Last month, the U.S. abstained on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2334. The resolution critically condemned the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which much of the international community considers Occupied Palestinian Territory. Secretary of State John Kerry later stated that the abstention was meant to reinforce U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, and its opinion that settlements are critically damaging to that prospect. “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace,” said Kerry. “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
Despite the direct words from Israel’s biggest ally, the public critique does not seem to have changed the Israeli government’s settlement policy, nor should the international community expect it to for the foreseeable future. This realization is perhaps most important for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, which quickly needs to reorient its long-term strategic thinking towards on-the-gounrd nation building if there is it be any hope for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unable to control Israeli settlement policy and legislative decisions in the Knesset – Israel’s legislative body – the PA must continue to move forward with three activities to solidify its legitimacy vis-à-vis the Palestinian people, Israel and the international community, and to lead a march towards a Palestinian state.
First, President Abbas must lay the groundwork for a new leader. Abbas is currently 81-years-old, and if he leaves office without a publicly-supported successor, the West Bank could be thrown into a deeper political abyss, strengthening the often-used Israeli argument that they lack a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. A successor with popular support must: 1) be able to present the case to the Palestinian people for the PA and supporting political parties’ continued existence, lest the government fall into the hands of extremists like Hamas; 2) provide a clear-eyed and realistic, yet hopeful direction for the Palestinian people to cooperate and live peacefully next to Israel; 3) convince the international community not to abandon the civil PA institutions that, although often dysfunctional, represent the legitimate apparatus of a future Palestinian state.
Second, the PA must empower the financial and political independence of Palestinian localities/municipalities in the West Bank, and promote a stronger municipality confederation to address collective grievances. As the PA derives much of its revenue from foreign assistance and payments from Israel, the Palestinian government in Ramallah simply cannot remain the Palestinian power center in the West Bank while crucial social services and government security in other areas (i.e. Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus, etc.) are often not felt by ordinary Palestinians. Strengthened municipalities will be able to more effectively address local concerns with Israel and Israeli settlers, improve their self-sufficiency in the event of future budget crises in Ramallah, and overall regain the citizens’ trust in the PA, an essential building block towards a functioning state.
Third, national elections must become a regular and expected fixture of Palestinian life. The continuous delays – the most recent elections postponed until later in 2017 – depress Palestinians’ faith in their leaders and institutions, and provide fertile ground for subversive elements. Local/municipal elections have proved to be a small glimmer of hope in parts of the West Bank, and the PA must replicate that success in a free and fair national election. Quite simply, elections are hallmarks of a functioning and sustainable state, a step that will surely lend credibility to the PA in final-status negotiations.
These three actions are not an exhaustive list of the items the PA needs to address (it will also need to deal with incitement, corruption, autocratic tendencies, etc.); they are simply steps the PA can undertake – steps under their own control – towards the establishment of an independent, functioning Palestinian state. With an unpredictable 2017 and beyond for Israel, the Palestinian people, and the international community, taking predictable, concrete steps in state building will go a long way towards the end goal of a two-state solution.