Sharon, Arafat, Kerry and Bush

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John Kerry and John Edwards scarcely miss an opportunity to skewer President Bush for his handling of Iraq, but when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the challengers give the administration a free pass. Teed up in the vice-presidential debate by moderator Gwen Ifill, who suggested the U.S. had been largely absent from the peace process under President Bush and asked what a Kerry administration would do differently, John Edwards half agreed with the idea that the Bush team had been on the sidelines but then restricted his own comments to an endorsement of Israel's security wall and of the Bush administration's refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat. In essence, he presented nothing different from the positions of the "absent" Bush administration.

On their campaign Web site, Kerry and Edwards speak of the Middle East only in vague generalities entirely consistent with those of the current administration, adding that "in a Kerry-Edwards administration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be an afterthought, but a priority that will always get the consistent, high-level attention it deserves" — but never specifying what it might do differently. And this week, Kerry echoed President Bush's insistence that the U.S. will not deal with Arafat, and praised Ariel Sharon's "courageous" plan to leave Gaza.

But painting Arafat as the prime obstacle to restarting a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is not unlike the tendency among administration spinmeisters to paint its troubles in Iraq as the work of the demonic Zarqawi. In either case, it's far from that simple. Suffice to say that in the case of Arafat, the idea that those waiting in the wings to succeed the aging and increasingly unpopular leader are not likely to be any more inclined to accept Sharon's terms than is Arafat.

And while President Bush and Senator Kerry may like to spin Ariel Sharon's Gaza plan as a first bold first step along the route envisaged in the White House's "roadmap" to a two-state peace agreement, Sharon's top political aide has made clear that it is, in fact, a tactical step designed precisely to avoid the "roadmap."

Just last week, Dov Weisglass, top political adviser and former chief of staff to the Israeli prime minister told the Israeli daily Haaretz that Sharon's intention in quitting Gaza is to freeze the peace process, not advance it. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, said Weisglass, "is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president's [roadmap] formula so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

Arafat has certainly provided plenty of reason to doubt his credentials as a statesman capable of making the compromises required to achieve a viable two-state solution to the conflict. But taken at his own word, and that of some of his closest advisers, when it comes to getting real over the outline of a two-state solution, Sharon doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either.

The Israeli prime minister's political achievement has been to take the question of a political solution to the conflict off the table, using Palestinian terrorism as the rationale to advance an agenda quite different from the peace process that began with Oslo. Whenever he has faced domestic and foreign pressure for any movement, he's taken unilateral steps in pursuit of a vision that has little in common with a two-state solution as understood by negotiators on both sides of the Oslo process. The security wall is a case in point: The initiative to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinians originated with the Labor Party, and was initially opposed by Sharon's party because it was envisaged as a de facto border fence built on, or close to the "Green Line" demarcating the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Sharon's genius was to make the popular idea his own by changing its route to fold in most of the West Bank territory he'd like to keep. (Two months after his election in 2001, he made clear that as far as he was concerned, the Palestinians would have to build their state on the 42 percent of the West Bank they currently control.)

Of course Sharon initially envisaged keeping a handful of settlements in Gaza, too, but the domestic and international political calculations have clearly changed that. Now he plans to withdraw from the Strip, but only because he believes it will help achieve his goal of securing most of the West Bank for Israel.

United Nations Resolution 242, which was the basis of the Oslo process, requires Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and negotiations with the Palestinians over a two-state solution have until now been based on a return to 1967 borders, or modifying them by mutual consent. The outline agreement achieved in the final days of Ehud Barak's administration in talks with Palestinian representatives at Taba remains the furthest the two sides have come to achieving an agreement over borders. It recognized the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, suggesting that Israel could incorporate the large settlement blocs around Jerusalem if it compensated the Palestinians with land of equivalent quality from within Israel's borders. Jerusalem would be the shared capital of both peoples.

