The Only Way to Mideast Peace

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The failure of President Bush’s Middle East peace "roadmap" will likely be blamed on the actors: Mahmoud Abbas lacked the strength and the political will to stamp out Hamas; Yasser Arafat remained effectively in charge, undermining the efforts of Abbas so as to ensure his own continued relevance; Ariel Sharon didn’t take seriously the need for Israel to bolster Abbas and made only token gestures toward the "roadmap," and so on. But the fatal flaw in the "roadmap" lies not with the actors, but in the script itself. A look at how we go here, and what it will take to get out of this mess:

The landscape

The objective of the "roadmap," and the related peace initiatives upon which it is based, is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by obliging the two sides to share the Holy Land — re-dividing the former British colony of Palestine into a State of Israel living peacefully alongside a Palestinian state. There are two key obstacles to achieving that outcome: One is the ongoing violence that has seen almost 800 Israelis killed in terror attacks and three times as many Palestinians killed in Israeli military actions over the past two-and-a-half years. The other is the fact that the land on which the Palestinian state would be built remains under Israeli occupation, its 3 million Palestinian inhabitants subject to colonial-style rule by a state in which they have no rights of citizenship. Any workable peace plan has to provide a cast-iron permanent guarantee of Israel’s right to live free of the fear that its children could be blown up in the street. That means a well-guarded border separating the two states, and that the governing authority on the Palestinian side prevents Palestinians from forming private militia, let alone planning terrorist attacks. By the same token, any workable peace plan would have to address the Palestinians’ right to live free of Israeli occupation — curfews and closures, military strikes, land seizures for settlements or security operations and so on. It means that Israeli soldiers and settlers withdraw to their side of the border, and stay there.

Addressing those two dimensions — security and occupation — has been the basis of the peace efforts of the past decade, based on the recognition that occupation fuels terrorism, which in turn hardens the occupation regime, breeding more recruits for terrorism, and so on. The "roadmap" is, first and foremost, a restatement of previous cease-fire plans. It adds a “political horizon,” suggesting that compliance will bring the Palestinians a state. Its most important original contribution is its very premise: the recognition that left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of finding their own way out of the bloodbath, and that their route to a peace agreement will have to be plotted by the international community.

But where the roadmap goes into extensive detail on the steps necessary to restore Israeli security, it grows distinctly fuzzy when addressing issues of occupation. The first phase requires that the Palestinians renounce armed struggle, dismantle all organizations wielding arms outside of the formal security services of the PA, and reform Palestinian institutions (code, in U.S. and Israeli parlance, for sidelining Yasser Arafat). The requirements of Israel in the same first phase are limited to easing the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians, withdrawing from towns reoccupied by the Israeli Defense Force and dismantling settlements built in the course of the current intifada.

Neither side has done much to implement the "roadmap." Instead of dismantling the militant organizations that have waged the terror war, the PA leadership brokered a truce agreement under which they would refrain from attacking Israel in exchange for prisoner releases and other concessions. Yasser Arafat remained very much in charge of the PA despite U.S. efforts to sideline him. And Israel confined itself to mostly token gestures in respect of settlement outposts, reversible military withdrawals from a couple of Palestinian areas and the release of a couple of hundred of the 6,000 Palestinian militants currently in Israeli prisons. (The prisoner issue is not actually covered by the “roadmap,” but it is essential to the “hudna” truce among the Palestinian militant groups.)

As a perceptive commentary by Camp David veterans Robert Malley and Hussein Agha notes, none of the key participants — Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — saw the "roadmap" as a path to a solution; they saw it instead as a tactical challenge, brought on by diplomatic pressures, in their ongoing struggle. Each had his own goals: Arafat’s and Sharon’s were mirror opposites; Abbas’s were different from both, but his negligible political standing made him a marginal figure except in the wishful thinking of President Bush. Abbas adopted the “roadmap” and then equivocated on implementing it; Sharon artfully avoided actually adopting the document as a whole: The relevant cabinet resolution agrees to “accept the steps set out in the roadmap,” subject to the implementation of 14 Israeli reservations raised with the U.S. but not in the “roadmap” itself.

The reason for the Palestinian failure — or refusal — to shut down the militant groups is that organizations such as Hamas are now part of the fabric of mainstream Palestinian society. Attempting to shut them down would inevitably ignite a Palestinian civil war. Even moderates such as Abbas, who believes the armed intifada has been disastrous for the Palestinian cause, think that the only way to end it is by reestablishing a consensus among the fighters to return to a peace process.

Israel’s reasons for avoiding adoption of the “roadmap” may be based in no small part in fears over its destination. The document envisions, in Phase II, "the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty." This delicate bit of diplo-speak is nothing if not an oxymoron — the first attribute of sovereignty is surely precisely defined borders. But even in its third phase, the "roadmap" simply envisages Israel and the Palestinians negotiating a final status agreement that would settle the borders and all outstanding conflict issues.

