It was 1988, with the first Intifada in full bloom and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the lead up to their November 29th declaration of independence, when I met with a few members of the PLO Executive Committee to discuss their plans. "Is this serious?" I asked. "Absolutely," they assured me. "It will be like our 4th of July."
Given this, I probed further. What will the photo look like?, I asked. What image of the day will be remembered in history? And what will the follow up plans look like to move this "independence day" forward?
These questions were not answered. Nevertheless, announce they did. But, plan they did not. Many states gave full diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine and accorded the title of Embassy to PLO Missions. The Intifada, itself, was reinvigorated. But no more was done, until the US, needing to capitalize on and sustain its new post-Gulf War alliance with key Arab states, convened the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. A reminder of how the weak Palestinian hand still was came in the humiliating conditions imposed on their participation in this conference. Because Israel would not acknowledge a "Palestinian people," only West Bank and Gaza Palestinians (no Jerusalemites were allowed) were involved and then only as part of a Jordanian delegation.
The period that followed Madrid did show signs of progress. The PLO emerged as the legitimate negotiating partner to peace talks. They were formally recognized as the representatives of the Palestinian people at Oslo and afterwards. But still no state or independence.
And what happened to the November 29th commemoration? In 1989 the Washington office of the PLO sent out an invitation to a reception to celebrate Palestine "Independence Day" on December 2nd! -- which in my way of thinking would be like commemorating the Fourth of July on the Seventh of July. And in succeeding years, the November 29th date was frequently forgotten and not honored at all.
"Not serious", I concluded.
It was with these events of 1988 in the back of my mind that I greeted the Palestinian Authority's (P.A.) recent announcement that it would unilaterally declare independence and then seek international recognition for their state. While part of me thought that this might be the first truly creative Palestinian initiative in some time, I nevertheless worried that the P.A. might not be serious, willing to sustain this effort and build upon it, using available political assets as leverage.
Clearly something had to give. The P.A. had come to an impasse and a dramatic change in direction was necessary. Negotiations, which had produced nothing but frustration and disappointment, are at a dead end with most Palestinians no longer believing either in the efficacy of the process, the good will of the Israelis or the ability of the United States to act as an honest broker. At the same time, the P.A. is increasingly in danger of losing the last bit of support from its constituency. Its performance, of late, has alternated between erratic and weak, with all too frequent ultimate giving way to embarrassing "climb downs."
Despite its pretensions at leadership, Hamas and the "path" it represents remains fatally flawed. Its pathological, and self-destructive penchant for violence has not only resulted in the deaths of innocents. It has all too frequently done damage to the Palestinian effort and provided an all too willing occupier the opportunity to impose even more brutal hardships on innocent Palestinians.
The US has also failed to inspire confidence. After what appeared to be strong start, a series of US miscues and startling displays of tone deafness to Palestinian needs have prompted Arab anger or despair, causing many to lose hope that this Administration, in fact, represents change.
Something had to give.
A real declaration of independence, coupled with organized displays of mass non-violent popular resistance to the occupation and all its manifestations, followed by appeals to the world community for support, would have created a new dynamic for Palestinians, put Israel on the defensive, helped mobilize world wide public opinion for change, and earned new respect for the lagging P.A. And this popular mobilization and political dynamic would have nicely complemented Salam Fayyed's two year institution and capacity building plan for statehood. It was my hope that this was what was intended.
But then came the realization that this might not be serious at all. To be serious would mean taking the bold risk of seeking real independence, from Israel and the US. It would have meant acting independently, not asking permission from the US or EU or even the UN. It would have meant actually organizing and relying on popular support for strength and legitimacy, and having that popular support earn the recognition of the international community. It would have required vision.
But then I heard a Palestinian leader explain that what was intended in this exercise was not a unilateral declaration of independence, but merely a call to the UN to reaffirm its commitment to the "two state" solution.
I swallowed hard and said, "Not serious, again".