While Arafat is widely pilloried for his rejection of the Camp David deal (he prevaricated over Taba), the irony is that, if anything, Sharon was even more vehement in his rejection of the same. Indeed, Sharon stressed upon assuming office that he had no intention of seeking a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, believing this was neither possible nor desirable. Rabin's pursuit of that goal, in Sharon's mind, was, at best, a tragic mistake. Instead, he envisaged managing the conflict between the two peoples via a series of long-term interim agreements, which the Palestinians are bludgeoned into accepting by the superiority of Israeli arms. And the upsurge of intifada violence quickly eclipsed talk of peace formulas, creating a context for Sharon's rollback of Oslo to the point that he has longsince pronounced it dead and buried.

Sharon systematically walked the Bush administration back from every effort to revive a peace plan that required concessions of Israel, every new terror outrage in an Israeli city drowning out the voices of those in the administration calling for a more balanced approach. Eventually, Sharon won U.S. endorsement for a position that requires no movement from Israel towards ending its occupation of the 1967 territories before the Palestinians have eradicated the militants in their own ranks and elected a new leadership acceptable to Washington. But earlier this year, he achieved the biggest political coup of his career in securing President Bush's backing for Israel's right to keep its West Bank settlement blocs. President Bush sought to sugar-coat his historic reversal of almost four decades of U.S. foreign policy proclaiming the settlements an obstacle to peace by pointing out that deals such as Taba would have left them in Israeli hands — perhaps, but only on the basis of a comprehensive agreement reached with the Palestinian leadership, and for which Israel ceded equivalent land from within its 1967 borders. Instead, Bush signed off simply on an expansion of Israeli territory with no quid-pro-quo, making it increasingly difficult to envisage the U.S. resuming the role of an even-handed broker.

The word "impasse" no longer adequately describes the state of relations between the two peoples after four years of relentless bloodletting. There is, quite simply, no peace process to speak of right now, and the clock may have been turned back 15 years. Palestinian institutions have largely collapsed, and real power on the streets of places such as Gaza is contest of wills between Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr's brigade, on the one hand, and the Israeli Defense Force on the other. The Palestinians know they have been atrociously led by Arafat, but that doesn't make them any more forgiving of Israel and the U.S. Their despair is at an all-time high, meaning that the likes of Hamas are unlikely to struggle to find volunteers for new suicide missions. Israel's wall has prevented Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israel as easily, but if anything, it has increased the incentive and motivation of those thus thwarted to find other means of bringing pain to Israelis. And global experience shows that motivation and the support or consent of a civilian population is the decisive ingredient of a terror war.

The strategic symmetry of the standoff remains, today, the same as it was in the late 1980s: Palestinian violence is unable to pose any strategic threat to Israel or to roll back its occupation; Israel's vastly superior military resources are unable to destroy either the traditional Palestinian nationalist movement nor its more militant rivals. Neither side can prevail through force, and periods of calm simply punctuate bouts of increasingly bitter violence. Sooner or later, Arafat will die, or be removed in some way from his position of power. But that may not substantially alter the strategic logjam.

The next U.S. administration will inherit not just a stalled peace process, but a brush fire whose dangers are less acute for Israel than they are for the wider American battle against al-Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission argues, in its final report, that al-Qaeda thrives on Arab hostility to the U.S. fueled principally by two grievances: the invasion of Iraq, and U.S. support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. "America's policy choices have consequences," the Commission notes. "Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world." Bin Laden has constantly sought to justify his attacks on the U.S. in light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hoping to shackle the widespread Muslim identification with the Palestinians to his own agenda. The war on terror is, the 9/11 Commission notes, fundamentally, a battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. And given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to defining Muslim attitudes towards the U.S., it's hard to see America making much headway in the political war against al-Qaeda without substantial progress toward a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the U.S. election is won by Bush or Kerry, the new administration will have to do a lot more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the posture implied by their campaign rhetoric.