Drawing borders

That’s a fundamental weakness, since sovereignty is what drives this conflict. Leaving the boundaries vague leaves everything to fight for. Leaving it up to the two sides to agree on them misses the point that their nationalisms are, by tradition, mutually exclusive.

The roadmap speaks of a final agreement on borders that "will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”But where it fails is in making specific the obvious: that the basis for the border between Israel and Palestine is the June 1967 line that separated Israel from the West Bank and Gaza.

A major reason for avoiding getting that specific was precisely that the present Israeli leadership has never given any indication that it accepts a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Indeed, shortly after assuming office in 2001, Ariel Sharon made clear that his view of a Palestinian state is one comprising little more than 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. His own party’s current election platform certainly confirms a political vision no Palestinian or Arab leader would ever accept: "The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river,” the Likud manifesto states. “The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state."

A demographic time bomb

Zionism and Palestinian nationalism have always been based in mutually exclusive claims to the land. The Zionist ideology of a Jewish return to build their own state in the Biblical Land of Israel was always dogged by the reality that even after the influx of Jews that followed the Holocaust, they were outnumbered two to one by the Arab residents of Palestine. Even when the international community sought to solve the problem by partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the Arab population on the Israeli side of the divide would have constituted 45 percent of the total, and their birthrate was a lot higher. But the war that began in 1948 when Israel’s Arab neighbors rejected the partition plan and invaded resolved that problem, as more than half of the Arab population were driven form their homes by the fighting, and were barred by law from returning.

The 1967 war gave Israel control of the remaining 25 percent of historic Palestine — the West Bank and Gaza, and of the 1 million Palestinians who lived there a number (that has swelled to 3 million today). Although the territories fell within the Biblical Land of Israel, they were not annexed for the simple reason that to do so would have meant making those Palestinians voting citizens of Israel — Israel’s Jewish population is 5 million, and the combined voting strength of the 1 million Israeli Arabs and the 3 million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians would give the country an Arab majority within the next two decades.

The newly occupied territories remained under Israeli military rule. But ultranationalist Israelis saw the occupation as an opportunity to stake a claim on land inhabited by Palestinians that fell on the Biblical maps of the Land of Israel. Mindful of the danger that settlements would preclude a land-for-peace swap, the ruling Labor Party did not encourage settlement, and a decade later only 7,000 Israelis were living in the West Bank.

Things changed when the Likud Party took power in 1977. The new government was committed to settling masses of Jews in the occupied territories in order to seal Israel’s grip on territory it regarded as part of the Land of Israel. At the center of Likud’s settlement policy was its Agriculture Minister — Ariel Sharon. And Sharon made clear in the 1970s, and again in the 90s when he set out to challenge the Oslo process, that the purpose of settlements was to create "facts on the ground" that would impede the surrender of the occupied territories by Israel in any future peace deal.

The goal of Palestinian nationalism, by contrast, has traditionally been the elimination of the State of Israel. As the national movement representing the displaced Arab population of pre-1948 Palestine, the founding Charter of the PLO speaks of British mandate Palestine as an "indivisible unit" which must be restored to its original owners, dismissing Jewish and Zionist claims on the land and allowing only that those Jews who lived in Palestine "before the Zionist invasion" would be allowed to remain. Although that document was later modified (in a meeting hastily convened under pressure from the Clinton White House) in keeping with the pursuit of a two-state solution under the Oslo Accords, the same sentiment remains central to the charter of Hamas, and the demand for “liberating” all of Palestine remains a core element of Palestinian national identity. Acceptance of a two-state solution, which would give the Palestinians only 25 percent of the West Bank and Gaza is viewed as a compromise in the ranks of Palestinian nationalists, albeit a necessary one.

What now?

It is time or the international community to draw the boundaries between Israel and Palestine, and be willing to enforce those. The 1967 borders are the basis of an international consensus over solving the conflict, but neither side trusts the other to make peace based on separation along that border. After all, Palestinian suicide bombers are striking deep inside Israel, not simply at its soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. And during the Oslo years, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank and Gaza doubled. The wall Israel is building as a de facto border to keep out suicide bombers doesn’t follow the 1967 “Green Line” border between Israel and the West Bank; instead it appears designed to surround the Palestinians in enclaves comprising not much more than the 42 percent of the West Bank currently under PA jurisdiction.

An internationally enforced solution would need to provide the Israelis with cast-iron security guarantees as the basis for withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. It would also have to recognize the legitimacy of their skepticism that such security could or would be provided simply by the PA.

Some senior U.S. lawmakers recognize that outside troops will have to be deployed between the Israelis and Palestinians. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk proposes a “trusteeship for Palestine” — Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories, which would be administered by an international body that could provide the troops to protect the sovereignty of both sides and could oversee the democratization of Palestinian political institutions. Kosovo might provide something of a precedent, with NATO troops guaranteeing security and the UN running the political administration for an interim period likely to last at least a decade. Of course such plans also have plenty of flaws, but they do point to the emerging reality that whatever succeeds the “roadmap” is likely to be a set of proposals considerably more robust than those we have seen up to now.