The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached a critical stage. For more than two decades, the two-state solution has been the basis of international efforts to make peace in the region. Yet the Israeli government's refusal to cease settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem will shortly render the creation of a territorially contiguous and viable Palestinian state impossible.
A failure of the two-state solution will generate further instability in the region, strengthen rejectionist elements on both sides and likely mean that the conflict will drag on for generations. It will also damage U.S. standing in the Middle East and America's national security interests.
Despite this, there does not seem to be a recognition on the part of Israeli leaders and some in the U.S. of the urgency of the moment. Many observers in the region and elsewhere have concluded that Israel's policy of creating "facts on the ground" has already made a division of the land unfeasible.
Settlements are not an abstract or secondary issue to Palestinians, who see the constant encroachment of Jewish-only colonies that swallow their land and their hopes for the future. There are half a million Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and their numbers are growing.
From the beginning, one of the driving motivations behind the settlement enterprise has been to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Thus it is by strategic design that the settlements have been located in such a way as to divide and isolate Palestinian population centers from one another and the outside world.
Settlements not only usurp the land on which a Palestinian state is to be created; they bring with them armed, aggressive Jewish extremists who attack Palestinians, destroy their crops and property, and desecrate their holy places.
In 1988, the Palestine National Council passed a binding resolution agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on just 22% of historic Palestine, and in 1993 the Palestine Liberation Organization officially recognized Israel as part of the Oslo accords. These were major historic compromises on our part but they have never been fully recognized or reciprocated by Israel.
Instead, the Israeli government is now asking us to compromise further on the 22%, while at the same time demanding we recognize not just the state of Israel, but Israel as a "Jewish state."
The Palestinian leadership remains committed to a peaceful, negotiated settlement to our conflict with Israel based on the two-state solution, but we do not want to engage in a process that leads nowhere and lends cover to the continued colonization of our land. Between 1993 and 2000, while we negotiated with the Israelis, the number of settlers doubled and the situation on the ground for Palestinians worsened each year.
We will not take unilateral action, but that does not mean that we won't explore all of our options and act in coordination with members of the international community and international bodies such as the United Nations. If Palestinians cannot safeguard their rights using peaceful means such as popular nonviolent protest or seek legal redress through international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, many will conclude that a return to armed resistance is the only alternative — with tragic consequences for all.
For its part, Israel wishes to avoid multilateralism and references to international law, preferring to engage in bilateral talks that reflect and incorporate the massive asymmetry in power between the two parties. It wishes to dictate terms, not negotiate them. To ensure this doesn't happen, we need serious, positive engagement on the part of the United States and other international players.
The Israelis have painted themselves into a corner. They can continue the status quo of ruling over millions of Palestinians without granting them political rights, an untenable situation that many, including two former Israeli prime ministers, have likened to apartheid; they can grant Palestinians equal rights and the vote in a single bi-national state; or they can dismantle their settlements and allow for the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Israel's prime minister says he supports the two-state solution, but the actions of his government and the long list of conditions he has put on any future Palestinian state leave much room for doubt. If the two-state solution is to be salvaged, Israeli leaders must change course and demonstrate their seriousness of intent immediately by putting an end to all settlement activity without conditions, thereby creating the space for the possibility of a genuine and lasting peace to be reached between our two peoples.
Hanan Ashrawi is an elected member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council.