All Writings
May 5, 2002

Pressing Ahead With The Changing Dynamic In The Mideast

The Bush administration's call for an international conference on the Middle East this Summer was precipitated by the convergence of events that has dramatically changed the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The proposed conference can make important progress toward peace if (1) the participants realistically assess the changing conditions on the ground, and (2) if we support the general outline of former President Clinton's peace plan.

The violent tit-for-tat that went on for more than 17 months, culminating with the Passover massacre in Nataniah, pushed Israel beyond the threshold of tolerance of what is acceptable in a democracy. titleThe subsequent Israeli incursion into West Bank Palestinian cities demonstrated that Israel can employ military means at will and also has the capacity to pursue its objectives regardless of any international outcry or condemnation. Prime Minister Sharon's "defiance" in the face of President Bush's demand for Israel to withdraw from these cities signaled glaringly that when the Israelis perceive a threat to their national survival, they do what they must to protect themselves irrespective of political fallout. Under pressure from conservative Republicans and evangelicals to support Israel, President Bush could not use the weight of his office to pressure it further, a fact that sent another important signal to the rest of the Arab world that we are unwilling to push Sharon beyond certain limits for fear of losing our leverage to moderate Israel's position when needed. The reality is that even though it has no other real friends, Israel's sense of isolation would have made it even more intransigent in response to intensified American pressure. This reality manifested itself in Israel's defiance of the United Nations, especially its rejection of Secretary General Annan's fact-finding committee to investigate the Jenin Refugee Camp on the grounds that the United Nations has long since it lost its impartiality and the committee members are biased against Israel. That said, the Sharon government has learned the hard way that resistence to the occupation is not transitory, and Israel will not enjoy a real peace unless it addresses the Palestinians' legitimate right to statehood.

For the Palestinians the lessons from Israel's incursion and its defiance of the United States and the United Nations could not have been lost. Yes, they put up a stiff resistence against one of the world's most advanced military machines, but it was impossible not to escape the conclusion that, other than the political support they garnered, they were left entirely at the mercy of Israel's military. The Arab states were not only unwilling to challenge Israel militarily, they refrained from issuing even a veiled military threat. The European Community, which in any case enjoys limited influence in the Middle East, did not fare much better. It raised the prospect of economic sanctions against Israel, but did nothing, fearing that any punitive action could destroy the little influence it has left. Moreover, Israel's ability to confine Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat inside his Ramallah compound further underscored its reach and its capacity to withstand external pressure while exerting its own for as long as necessary to achieve its objectives.

One other critical lesson for the Palestinians has been to see the limits of terrorism as a tool to force Israel's hand. Although Israel responded proportionately to acts of terror during the first 17 months of the Intifadah, the indiscriminate killings by suicide bombers precipitated a public outcry for decisive action, thereby forcing Sharon to abandon the policy of proportionality. The abject lesson the Palestinians learned from Israel's response was that terrorism, especially suicide bombings, can no longer be the weapon of choice because the price they pay in return is too high. That the Palestinians have learned this lesson does not mean, however, that there will be no more suicide bombings. But I believe that such acts of terror will be reduced in frequency and intensity, with resistence to the occupation assuming different forms, including that of civil disobedience.

Before the conference gets underway, the United States must recognize the changing dimensions of the conflict and become unambiguous about the requirements for peace and unequivocal in its demands on the various players who have direct stakes in the outcome. Although it means expending tremendous political capital and taking considerable risks, President Bush should no longer shy away from former President Clinton's formula, which accepted by Barak, called for the return of most of the territories to the Palestinians (96% of the West Bank and all of Gaza,), a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem through compensation and resettlement and a creative plan for sharing Jerusalem.

Sharon objected to what he called "these sweeping concessions," and he is coming to Washington with a peace formula of his own. He must realize, however, that nothing short of what Clinton/Barak offered will suffice. By his forceful response to the suicide bombings, Sharon has earned the trust of his people, a factor that will allow him to make the necessary concessions for peace. He can argue that what was put on the table by Barak at Camp David and later at Tabah cannot be taken back. The Israelis are of course familiar with Barak's offer and will trust Sharon to see it through. Under his stewardship, Israel has made clear how it will act when its very existence and way of life are threatened. Now he must show the same capacity in this fateful hour to lead Israel toward an equitable peace that can endure.

titleNearly decimated by the Israeli incursion, the Palestinian Authority also has a choice to make: it must either end the violence or bring about its own destruction. Arafat must be made to understand that the Palestinians' legitimate rights for statehood will not be achieved at the expense of Israel's right to exist. Although I do not believe that he can change his colors, and even though Sharon detests dealing with him, the United States still wants to give Arafat a final chance: either he must become a positive force for peace and truly lead or render himself irrelevant. We must speak clearly to him that his window of opportunity is quickly closing. Indeed, another major suicide bombing in Israel may end the Arafat era. We must, in any event, actively cultivate an alternate leadership. Now that Arafat is free to move around, he will be more vulnerable to challenge by other Palestinian leaders who detest his corrupt regime and seek to replace him.

In addition, the United States must demand from the Arab countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that once and for all they condemn and oppose terrorism in any form. Specifically, they must pressure Arafat to battle terrorism and take whatever steps are necessary domestically to stifle anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda. Otherwise, rather than serving as a basis for peace, the Saudi peace initiative, which is similar to Clinton's, will lose whatever is left of its luster.

Ironically, although the second Intifadah has shattered any trust between Israel and the Palestinians and caused tremendous loss of life and property, it clarified for each side its bottom line, the point beyond which it will not go. Concern over its internal security and the threat to its own regimes as the public outcry rose in the streets, over Sharon's response, may have also been the catalyst behind the Saudi peace proposal as well as the greater involvement of other Arab states, {notably Egypt}, which witnessed similar displays, in pushing for an end to the conflict.

Now the question is, whether President Bush will restore familiarity and credibility to the negotiating process by embracing the Clinton/Barak plan and will he be willing to spend the time, energy, resources, and above all, the necessary political capital to fully immerse himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not believe he has a choice. He must articulate his vision for peace along the lines of the Clinton plan while pushing for incrementally realistic steps that will encourage both sides to renew their vested interest in the peace process.