All Writings
February 6, 2005

Changing The Peace-Making Dynamic

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the death of Arafat has altered the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians, creating a real opportunity for achieving an interim agreement and perhaps in a few years a final accord. How long this opportunity will last and what it will take to make serious progress, depend on three conditions: 1) to what extent the Palestinians remain committed to a nonviolent solution and the Israelis to a cessation of targeted killings and preemptive strikes; 2) at what level, and how active, direct, and consistent U.S. involvement will be, and 3) how Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan works and what his subsequent policy will be in the West Bank.

The upcoming summit among Sharon, the new Palestinian president Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and Egypt’s president Mubarak will provide fresh impetus for addressing some of the most critical grievances of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Since mutual trust has been virtually destroyed during the past four years of violence, each side has adopted a zero-sum bargaining posture, demanding certain concessions from the other as the basis for renewed negotiations. Ending the violence is a critical precondition. Israel, indeed, must not enter into new talks unless the Palestinians stop all violent attacks. This cessation is necessary to disabuse Palestinian radicals of the notion that only violence will end the occupation. Yet no one should expect the Palestinians to stop the violence on their side while Israel is free to continue its policy of targeted killing and preemptive strikes. But the mutual cessation of hostility is not only as a precondition to meaningful interim negotiations, it must also be seen for what it signals: a renunciation of violence as a tool, regardless how intractable negotiations may turn out to be. It will be impossible to restore even a semblance of trust unless political discourse becomes the strategic choice as the way to achieve a permanent solution.

What is the role of the administration? It must do more than simply prompt the two sides to negotiate. Having virtually abandoned the Israelis and the Palestinians to their own devices in the past four years at a tragic cost, the administration must now move from offering lip service to real direct, active, and consistent involvement to ensure that negotiations remain on course. Although Israel and the Palestinian Authority theoretically accepted Mr. Bush’s three-year old Road Map as a basis for a two-state’s solution, there remains a huge gulf between Israel’s and the Palestinian Authority’s interpretation of what the final Road Map will look like. The resolution of complex and emotionally charged issues, such as final borders, ultimate security arrangements, the future of many West Bank settlements, the solution to the Palestinian refugees, and the fate of Jerusalem will require tremendous tenacity, creativity, and an iron will. In addition, both sides need the United States to provide them with a cover against the unreasonable demands of extremist and often violent groups and to exert the pressure needed to obtain necessary concessions from each other. In brief, America will have to act as facilitator, mediator, and even enforcer. Only the assignment of a presidential envoy who commands immediate respect and has a mandate to speak on behalf of and report directly to the president, such as Collin Powell or Jimmy Carter will do the trick. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians will carefully gauge the level of American commitment and involvement, but in the end will be hard-pressed to resist a determined input by Washington. Secretary of State Rice’s recent visit to the region must signal a serious new beginning and not just be seen as another empty gesture, and thus another missed opportunity for a breakthrough.

For the Palestinians, nothing symbolizes the occupation more than the Israeli settlements, especially in the West Bank. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from settlements and military installations from Gaza is certainly a move in the right direction, and every effort should be made by the Palestinians and the United States to facilitate the peaceful transfer of authority to the Palestinians. What will matter even more to the Palestinians is how the Sharon government treats the Israeli outposts erected during the last few years in the West Bank and the issue of expansion of existing settlements. This will send a clear signal to the Palestinians not just about Israel ultimate intentions, but about the real prospects for a Palestinian state covering a contiguous land mass, which would give such a state both economic and political viability. Sharon must dismantle these outposts and, at a minimum, freeze the expansion of settlements slated to be evacuated at some point in the future. For the Palestinians, this will show that he is sincere about seeking a negotiated settlement. And it will also strengthen Abbas in dealing with militant factions who threaten to undermine the peace process like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

All these measures taken by each of the three players are also particularly important because of the deep concerns of many Israelis and Palestinians about threats to the lives of Sharon and Abbas. The assassination or attempted assassination of either leader could seriously derail the peace process, and at worst, plunge both sides into another cycle of violence. To minimize this possibility, both men must capitalize on the support of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians for the peace process and attempt to create irreversible conditions in which both peoples develop a vested interest in perpetuating. Besides the immediate improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians, including the removal of road blocks, release of prisoners, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian city centers, and freer flow of goods to and from the territories, Mr.Sharon must project a vision of an equitable solution that extends beyond disengagement from Gaza to give the Palestinians some hope of a dignified solution. Meanwhile, Mr. Abbas must recognize that his real enemies are the unbending extremists with whom he must deal with an iron fist if necessary. Otherwise, he will fail to mobilize the Israeli public, which he needs on his side, to exact the necessary territorial concessions from their leaders. Mr. Abbas must also groom a successor (someone like Mohammad Dahlan, currently his security advisor) to provide continuity. And finally, he must embark on an economic development plan to quickly benefit as many Palestinians as possible.

Under the best of circumstances, the peace process will remain fragile and need to be constantly nurtured by all three players to prevent it from unraveling and thereby closing, yet, another window of opportunity with potentially tragic consequences.