I have been in the West Bank for the past two weeks meeting with several members of the Palestinian leadership about the peace process, Palestinian state-building, and the role of the United States in moving both peace and independence forward. My conversations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, PM Salam Fayyad, Ahmad Qurei, and Mohammad Dahlan were very illuminating.
President Abbas is taking negotiation setbacks in stride. Upon asking the president, "How are you?" he dryly replied: "Not very, very, very bad - just very bad."
Abbas continues to wait for a response from US President Barack Obama. President Abbas says he wants to hear about "[Obama's] vision for our talks with the Israelis. We would like to have more clarity from the Americans on what it is they will support [in our] negotiating with the Israelis. [PA Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad and I have been building Palestinian institutions; I have fulfilled all our obligations for the road map." By the look on his face, it's clear Abbas is disappointed by Washington's inaction.
Hurdles to the peace process - settlement expansion, and the Heritage Trail row - demonstrate a considerable challenge, but Abbas made it clear that with all the uncertainties about the future of Palestinian-Israeli peace, one things is certain: "I will not allow violence, I am committed to peace with Israel."
Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), former PA chief negotiator, is not as optimistic. Said Qurei: "I am for negotiations, but over what exactly? Over settlements?... Over Jerusalem? How can we [move forward] if the Israelis are building [settlements] as we negotiate? How can we [talk] if Israel is taking more land and building on what we would be negotiating over with them?"
Senior Fatah official Mohammad Dahlan reiterates the need for America to voice clear expectations and parameters for the peace process. "Americans have to give us a clear sense of what it is they can support in negotiations with Israel. We can't just jump into negotiations without knowing what it is we are going to negotiate over. Obama should present something like the Clinton parameters or the road map."
Prime Minister Fayyad looks to the challenges beyond negotiations: "Even if we were to gain political independence, we need to be ready as a state. The political track is important, but it is not the only [avenue we need to focus on]." But Fayyad does not forget to count the PA's many achievements: "We completed 1,000 projects in the past year. By 2011, we will complete 2,000 more projects. We are building hospitals, roads, schools, juridical system, forcing rule of law, et cetera... In 2011, we will be ready for a Palestinian state, whether the political track is [set] or not." Fayyad has been lauded as a "technocrat's technocrat" for his focus on statecraft over rhetoric, getting even the Israelis behind him when he spoke at the Herzilya conference. Now all he needs is Obama.
It is crucial that the Obama administration propose its vision for a Palestinian state consistent with Fayyad's game plan as soon as possible. The US needs to articulate to Israelis and Palestinians the kind of state it will endorse. Obama voicing his support of Fayyad's road map to statehood will also likely further the process, giving both parties a reason to come back to the negotiating table without getting mired in the settlement freeze row.
Obama's endorsement could be the best solution to the deadlock.