Despite having taken a negative position toward Palestinians in the US election campaign, President Donald Trump and his administration appear to be planning to make a major political pronouncement. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Sunday that Trump will call for Palestinian “self-determination” during his visit to the region. While such a call is welcomed by Palestinian officials, the US has been making such calls for years, to no avail.
Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Arab News that self-determination should not be entirely synonymous with end goals such as one state or two. He believes self-determination could mean a Palestinian state or something different. “Becoming part of Israel would also constitute self-determination if collectively decided or accepted by Palestinians,” he said.
Successive US administrations have over the years taken a gradual approach to Palestinian self-determination. In March 1972, Ronald A. Ziegler, then-President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, said the US “would welcome any initiative that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Three years later, the Gerald Ford administration spoke of Palestinian “legitimate interests.”
In 1975, Harold Saunders, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, addressed the issue before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East. He said the “legitimate interests of the Palestinian Arabs must be taken into account in the negotiation of an Arab-Israeli peace.”
In March 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter said: “There has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.” The Palestinian National Council welcomed the unprecedented public call for a “homeland” by a US president. When the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) then-Chairman Yasser Arafat heard Carter’s remarks, he reportedly “had tears in his eyes.”
Carter approached the issue of Palestinian self-determination carefully during the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David talks. In January 1978, he spoke of the US supporting “Palestinian participation in determining their own future,” and inserted in the Camp David Accords the terms “legitimate rights” and “Palestinian people.” The Egypt-Israel agreement, worked out under US auspices, said a negotiated resolution “must also recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.”
Ronald Reagan’s administration stepped back from Carter’s term “Palestinian people,” but stuck to “self-government.” In 1982, the Reagan administration said: “Due consideration must be given to the principle of self-government by the inhabitants of the territories and to the legitimate security concerns of the parties involved.”
Under President George H. Bush, negotiations that preceded the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace conference saw Secretary of State James Baker introduce, in October 1991, the term “political rights.” He called for an outcome that must provide for security “and recognition for all states in the region, including Israel, and for legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people.”
His expected call to grant Palestinians the right to self-determination falls somewhere in the middle of his predecessors’ commitments. It is less than that of George W. Bush or Obama, but better than Reagan’s and Carter’s.
While the Madrid conference failed to reach a breakthrough, it did lead to the secret Israeli-PLO talks in Oslo that led to mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO and the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The accords constituted the administrative foundation for Palestinian control over areas of the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in history.
In 2002, George W. Bush pushed for the most comprehensive statement on the Palestinians’ future. He endorsed the concept of “land for peace,” and became the first US president to support the call for “a two-state solution.”
Barack Obama took his predecessors’ commitments even further in 2011 by specifically endorsing “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.” The borders, Obama said, should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” and the plan would be to create a “contiguous” Palestinian state alongside Israel. His declaration was the most explicit support for Palestinian aspirations.
Trump’s choice is in sync with his statement during his February press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I’m looking at a two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”
Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan and author of the 2002 roadmap to peace that was supposed to deliver the two-state solution, told Arab News that he is no longer optimistic about the possibility of the two-state solution because of continued Israeli settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories.
“The two-state solution is dead and therefore the international community should pay attention to what is going on, on the ground,” he said. Muasher believes the new emphasis need not be on the two-state solution. “We need to shift from an emphasis on the state to an emphasis on Palestinian rights,” he told Arab News by e-mail.
Sayigh believes that whether the emphasis is on a state or the right to self-determination, the real test is in action. “These calls must be translated into action plans and be based on strategic assumptions.” He says it should be easier to build domestic and international support around the right to self-determination while avoiding contentious debates about end goals such as one state or two.
“But how far can any struggle really go without making clear how it intends to construct its self-determination after occupation ends, since without doing so it’s much harder to broaden your own coalition and divide the opposite political camp, whether inside Israel or internationally,” he told Arab News.
Trump’s expected call to grant Palestinians the right to self-determination falls somewhere in the middle of his predecessors’ commitments. It is less than that of George W. Bush or Obama, but better than Reagan’s and Carter’s.
• Daoud Kuttab is a former professor at Princeton University, and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.