Mahmoud Abbas is in a bind. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable impasse to negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority president can either resign from his PLO chairmanship or come up with some serious, unilateral action to break the deadlock. With hopes that Barack Obama would stand up to the right-wing Israeli leadership dashed, an unwillingness to return to violent resistance, and the inability to resign his presidency of the PA in protest, the Palestinian leader has no alternative but to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally.
The first question one might ask of the leader who has yet been unable to deliver a solution for his people is simply: Why not resign? Indeed fresh leadership, some argue, is just what the situation needs. But the Basic Law of the Palestinian Authority stipulates that such a resignation would prompt presidential elections within 60 days. With the recently released pro-Hamas Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abdel Aziz Duwaik, poised to become that leader should a vote proceed, resignation is not an option for the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader.
So Abbas is left with unilateral action. The idea to declare independence is not new; a similar Declaration of Independence was made in Algiers in1988, setting forth Palestinians' historic compromise by accepting the two-state solution: An independent and free state of Palestine alongside a safe and secure state of Israel. The declaration came at the height of the relatively nonviolent Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, dubbed the intifada, and forced the PLO to accept the two-state solution as a means to end the occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip. The declaration was welcomed by more than 100 countries.
Then what happened? The unilateral declaration failed to significantly alter the reality on the ground. In the ensuing years, the Oslo peace process failed to produce an end to the occupation, and Palestinians began searching for an alternative to the talks. The process's five-year interim period expired in May 1999, leaving many Palestinians worried that the status quo of occupation would become a permanent reality. After the failed Camp David II talks, the violence of the second intifada, and finally, the tragedy of September 11, there was little remaining chance that a unilateral action would succeed. Washington had no stomach for any Palestinian action that was opposed by Israel, and the staunchly pro-Israel U.S. Congress issued a number of sharply worded resolutions against such declarations of Palestinian statehood.
But today is not then. A decade has elapsed since the end of the interim period, and for the last five years, the Palestinian Authority has been led by the moderate Abbas. He deeply believes in negotiations and has delivered near total security in cooperation with Israel and the United States. So while unilateralism does not provide any guarantee of success, it does offer the potential to help a frustrated leader, whose every effort has yet to yield a firm solution, sort out some of the dilemmas facing Palestinians now.
A declaration of independence would allow the Palestinians to demarcate a state covering territory that best reflects minimal Palestinian requirements -- without having to negotiate those red lines. This is particularly important because the building of Israeli settlements has continued in Palestinian territories, encroaching on the lines drawn in the Road Map. These settlements were the very reason that Mahmoud Abbas decided to give up on what appears to be a useless peace process -- one that gives more and more of the Palestinians' land away. Unilaterally declaring his own lines may be the only choice remaining.
Any such unilateral Palestinian action will also push the ball not only into the Israeli court, but into the court of Western countries, especially the United States and members of the European Union. These countries will be hard pressed to oppose a Palestinian declaration following years of failed negotiations by a moderate leader such as Abbas, who is so clearly committed to a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. Western powers would also find it difficult to refuse recognition of a state declared within the internationally recognized borders of June 4, 1967.
Israel can be expected to move quickly to nip this unilateral eventuality in the bud. Israeli leaders know that if the idea sees the light of day, it may develop a dynamic of its own. But the Palestinian leadership, the Israelis, and to a lesser degree the Americans, have only themselves to blame for allowing a conflict as volatile as that of today's Middle East to unravel. If reaching an independent Palestinian state is in the national interest of the United States, as President Obama has said, then it would be ill advised to deny that inevitability to Palestinians -- whether they achieve it through negotiations or unilateral action.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.