agenda would be divisive and detrimental to their work. We also incurred threats and harassment and, in 1980, my office was firebombed.
Ten years later in the lead up to the 1988 presidential contest, the Arab American Institute led a national campaign ("Statehood Now") calling for recognition of Palestinian self- determination. Working with a diverse coalition, we ran and won delegate slots to 10 state Democratic Party conventions seeking to pass resolutions in support of Palestinian rights and a two-state solution. With the help of allies in the Jesse Jackson for President campaign, our resolutions passed in all 10 states. In Maine, for example, our resolution called for "... the right of Israel to exist within secure and internationally recognised borders, and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and an independent state," while in Texas it read "... Any settlement must respect and insure the safety, self-determination and right to exist within secure and internationally recognised borders of both the Israelis and Palestinians." (Other states included California, Illinois, Iowa and Washington).
Armed with these victories, we went to the Democratic National Convention seeking to amend the party's platform to include recognition of Palestinian rights. The language we sought to insert called for "mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians." The Dukakis Campaign vigorously opposed our efforts, but with Jackson's support, we persisted in having our language debated -- the first time (and, I might add, the last time) the issue of Palestinian rights was debated from the podium at a political party's convention.
The 1990s witnessed the Madrid Peace Conference and the Oslo Accords, but still no formal recognition of a Palestinian state. The best George H W Bush could do was to slightly upgrade the language of Camp David calling for "legitimate Palestinian political rights". Clinton moved the language further, supporting the Palestinians' "right to live as a free people, determining their fate on their own land". It was left to then first lady Hillary Clinton to be the first to actually speak of a Palestinian state -- as she did in 1998. Her husband's administration quickly made it clear that her remarks were not policy. When, towards the end of the Clinton administration, Yasser Arafat, becoming frustrated with the peace process's lack of progress, threatened to unilaterally declare a state, the reaction from Washington was firm and threatening.
It was not until 7 January 2001, in the closing days of his term, that Bill Clinton spoke of a Palestinian state, making him the first US president to do so.
In 2002, following Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank and its near total destruction of the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, President Bush committed his administration to a two-state solution. But he did so in, what I called at the time, "a perfectly bizarre speech", calling on the Palestinians to first establish a working democracy before they could have their state! During the next six years, US policy discussion changed with official acceptance of a two-state solution becoming widespread. Sadly, however, all this time that the concept was gaining acceptance, the reality in the West Bank and Gaza was deteriorating, making the realisation of that now accepted goal more difficult to achieve.
We are now in the 43rd year of the occupation. The landscape of the occupied lands has been dramatically transformed: a half million settlers reside there; a network of settler only roads, coupled with an intrusive barrier wall, has cut the territory into cantons; Jerusalem is burgeoning with settler colonies and is cut off from the West Bank; and the long physical and now political separation of Gaza from the West Bank has made unity of Palestine's constituent parts more difficult.
We are now in the Obama era. The president has committed his administration to an outcome of two states that he says is in the national interest of the United States. Even in the early months of his term, he has demonstrated a commitment to balanced pressure and active engagement towards achieving the goal of two states.
The political battle for acceptance of a Palestinian state has been won. Supporters of two states must now assess the circumstances that define the current reality on the ground. The old battles are just that -- old battles. There are now new challenges to face. What confronts us now is how, given where we are, we can realistically achieve the goal for which many have struggled for decades, and that is a secure, independent, contiguous and viable Palestinian state.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.


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