Something has gone horribly wrong with the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's recent decision not to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only the latest example and reason for the widespread pessimism about its trajectory.
The so-called Middle East conflict has grown more rather than less intractable since Palestinian and Israeli leaders began their efforts to resolve it through negotiations. Indeed, almost two decades of negotiations have failed to convince Palestinian and Israeli leaders of a way to share the land and its resources. And in fact the core of the conflict is more about co-existing on the same land than just dividing it.
Perhaps the realization of how many dreams would remain unfulfilled if the compromises necessary for an agreement were struck convinced politicians on both sides that resolving the dispute would be more costly and unpopular than perpetuating it.
Perhaps, both sides have clung more tightly to their national narratives than to proposals to be exchanged for concessions because discussions, themselves, disclosed the gap, not so much between the two sets of negotiators, but rather between reality and the dreams ordinary Palestinians and Israelis have been encouraged to imagine of the final resolution.
At the very least, national narratives give Israelis and Palestinians a clear definition of their collective identities even if they lock them into their confrontation.
For Palestinians, a narrative etched in the injustices of exile and oppression is preferred to the founding of a state that leaves behind too many refugees stuck in the same camps created for what was believed a temporary displacement. For Israelis, whose national story is woven around the survival of the Jewish people, it is preferable to retain control over territories serving as staging ground for attacks - even though the patrols, checkpoints, and the separation barrier are often described as marks of oppression - than surrendering the land without a clear Palestinian commitment to stop their wars and end their grievances against the Jewish state.
So, the conflict persists; the negotiations are deadlocked and the calls by the international community through the Quartet for compromise and negotiations seem more akin to linguistic rituals than to imperatives for action.
Thus, a peace process cannot be successful unless the tight grip of narratives sustaining the conflict is dislodged. And they can only start to loosen if both Palestinians and Israelis begin to have different experiences of one another and of the two states a solution is expected to produce.
Focus on state building
The more Palestinians and Israelis encounter one another across a divide of principles, the more they distrust a process that seems to augur a future actually full of uncertainty no matter how lofty the principles defining it. In fact, the obsession with principles may instill faith but not the energy to change conditions on the ground particularly for Palestinians too many of whom still live without access to the basic services needed for self-fulfillment and a better life.
Prime Minister Fayyad's emphasis on bolstering the Palestinian economy as a condition necessary to establishing a state, once promised a way out of the impasse of negotiating through a language of incompatible historic rights and grievances.
As universally acknowledged, the presently deadlocked negotiations can easily degenerate into widespread violence, and while the suffering may fall heavily on Israelis and Palestinians, the responsibility for the ensuing chaos will be borne as well by the international community.
The time is ripe to breathe new life into Prime Minister Fayyad's approach and shift the focus from principles to programs. Let negotiations set a goal of establishing a state rather than configuring sovereignty and focus on creating the institutions necessary for a functioning political order to be up and running on the day Palestine is recognized as a full voting member of the United Nations.
External funders should set the model for this approach, by redirecting their aid away from groups that focus on so-called human rights abuses - whose agendas are largely driven by foreign-based NGOs - and by channeling their money, instead, to state building and economic enterprises.
Elections for legislative assemblies and municipal governments should be held and not postponed allowing office holders to take seriously their responsibilities for maintaining local law and order, education, and an infrastructure that promotes economic growth. A tax system should be established to encourage commerce and business. Palestinians should be rewarded for creating innovative schools. Palestinians can forge a path to self-fulfillment and self-determination by structuring their own local institutions.
No one believes the present course promises anything but more deadlock or worse even if Palestinians receive backing for their national rights through the instrument of international law or the mechanisms of global organizations. The so-called international gambit has not worked in the past and is unlikely to yield tangible payback in the future.
Building a Palestinian state is more fruitful than creating more barriers for peace. In the 1970s the "West Bank" and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest growing economy in the world! And the engine driving this quality of life explosion for the Arabs of the region was their interconnection with the modern, western, growth-oriented democratic neighbor, Israel.
Mutual recognition still represents the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but it will not happen before substantial numbers of Palestinians can reckon how much of their own economic and political gains they might lose by committing themselves to an unremitting struggle against a Jewish state. Unfortunately, to the extent that the Oslo Process helped the traditional political leadership re-assert control over Palestinian destiny without fully ending its fraternity of combat against Israel, it could not insulate ordinary Palestinian men and women from the return of poverty, and stagnation thereby tarnishing even the idea of a peace process.
Thus a refocus on Palestinian state building is warranted not only because it will produce more benefits for more Palestinians but also because it is likely to provide a basis for Israeli support. Palestinians and Israelis experience the benefits of two states before trying to sort out the principles and the coordinates that will actually be the basis for the boundaries drawn between them and the resources they must ultimately share.
Donna Robinson Divine is a Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) board member. Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)