Despite apparent new openings to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, the basic political problems remain unchanged. Robert Malley spells out what a realistic plan should look like –

The Middle East appears to be witnessing a rare moment of consensus. With the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine leader, the re-election of George Bush, and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s determined effort to disengage from the Gaza Strip, all sides seem to agree on what should happen next: Palestinians must hold elections and rebuild their political institutions, and Israel must do its part to make this possible.

Yet the political roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain unaltered. Notwithstanding the apparent agreement, the conditions today are essentially the same as those that have repeatedly dashed hopes in the past. Nothing that has occurred recently either affects the underlying dynamics of the conflict or provides the international community with additional time to address them.

The immediate steps seem straightforward enough. The Palestinian Authority must take measures to reimpose law and order in a perilously chaotic situation in the territories under its control and put an end to armed attacks against Israelis – using political tools if possible and security measures when necessary. It should institute long-overdue institutional reform to strengthen accountability and democratic governance.

At the same time, Israel must change conditions on the ground – lifting checkpoints, dismantling settlement outposts and reducing armed incursions – to empower pragmatic Palestinians.

Israel should also proceed with its disengagement plan. But it should do so in a far more coordinated fashion, as part of the US-sponsored Roadmap for peace, so that Gaza can emerge as a showcase for a future Palestinian state. Both sides need to get back to the Roadmap. Moreover, the international community should help bring all of this about through financial aid, logistical assistance and security training.

Fundamentals unresolved

But the circumstances have become worse in many ways. The region has suffered horrendous suicide bombings and devastating Israeli military actions for more than four years. Anger and bitterness on both sides are at an all-time high. The Palestinian institutions that were expected to restore order and clamp down on extremists have either collapsed or been destroyed. Radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while operationally weakened, have become politically more powerful, which makes it all the more unlikely that the Palestinian authorities would try to take them on.

Few Palestinians believe that Sharon will be prepared to reach a settlement even remotely approaching their minimum requirements. With that in mind, and given newly emboldened radical groups, we should not expect a new Palestinian leader either to confront these groups or to negotiate yet another interim deal with Israel. In short, a process that could have withstood a variety of drawbacks and setbacks in the 1990s has lost most of its shock absorbers. Disappointment this time could quickly revert to full-scale violence.

Learning from mistakes

The conventional response is to call for a gradual, step-by-step process with incremental measures taken by both sides, on the grounds that trust needs to be restored before peace can be made. This was the approach of the Oslo peace process. But because its objectives remained vague, its efforts were rendered ineffectual.

The same holds true today. The development of democratic Palestinian institutions would be a welcome move, as would the dismantling of violent groups, the loosening of Israel’s military siege and its withdrawal from Gaza. But a stable Palestinian democracy under conditions of occupation is difficult to imagine.

While the Palestinian people and their leaders undoubtedly need to clamp down on radical groups, it is hard to conceive that they will be able or even willing to do so, if they cannot justify it as required for a clear and desired endgame – so long, in other words, as these groups are viewed as resisting the occupier and those suppressing them as collaborating with occupation, rather than enabling statehood.

As for the Gaza disengagement, even when it happens most of the underlying ingredients of the conflict will remain. Some may even have been exacerbated. Quitting Gaza and setting up a separation fence may well limit Israeli exposure to attacks; but so long as the occupation endures, Palestinian militants will have the motivation to look for other, perhaps more sophisticated and deadly, means to strike.

Ultimately, until they know what the endgame is, Palestinians are unlikely to provide Israelis with the security they need. Similarly, until they are provided with that security and with an assurance that their needs will be met, Israelis are unlikely to carry out the political steps that Palestinians require. The mutual suspicion that the Oslo approach was designed to remove is precisely the reason why this approach cannot work again.

A new plan

Neither Palestinian democratization nor Gaza disengagement will bring the parties closer to resolving their underlying conflict. To focus on these aspects to the detriment of the fundamental political issues is to risk squandering a genuine moment of opportunity.

There is an alternative: to mobilize the public of both sides in favour of a fair and comprehensive settlement. The US should present a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement plan, in coordination with, and with the full backing of, other key members of the international community, including Arab and Muslim states.

This need not be done overnight. Palestinians will have to absorb the process of succession, while Israelis will need to digest the fact of withdrawal and the international community has to organize itself for a successful endgame effort.

