All Writings
November 8, 2003

A Bold And Credible Vision

The mutually profound hatred and distrust permeating every level of Israeli and Palestinian life resulting from the heinous violence of the second Intifadah make it impossible for the two sides to resolve their conflict on their own. The United States remains the only nation with a vested interest in the outcome that is powerful and influential enough–as well as acceptable to both sides–to facilitate and enforce a solution. Both parties need a dignified and hopeful way out of the morass. For a solution to work, it must be bold, clear, and credible, something all Israelis and Palestinians can understand even if they do not fully agree with every detail.

Contrary to the opinions espoused by the Bush administration, neither the war on terrorism nor the Israeli-Palestinian crisis have been aided by the ouster of Saddam Hussein and our occupation of Iraq. The conditions necessary for peace between Israel and the Palestinians are in fact less in place than before: hatred and animosity toward the United States throughout the Arab and the Muslim world is on the rise, and the Bush administration has all but abandoned the peace process in the aftermath of the Iraqi war. The tragic irony is that the administration remains deeply committed to the war on terrorism, yet ignores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a major cause of it. The administration should have made resolution of the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian situation an immediate primary objective after 9/11 in order to stop the ranks of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations from swelling. But for more than 30 months the Bush team virtually turned its attention from the Israelis and Palestinians.

Only after intense pressure from his staunch ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many Arab heads-of-state did Mr. Bush decide to advance his ideas about a road map for peace in the Middle East. But coming on the eve of war against Iraq, the road map seemed to be nothing more than a diplomatic stunt designed to placate a politically besieged friend and assuage incensed Arab leaders. In fact, the administration never made a solid commitment to stand behind the road map, and given the circumstances under which it was presented, it had no chance of succeeding. There were also inherent flaws in the plan itself. Introduced at a time of intensified hostility, self-denial, and mutual distrust between the two belligerents, nothing in either the road map or the behavior of the administration suggested that it had any understanding of the psychological dimensions of the crisis. The road map introduced no new element to produce a dramatic push forward–a critical requirement to begin the process of reconciliation. Lacking this essential piece, the road map was doomed the moment it was introduced.

That neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians attempted to perform any of the initial basic confidence-building measures required by the road map may have contributed to its failure, but only marginally. The road map basically collapsed because (1) it failed to envision a credible end game, with some specificity about how to deal with the issues that have been and remain the prime obstacles to peace, (2) there was no pressure on the parties in the form of coercive diplomacy-that is, the spelling out of certain punitive actions if they did not undertake these measures, and (3) the administration had an aversion to anything that former president Clinton touched: instead of building on his accomplishments at Camp David, Mr. Bush's policy makers decided to start from scratch. For example, the road map stipulated that a Palestinian state was to be created by 2005, yet it did not clarify what territory such a state should encompass and what were the immediate steps needed to achieve this end. The Bush administration should have known that brushing off big issues, such as final borders, a solution to the Palestinian problem, and the future of Jerusalem, to focus on each side's taking reciprocal steps to ease tensions, would simply not work in the long-term. Administration officials also failed to recall that as recently as mid-2000, the Palestinians retained control of all their major cities and economic, social, and cultural exchanges with Israel had reached a new high, as had cooperation on security issues. The two combatants appeared on the verge of reaching an historical accord, with the Palestinians gaining their cherished goal of statehood. Only a few months later, all of these achievements lay in the dust, replaced by intense mutual animosity and disdain as renewed violence reached unimaginable levels. Confidence-building measures, like those proposed by Mr. Bush, could not work because the principle of a two-states solution, based on the idea that each party had the right to exist side-by-side with the other, was rejected in 2000 by Arafat who refused to disavow future claims against Israel.

It is possible to understand President Bush's reluctance to pressure Israel to make concessions that might have a bearing on its security, especially when it is confronted with relentless terrorist attacks. But the administration could have exerted direct pressure on Israel to dismantle new outposts and freeze the expansion of existing settlements, as these are not necessary to Israel's security. The truth is that the settlements have caused more harm to Israel from a security perspective than their dismantlement possibly could. Thousands of Israeli soldiers risk their lives protecting scores of settlements at an exorbitant cost and in the process perpetuate one of the most glaring symbols of occupation. Since the majority of settlements are in reality a security liability rather than an asset, the administration could have brought insurmountable pressure on Israel without being accused of threatening its security. Besides, as part of any viable peace agreement, many of these settlements must eventually be dismantled or relocated. Greater entrenchment in the occupied territories only makes the reversal of current policies and the uprooting of settlers a harder task. Rather than preparing the Israelis psychologically and emotionally for the inevitable and firmly underscoring the reality that settlements and peace with the Palestinians are an oxymoron, the Bush administration contributed directly to the present impasse, and in so doing, helped escalate rather than stem the tide of violence.

