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Robert K. Lifton Headshot

The Palestinians at the Cross Road of History Must Take the Right Path

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The fast changing events in the Middle East have brought the Palestinians to a cross road of history. One path leads to a serious opportunity to create a successful state for the Palestinian people. The other path leads to destroying any present hope for a viable Palestinian state. The choice lies in their hands.

The first major development comes under the heading of the "Arab Spring," reflecting the courageous peaceful protests in Egypt that deposed President Mubarak; the revolution in Libya against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi; the challenges to the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad; the effort to force the resignation of Ali Abdulla Saleh in Yemen; the leadership change in Tunisia and protests and demonstrations in Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco.

We applaud the fact that the citizens of these countries, particularly the young people, have finally begun to demand democratic rights of free elections and an end to corrupt and repressive governments. At the same time, we do not know just how matters will end in any of those particular countries. For example, in my article in the Huffington Post on January 31, 2011, titled: "The Outlook for Egypt and the Middle East Is Grim" I stated that "no matter what the results of the uprising against Mubarak, Egypt will be a volatile nation, no longer a country that the United States can count on to maintain a stable, peaceful Middle East." To be sure, the situation in Egypt has not fully played out and we still do not know what the planned elections ultimately may bring, but the interim Egyptian government has already indicated its willingness to establish a rapprochement with Iran and initiate relationships with Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, including opening the crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

From the point of view of Israel, the willingness of the interim Egyptian government to deal with Iran and Hamas is threatening. So, too, is the challenge to the legitimacy of the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel which supplies 40% of Israel's natural gas needs. Some of the changes in the other countries surrounding Israel are understandably also seen as threatening. While King Abdullah of Jordan is apparently not under attack, himself, there is certainly an effort by the large Palestinian population in that country for a far greater voice in the government policies that potentially can undermine the present peaceful relationship with Israel.

The attack on the Assad government in Syria may bring in to power a government that will not be willing to abide by the 1974 Armistice Agreement with Israel, which despite all the differences between Israel and Syria, Hafez al Assad and now his son Bashar have maintained. The Israelis are also very concerned that Iran, whose government has called for their destruction, is still seeking nuclear capability while gaining leverage in the Middle East as Shiites in Bahrain try to overthrow that country's government, Shiites in Saudi Arabia are challenging the Saudi monarchy and Shiites in Iraq expand their influence.

The second new development is the American military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. That success reinforces America's credibility in the Middle East and strengthens President Obama's prestige as a strong and determined leader. Under other circumstances, this would embolden the President to present to Israel, the Palestinians and the international community a blueprint for a two state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issues and hopefully end the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the President is constrained to withhold such a plan by reason of the third event.

That third event is the reconciliation agreement reached on May 2, 2011, between Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president and leader of Fatah which controls the West Bank and Kahled Meshaal, leader of the Hamas movement that controls Gaza to end the feud between those factions and pave the way for presidential and legislative elections of a unified government within a year. While the decision by both sides to end the conflict between them is essential to Palestinian statehood, it is marred by Hamas' commitment to seek Israel's destruction. At the same time, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas administration in the Gaza strip, was one of the few in the Middle East who denounced America's killing of Osama Bin Laden, holding bin Laden up as a "true hero."

Netanyahu immediately denounced the unity deal as a "hard blow to the peace process" and called on Abbas to cancel it. This demand, in turn, was quickly rejected as "unacceptable interference" by Azzam al-Ahmed, head of Fatah's delegation.

Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington this month and will be invited to address a joint session of Congress by Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. Before the announcement of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, Netanyahu was under some pressure from the potential recognition by the UN of a Palestinian state to make a deal which would be more acceptable to Israel. He also would have been hard pressed to proffer reasons for not pursuing the peace process with the Palestinians. Now, his opposition to negotiations with the Palestinians will be self-evident. Netanyahu has already laid down his marker. "How can we make peace with a government," he asks, "when half of it calls for the destruction of Israel and glorifies the murderous Osama bin Laden?" In the face of an unreliable Egypt, Jordan under fire on one Israeli border, Lebanon, under the control of Iranian influenced Hezbollah on another border, and Syria under attack, there is no member of the US government that will not be fully sympathetic to the argument that a Palestinian state of which a major element is Hamas, also influenced by Iran, and committed to Israel's destruction, is not acceptable.

So, the Palestinians face a fateful choice. To move toward statehood, Hamas together with Fatah must "renounce violence and recognize the principle of Israel's right to exist," as specifically requested in the past by the Quartet -- the United States, the EU, United Nations and Russia. Or, the Palestinians can maintain, as they are now doing, that they will "form a government of technocrats and not ask Hamas to recognize Israel."

While that last approach may satisfy former president Jimmy Carter, who has called on the international community to support the deal, it will certainly raise grave concerns even among those Israelis who support the peace process and provide Netanyahu with a powerful argument why Israel should not undertake a peace agreement with the combined Palestinian leadership. It will leave the US Congress no alternative but to support Netanyahu. And it will make it impossible for President Obama to push the parties toward a solution, taking advantage of the new credibility that could have been used as leverage. Once again the Palestinians will have missed an opportunity!

Mr. Lifton, a business man and political activist is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the "Greatest Generation.'"