A Saudi Protectorate for the Palestinians

From Hosni Mubarak to Ariel Sharon, Middle East leaders are trekking to Washington to discuss restarting the peace process. President Bush talks of a Palestinian state and of reforming the Palestinian authority, but (so far) offers no road map to achieving either. Here Shlomo Avineri, once Director-General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, proposes an innovative approach to reach both goals.

Two conflicting needs assail the Middle East. The Palestinians must rebuild political structures almost completely destroyed by Israel's recent incursions into the West Bank. Yet it is also clear that the Palestinians are unable to create a polity untainted by terrorism and free of an ideology that violently repudiates Israel's right to exist.

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After the Oslo agreements were reached a decade ago, supporters of the peace process, in Israel and abroad, hoped that the PLO - an armed national liberation movement deeply enmeshed in terrorism - would transform itself into a responsible and viable political structure. Only then would a sovereign Palestinian state be able to live in peace alongside Israel. If the ANC could make such a transition in South Africa, why not the Palestinians? The hope that Yasser Arafat might become a Palestinian Nelson Mandela inspired even Israelis skeptical about the Oslo process.

This was not to be. Arafat missed the historic opportunity to achieve a Palestinian state in 2000 when he rejected proposals by President Clinton and then Israeli Premier Barak at Camp David and later in Egypt. Instead, he launched an armed intifada, in which competing Palestinian militias unleashed terrorism and suicide attacks against Israeli civilian targets - not only in the occupied territories, but also in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera, Afula, and Netanya.

Some militias were under Arafat's direct control, while others got semi-official support from him, and still others were his antagonists. Their common aim was to wrest from a frightened and terrorized Israel what could not be achieved by diplomacy. Palestinian territories descended into a lawless chaos reminiscent of Lebanon in the 1970-80's.

Israel will not allow the reconstruction of terrorist structures on its doorstep: no country would. But Ariel Sharon's government should not be allowed to use the Palestinians' utter failure at peaceful nation building as an alibi for continued occupation. What, then, is to be done?

President Bush's support for reforming the Palestinian Authority is well intentioned. But to imagine a democratic and transparent Palestinian Authority when neither Syria, Egypt nor Saudi Arabia (or any other Arab country) show signs of democratization, is a pipe dream.

Equally well-intentioned UN and EU ideas about introducing an international force to separate Israel and the Palestinians originate with paper-shuffling diplomats, whose previous experiences in peacekeeping (say, in Srebrenica or Rwanda) do not inspire confidence. Will an international force hunt down suicide bombers? Will it possess intelligence assets and the will to fight if needed? Such a force is dangerous nonsense.

Palestinian institutions must be rebuilt, but within a legitimate Arab context. Like Kosovo and Bosnia, Palestinian territories should be put under an international protectorate, but not

one administered by the UN or EU. It should be an Arab one, preferably led by Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi protectorate over the Palestinians will have internal Arab legitimacy; it will also possess knowledge and techniques used in the Arab world to ensure security. Such a protectorate may not develop a democratic or transparent Palestinian structure. But we should forget about that for now anyway.

What it can do is create a structure untainted by terrorism, suicide bombers and competing militias. It may also shield the Palestinians from Israel as it reassures the Israelis that the political entity that will emerge on their doorstep is not going to be another failed quasi-state ruled by warlords and terrorists.

Far fetched? Perhaps, but so far conventional solutions have proved unworkable, even disastrous. After some years of such a Saudi protectorate over the Palestinians, serious negotiations - more or less based on Crown Prince Abdullah's proposals for an overall agreement - could be re-launched.

In the meantime, the most urgent priority is a process of de-escalation, stabilization and political consolidation within Palestinian society. A Saudi protectorate may be the key to achieving this. Everything else having already failed, it may be the only choice left for both Israelis and Palestinians.