Six long years of failed Middle East policies have finally brought President George W. Bush to recognize that the alliance of moderates in the region that he covets can only be forged through an Arab-Israeli peace. Indeed, only by effectively addressing the Israeli-Arab dispute can he possibly salvage America’s standing in the region. But the round of peacemaking that America has recently embarked upon not only comes too late in the political life of a lame-duck president who has been defeated at home and abroad; it is also ill-conceived and unconvincing.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s adamant resistance to engage the Syrians is not exactly wise policy. The stakes for a peaceful regional order are too high for Israel and the United States to persist in refusing to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s current peace offensive to the test. The bones of contention that wrecked previous attempts to reach an Israeli-Syrian peace have realistic solutions, as was shown by the back-channel peace talks recently held between an Israeli ex-official and a Syrian with close connections to the regime.
Nor is Rice’s insistence on sticking to the failed “road map” for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement promising. Susceptible to procrastination and evasion by both sides, the road map was stillborn. Almost four years after it was first launched, neither of the parties has managed to muster the political will necessary to implement its primary provisions. Not even the bizarre idea, reserved for the second stage, of a Palestinian state with “temporary borders” is enticing for the Palestinians.
This Gordian knot needs to be cut, not untied. The concept of interim agreements has now become utterly obsolete, if only because the parties are incapable of paying the political price inherent in an open-ended, piecemeal process.
Instead, what is called for is a sweeping solution to all the core issues. We now stand at the end of the peace process as we have known it. From now on, our options will be a violent and unilateral disengagement, such as the one that ushered in the current war in Gaza, and a comprehensive peace plan that will have to be annexed to the road map and validated by an international peace conference. Only such “reverse engineering,” starting at the end and working backward – and legitimized and monitored by strict international mechanisms – might yet save the prospects for an Israeli/Palestinian peace from ruin.
As the launch of the peace process at the 1991 Madrid International Peace Conference demonstrated, the prospects for peace in the Middle East always needed a concerted international push to exploit windows of opportunity. Wars in the Middle East, especially those , such as Israel’s recent war against Hezbollah, that ended inconclusively, have almost invariably created the conditions for major political breakthroughs, because they taught the warring parties the limits of power. Trapped in a momentous struggle between the forces of peaceful change and those committed to Doomsday, the Middle East is once again calling for a major international effort at peacemaking.
The initiators of the 2002 Arab peace initiative likewise understood that a strictly bilateral approach might be inadequate, and instead called to regionalize the solution to the conflict. Loss of mutual trust between the parties, and their total incapacity to take even the smallest step towards each other, let alone to observe their commitments without prodding by third parties, made (and still makes) an international framework for peace the only way out of the dangerous impasse.
The end of bilateralism stems also from the dysfunctional political systems of both Palestine and Israel. Today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is gasping for political air under the smothering control of Hamas. On her recent trip to Israel, Rice had to listen to four different peace plans from the prime minister, the foreign minister, the minister for strategic threats, and the defense minister. For both Israelis and Palestinians, achieving internal peace might prove as formidable a challenge as establishing peace with each other.
Any reformed peace process is doomed if it is guided by a road map within which, on the core issues, the parties have diametrically opposed views. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel, because the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is embodied in the main peace plans that are already on the table: the Clinton peace parameters, and the all-Arab peace initiative.
Fifteen years after the Madrid Conference began a formal peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, the parties are wiser as to what is inevitable if this tortuous process is to lead to a permanent settlement. In 1991, they convened on a platform of “land for peace.” But the Israelis never believed they would have to give back all the land, while the Arabs did not think they might have to offer “all the peace.” Today, at long last, everyone knows what is meant by “land,” and everyone knows what is meant by “peace.”