In dealing with the Palestinian Authority, the administration has not fared any better. Its actions have lacked clarity and decisiveness. The president was correct in making our active support of a Palestinian state conditional on the Palestinians meeting a number of conditions, including the election of new leadership, the establishment of democratic institutions and a fair judiciary, accountability and transparency in finances, and, most importantly, an end to violence. In this context, isolating Arafat politically without simultaneously insuring that his authority over security and finances were transferred to his prime minister was not simply a mistake but counterproductive. The administration should have no illusions about who holds the reins of power over the Palestinians. Regardless of who is prime minister, as long as Arafat is around and functioning, he, and only he, will call the shots. This administration must chose either to deal with him or freeze all contact with the Palestinian Authority and suspend all economic assistance until he departs the political scene. Whoever leads the Palestinian Authority should fully understand that ending terrorism against Israelis is not negotiable. We cannot afford to continue to pursue a peace process if we are not prepared to make the hard choices and see our own initiatives through to the end.

The Bush administration has not stayed the course. It has actually retreated every time a new difficulty surfaced during the negotiating process. Nor has it shown a consistent approach or strategy. For example, the administration failed to appreciate the importance of assigning a presidential envoy with undeniable stature to act on behalf of, and report directly to, the president. During the past three years, seven American emissaries have been thrown into the Israeli-Palestinian mix with no success. Starting with former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, the emissaries were CIA Director Tenant, General Zinni, Under Secretary-of-State Burns, Deputy-assistant Secretary-of- State, David Satterfield, and special envoy to monitor progress on the peace plan , John S. Wolf. Although Secretary-of-State Powell inserted himself into the negotiations several times, he has generally kept his distance, fearing complete failure. Given these facts, it is hardly surprising that neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials believe that the administration is serious in its commitment to the peace process-of course, they feel the same way about each other. Still, both sides recognize that only the United States can exert the necessary pressure to make a real difference. To suggest, as some officials do, that it is impossible for us to accomplish what the Israeli and Palestinian governments do not want to do for themselves is both a cop-out and disingenuous. Rather than moving the peace process forward, our half-hearted involvement is prolonging the agony of two peoples.

What must be done? Now that the Bush administration has publicly committed itself to a specific outcome, it needs to demonstrate boldness and decisiveness if there is to be any permanent solution. Israeli and Palestinian authorities, for their part, must deal decisively with internal extremist groups. If they do this, their governments will then need us to provide them with a cover, especially if they have to confront these groups by force.

Specifically, monumental issues such as Palestinian refugees, the future of the settlements, and the drawing of final borders cannot and must not be left for a later date. It was the "right of return of the refugees" that torpedoed the final phase of the Camp David negotiations in the Summer of 2000. Remembering this, the administration must make its position very clear on key issues if it is to lend credibility and hope to those Palestinians and Israelis who desperately yearn for peace.

The administration must first establish that security is an non-negotiable essential to any meaningful progress. To that end Arafat who has supported several militant groups, especially el Aksa Brigade–an off shoot of el Fatah Organization which he directly finances, must either use his security apparatus to end terrorism or be treated as a terrorist.

The administration must at the same time make it abundantly clear to Israel that the settlements policy makes a mockery of any prospects for peace. Punitive action must be taken against Israel to end this reckless settlement policy. We must not allow Sharon or any other prime minister to torpedo the peace process by encouraging settlements with impunity. For any Palestinian state to be viable, it must have a contiguous land mass covering the vast majority of the West Bank and all of Gaza. The settlements make this impossible.

The United States also must take a clear position on the Palestinian refugees, publicly endorsing resettlement and compensation for their losses. No Israeli government will ever accept the return of refugees en masse or the claim of return in principle. The fragile demographic balance between the two populations make such an outcome unthinkable.

Concerning Jerusalem, the administration must encourage the Israelis and their Palestinian counterparts to work out a formula that will place the Muslim holy shrines (the Temple Mount- Haram el-Sharif) and the Arab sector under Palestinian jurisdiction, leaving the Western Wall, the Jew's holiest site, under Israeli sovereignty. Otherwise, the city should remain united under Israeli control.

Finally, Mr. Bush should appoint a special envoy and a group of security specialists to stay in the region for as long as it takes to cement a peace. The envoy must have a presidential mandate enabling him to invoke the president's name to shake things up if necessary. If there has been one critical factor behind the lack of progress since the eruption of the second Intifadah, it has been the absence of such an individual with real power and authority.

Without a new American strategy like the one outlined here, the president's goal of peace and democracy in the Middle East will remain illusive. Our efforts to engage the two peoples in a peace process will continue to flounder and to be seen as nothing more than a camouflage for a strategy of retreat with the potential for the most dire consequences.