Jerusalem, back to Yasser Arafat's political vision: why peace is possible

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The handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, at the presence of the US President Bill Clinton, after the Oslo Accords

President Donald Trump's decision to transfer the US Embassy to Jerusalem, despite the controversy it has raised around the world, raises the question of whether Washington can still play the role of sponsor of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The answer lies in the statement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who no longer believes that Washington can play a role in the Middle East peace process in the future.

 Nevertheless, how did we get to this point and how did we gradually step out of the peace process that started at the Madrid Conference in 1991 and was followed by the 1993 Oslo Agreement, which was sealed through a historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the lawn of the White House in the presence of Bill Clinton?

How did the sponsor of the peace process come to allow the supporters of chaos, the Israeli right and radical Islamists, to dismantle any hope for peace between Palestinians and Israelis? Especially considering that the desire for peace was a strategic element in the creation of the Palestinian State, the security of Israel as well as for the coexistence of two peoples after several decades of war.

To find some answers, we should first go back to the genesis of the conflict, the creation of Israel in 1948, and the political manipulation  of the Palestinian cause, both by the West and by the newly-independent Arab countries, to serve objectives related to the struggles for strategic influence in the Middle East.

The struggle for Palestinian independence began in May 1965 with the birth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) created by Yasser Arafat. After almost ten years of fighting and lobbying, it obtained observer status at the United Nations General Assembly, which recognized it as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Then, in November 1974, the Palestinian cause reached a great milestone with the speech by Yasser Arafat at the UN. He spoke of Palestinian suffering, massacres and expulsions and compared Palestine's desire for independence with that of South Africa, Indochina and Cyprus. In his speech, the Palestinian leader also made the distinction between Judaism and Zionism while expressing the will of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign and democratic state, in which Jews would be invited to live in harmony with Muslims and Christians.

It was this vision of the political struggle for independence that led to the proclamation in November 1988 in Algiers of the Palestinian state, which was recognized in 89 countries. It was also on this basis that secret negotiations took place in Oslo between Israelis and Palestinians, and in parallel with the public ones following the 1991 Madrid Conference. The intention was to lay the groundwork for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This process culminated in the Oslo Accords, signed in Washington on 13 September 1993 in the presence of Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Arafat, then Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee and Clinton, President of the United States.

The Oslo process was completed on May 4, 1994, with the Jericho-Gaza Agreement, which gave the new Palestinian National Authority limited powers. Finally, the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or "Taba Agreement", signed in Washington on 28 September 1995, provided for the first elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council and laid out a negotiated division of the Palestinian territories into areas where Israeli and Palestinian controls applied differently.On the ground, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was challenged by issues related to the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee problem, and the fight against terrorism. Nevertheless, it was the assassination of Rabin in 1995 by an Israeli far-right student, and the proliferation of attacks led by the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements that compromised  peace and provided the necessary arguments to Israeli extremists to destroy any attempt at reconciliation.

The Oslo process is, thus, stuck in the past, between the Israeli provocations led by Ariel Sharon and the consequences of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The struggle for independence is hostage to fundamentalist currents encouraged by certain Gulf monarchies and by Israeli radicals who exploit the "Islamist imagery" to return to the pre-1988 situation.

Worse, Palestinian Hamas (an openly Islamist movement) waged a terrible war against Palestinian Fatah, the father of the struggle for independence. In June 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip by force leading to the de facto split of the Palestinian Authority into two political regimes: Fatah leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. As a result, Israel won a major political battle. Consequently, the Likud extremists encouraged the Palestinian split in order to continue Israel’s settlement policy in violation of international law.

This situation worsened with the advent of the Arab Spring, which revealed the lack of Arab and Muslim awareness of the importance of choosing peace in the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The emergence of Islamists in the Arab revolutions and the emergence of terrorist groups not only killed any democratic hopes, but also emptied the Palestinian struggle for independence of any substance.

As a result, the Palestinians have become the aggressors and the Israelis the victims. Today, President Trump's decision adds absolutely nothing to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. It only proves that peace supporters in Israel, as well as in the US, are much less numerous today than they were in the past. The diplomatic troubles created by the measure announced by the White House only add confusion to the situation in the Middle East.

Palestinians now have a historic responsibility to come together and overcome their ideological divides in order to influence the geopolitical chessboard of the region. Is the return to Yasser Arafat's 1974 speech possible?