All Writings
August 17, 2003

Negotiating At Cross-Purposes

The latest two suicide bombings in Israel proper and in the West Bank not only underscore the fragility of the two-month-old cease-fire but reveal how little progress has been made in the peace process since President Bush officially unveiled the Road Map. Despite the genuine desire of Prime Ministers Sharon and Abbas to move forward and establish an atmosphere for collaborative negotiation, they have been negotiating at cross-purposes by pressing for concessions demanded by constituencies of theirs that reject the plan's main components.

Mr. Abbas has not only rejected the Israeli demand to disarm Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aksa Brigade. He has also bowed to these groups' demands and made the release of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns as preconditions for any meaningful progress. From the Israeli perspective, the release of Hamas' and Jihad's prisoners under the current tenuous cease-fire is a suicidal gesture and, therefore, totally unacceptable. Both organizations continue to advocate the ultimate destruction of Israel. Thus, unless they are totally disarmed and their leaders incarcerated or, in an improbable scenario, they renounce violence and accept Israel's right to exist, Mr. Sharon is unlikely to release captured members of either group. Although Mr. Abbas was right in trying to avoid at this juncture a violent confrontation with Hamas and Jihad, he was wrong in making their demands his own. In capitulating to them, he has undermined the opportunity for making progress on other fronts. Mr. Abbas has cited the professed weakness of the Palestinian security apparatus as his reason for not confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But PA chairman Arafat retains total control over the security forces and has been placing tremendous pressure on the prime minister to demand concessions from Israel that both know it will never make. Although Mr. Abbas realizes that continuing violence against Israelis severely undercuts his peace-making efforts, he has been unable to dramatically change the mindset of the Palestinian public on that score. Many Palestinians continue to believe that violence is a viable means to advance their cause, as evinced by the latest suicide bombings. This support for violence plays into the hands of extremists in the Israeli government who have from the start rejected the Road Map.

Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, has succumbed to pressure from his right-wing coalition partners and the extremists in his own party who oppose the idea of a Palestinian state (the Road Map's stated goal). These groups view the expansion of Israeli settlements and the building of new outposts as critical to maintaining Israel's hold on the territories. Although Mr. Sharon would like to move forward with the peace plan, he has been handicapped by the settlement policy, which sends absolutely the wrong message to the Palestinian public about Israel's ultimate intentions. The Palestinians simply do not believe that Israel will ever evacuate the territories. The building of the fence in the West Bank, which they view as another encroachment on their land, combined with the Israeli military presence in their towns–to them evidence Israel's insistence on maintaining the occupation–adds fuel to the fire of this skepticism. It is no wonder then that both peoples remain deeply distrustful of each other, and it is this environment which prevents moderates in each camp from pressing for concessions that would help both develop a mutual vested interest in the peace process.

Eager to show some progress, the Bush administration has contributed to the present state of affairs by failing to understand the dynamic of the stalled negotiations between Sharon and Abbas. Depending on whom he was meeting with, President Bush changed his tune, sympathizing with each leader, instead of demanding from both meaningful concessions to engender greater trust. From Mr. Abbas Mr. Bush must demand a 100-percent effort to end the violence against the Israelis and not accept his excuses of being unable to do so because of the "shattered" security forces. The cessation of violence is what matters most to the Israelis. Indeed, only its end will make the fence irrelevant, encourage Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, lead to the release of most Palestinian prisoners, and substantially increase the number of Palestinians working in Israel. Therefore, the Bush administration must focus on the measures to end to violence such as strengthening the Palestinian police force through training, better equipment, and financial support, while working with the Palestinian Authority to extend the cease-fire indefinitely to provide the Israelis, at a minimum, with a psychological respite from violence.

From Mr. Sharon the president must demand the immediate dismantlement of all new outposts (nearly 60 been erected in the past 30 months) and an end to the expansion of existing settlements. Although these measures will not improve the daily life of Palestinians immediately, it would be extremely significant. It would signal to the Palestinians, especially the extremists, that an end to the occupation may be in sight and as such provide a strong incentive and justification to stop the violence. The Bush administration must simultaneously bring all the pressure it has to bear on the Sharon government. We can do so, even in an election year, because ending settlement activities does not undermine Israel's national security and may actually enhance it. The agreement by the Sharon government to offer amnesty for wanted men who abandon violence is a promising gesture that could significantly reduce retaliations by extremist Palestinians. It is certainly a move in the right direction.

There remains a limited window of opportunity in which the Road Map can achieve its goal. For this to happen, the prerequisites are an end to violence and to the settlements' activities. These are the goals we must focus on achieving. Any arguments to the contrary–whether they come from Israel or the Palestinians–that the administration buys into will simply continue to promote a negotiation that is at cross-purposes. The consequence will be the Road Map's slow demise.