The US should make its presentation of the plan conditional on strong commitments from others, particularly in the Arab world, to back it, to take concrete steps to normalize relations with Israel once peace has been achieved, and to immediately curb any aid to groups that resort to violence.

The plan ought to consider including a proposed Israeli-Syrian settlement, since only by reaching a comprehensive peace can one reach full normalization of Arab relations with Israel. For Arab states that have been clamouring for US involvement, the quid pro quo would be clear: commit to supporting the plan in word and deed, commit to cracking down on extremist groups and to pressing Palestinians to take action to end the violence, and the US will present a fair settlement plan.

The proposal would represent the international community’s best judgment of what a fair, final and comprehensive settlement should look like. The international community would appeal to the leaderships and peoples of both sides to embrace it. In other words, regardless of whether leaders initially reject the plan, the US and its partners would continue to promote it.

An international role

It is clear by now, based on the parties’ negotiations from Oslo onwards, that a settlement that protects the two sides’ vital interests can be put together and – no less important, can only be achieved through sustained inter-national involvement.

Second, and as part of this plan, the international community would propose a US or NATO-led international force to verify compliance, help provide security and take control of land turned over by Israel. The mandatory powers would be the ultimate arbiters, transferring land and full sovereignty to the Palestinians when appropriate.

In other words, Israel initially will be turning over territory to NATO or some other US-led multinational force, and the force will help strengthen Israel’s security by patrolling the Israeli-Palestinian border and Palestine’s other international borders and crossing points. Israel could be offered membership in NATO and a US defence treaty, and US and European security guarantees would be extended to the Palestinian state.

To make the plan more palatable, Israeli and Palestinian leaders could submit it directly to their people for them to approve or reject. A vigorous campaign in which the US, together with Arab and Muslim countries, plays a significant part, would build pressure for the referendum and affect political dynamics on both sides.

The most powerful impact of all, were it to happen, would be through the joint appearance of president Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt and others to address the Israeli Knesset and the Palestinian parliament and call on both sides to accept the comprehensive peace proposal. Such a bold diplomatic move may well be needed to jump-start the peace process, given the virtually complete breakdown in trust.

Putting forward a comprehensive deal will provide the clarity that has so far been missing, creating genuine incentives for Israelis (security) and Palestinians (the end of the occupation) to confront extremists within their ranks and deprive them of their current legitimacy.

An international force would make up for the lack of trust and provide Israel with the assurance it needs that the Palestinian state it leaves behind will be stable and well governed. Submitting the plan to a referendum would endow the process with homegrown, popular legitimacy, while shifting the locus of decision-making to an arena where the balance of power is most favourable to proponents of an agreement.

Cause for hope

For the first time in more than four years, there appears a genuine chance to end the organized military conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. There is every reason to welcome the current spirit of apparent consensus. The question, however, is what one does with it.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between two national movements. It will not be resolved through Palestinian democratization, partial Israeli withdrawals, or even the restoration of trust, but by forcing the two sides to make difficult, contentious decisions over the shape of a final peace. The conflict will be resolved politically, or it will manifest itself violently.

Unless political dynamics are fundamentally altered, this period risks being remembered as yet another lull in an ongoing and deadly spiral. Worse, it could be recalled as the last gasp of the two-state solution: events on the ground are making such an outcome increasingly remote.

Israeli settlements have continued to spread and grow throughout the West Bank. The West Bank is being cantonized and fragmented. The Palestinian Authority’s power has eroded, with its most useful purpose today being to distribute salaries. The traditionally dominant Fatah is breaking apart geographically and organizationally. A range of armed gangs, breakaway groups and militias that do not respond to any central command have appeared.

Reaching a Palestinian consensus that eschews further violence and clearly accepts the principles inherent in a two-state solution is therefore becoming increasingly difficult. The very existence of centralized, national institutions of a Palestinian polity, able to make decisions and make them stick, is in doubt. The shelf life of the two-state solution is not eternal. Ironically, Palestinian territorial realities, politics and psychology are drifting away from the two-state option just at the time when Israel and the US appear to have come to terms with it.

Ultimately, a window of opportunity is only as useful as what one chooses to do with it. The international community has little time to waste if it wants the notion of an Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace to become tomorrow’s reality rather than yesterday’s unfulfilled dream.

Robert Malley
Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group. He was former US president Bill Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs.