WRITING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Something different is happening among the Palestinians. Their political leaders and civil servants are spending more time planning for a Palestinian state than criticizing the Israelis for their intransigence.
During the first congress of the leading Palestinian movement, Fatah, in 20 years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to be dragged into belligerent rhetoric. He insisted that although Palestinians have the right to use all forms of resistance, he chooses diplomacy. The 2,000-strong congress of Fatah activists from around the world agreed last month to a platform that does not refer to armed resistance. Nonviolent direct action, however, is a different matter.
No one understood Abbas' call to look forward more than Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. After the congress, he huddled with his key staff and Cabinet ministers to create a plan that aims for a Palestinian state in two years. Fayyad unveiled this blueprint in late August, outlining a practical approach to terminate the Palestinian economy's dependence on Israel, unify the legal system and downsize the government.
The plan also involves building infrastructure, offering tax incentives to garner foreign investment, harnessing natural energy sources and water, as well as improving housing, education and agriculture. Among the other strategic ideas in Fayyad's plan are an oil refinery, a new international airport in the Jordan Valley and the reclaiming of the existing Qalandia airport north of Jerusalem. The prime minister has told U.S. officials that "we want to receive [President Obama] landing in his Air Force One, not the Marine helicopter" from Israel.
Fayyad told the Times of London that he made the plan public in order to "end the occupation, despite the occupation." He went on to say: "We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."
Previous Palestinian initiatives contained a requirement that Israel quit the occupied territories as a prerequisite for peace. That put the Palestinians in a no-win situation. The attempt during the 2000 Camp David summit with President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat stands as the most prominent example of Palestinians being faced with an unfair offer but getting the blame for the negotiations' failure because of their insistence on a total end to the Israeli occupation.
By taking the initiative this time and moving dramatically toward building a framework for a Palestinian state -- rather than accepting defeat and Israeli occupation in perpetuity -- Fayyad has been able to keep alive the widely accepted call for return to pre-June 1967 borders while keeping intact both his moderate political positions and his intense commitment to Palestinian liberty and a Palestinian state. If the Israelis want compromise, they must show a serious intention for peace in the negotiating room and not just in public declarations.
The Palestinian premier was careful to stress the idea of a de facto state rather than a unilateral declaration of statehood because of a 2002 U.S. congressional resolution "expressing congressional opposition to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and urging the president to assert clearly United States opposition to such a unilateral declaration of statehood."
Politically, it will be difficult for Hamas, Fatah's militant rival, to reject this plan. Fayyad's approach does not compromise on Jerusalem or the right of return and is in line with the consensus issues agreed on by Palestinians.
Thoughtful mainstream Israelis will have a hard time publicly opposing this plan, though hard-line Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu party leaders have unsurprisingly disparaged it.
The strategically savvy plan meets rather than contradicts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's calls for an economic peace; at the same time, it exposes the futility of continuing settlement activities in areas that will make up the Palestinian state.
Although Fayyad's ideas do not make any political demands on Israel or the international community, it is essential that the U.S. and the other so-called quartet members -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- protect this plan. No Israeli settler, civil servant, soldier or political leader should be allowed to jeopardize it.
The brilliance of Fayyad's approach is that it works with or without Israeli political cooperation. If the Israelis want a negotiated settlement, the plan gives negotiators two years. However, if the Israelis drag their feet, as 42 years of occupation suggest will be the case, then the apparatus of a Palestinian state will be forged in the meantime. Once these tangible elements of a genuinely viable Palestinian state come into being, all that will be needed is the political will to declare statehood and secure worldwide recognition.