There is an old punch line: "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?" This is the question to ask about the commitment of the Israeli government to a Palestinian state after Prime Minister Netanyahu's election victory. Three days after his successful election ploy of promising that there would not be a Palestinian state so long as he is in office, Netanyahu appeared to reverse himself, saying that he is in favor of a two-state solution in theory, just not in the current circumstances. The speed and facility with which "Bibi" can reverse rhetoric is mind-boggling.
We clearly cannot believe what the prime minister says at any point in time. But we do not have to parse his lies. We can believe our eyes.
First we see the prime minister setting conditions that the Palestinians can never meet. These include recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, something not required for the Egyptian or Jordanian peace treaties. Then he punishes the Palestinian Authority (PA) for joining the International Criminal Court by illegally withholding tax revenues due to the PA, thus weakening the PA. Then Bibi will claim that there is no strong negotiating partner, pointing to the weakened PA. And he will say that the ICC membership and other issues should be determined by negotiations, and unilaterally, thus ignoring his refusal to negotiate and pretending the current occupation of the West Bank is not the result of a plethora of unilateral Israeli actions.
Meanwhile the Netanyahu regime is creating facts on the ground that are gradually strangling the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Less noticed than his rejection of a two-state solution or his racist, inflammatory, anti-Arab rhetoric were his pledges to continue settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements, along with the security wall, settler-only highways and checkpoints, will in a few years create an apartheid patchwork throughout the West Bank. Within a few years the number of settlers may be such that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) may be unable or unwilling to remove them.
How can the Palestinians respond? They must create countervailing facts on the ground. First the Palestinians need to drive home the fact that Netanyahu is not a reliable negotiating partner. Fortunately the Obama administration and its major European allies appear to have reached this conclusion. Few inside or outside Israel have bought his post-election reversal. And few in Israel think his even farther-to-the-right coalition partners would accept backsliding on settlements.
The PA should make an immediate push to get European nations to join Sweden in recognizing the Palestinian state. The Europeans should also be encouraged to promote EU economic sanctions against Israel, as well as UN sanctions. At the same time the PA should push for two UN resolutions, one to set a two-year timetable for ending the occupation, and the other to call for an agreement for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with negotiated adjustments. The United States should assist, or at least not impede, these efforts. One action that would get attention in Israel would be deducting a portion of U.S. financial aid to Israel equal to the $113 million per week Israel is withholding from the PA.
There will unfortunately be many opportunities for violence to erupt during this process of piece-by-piece state building, including a third Intifada. Palestinian leaders must do all they can to prevent such self-defeating actions that would only give the Israeli government excuses for further obstruction. The focus must be on building the trappings of statehood to the point where that is the overwhelming fact on the ground.
Only by creating facts on the ground can the Palestinians reverse the inexorable move to a one-state solution where they will be a majority but ruled by an Israeli minority. If that happens, the Palestinians will lose their country, and Israel will lose its soul.