It has been a long time since the words “opportunity” and “Middle East” appeared in the same sentence. But now they are. Even better, this optimism may have some basis in reality.
One important reason for this change in attitude is, of course, Yasir Arafat’s disappearance from the scene. Like the Thane of Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”
Arafat never grew beyond the man who appeared at the United Nations decades ago with both an olive branch and a gun. His unwillingness to jettison terror and choose diplomacy proved his undoing, as he lost legitimacy in the eyes of both Israel and the United States. The result was the failure to create a Palestinian state.
But it is not simply Arafat’s passing that provides cause for optimism. We now have a Palestinian leadership legitimized by elections, one that appears to be opposed to using terrorism as a tool to achieve political aims. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has a good record of questioning the wisdom of the intifada that has taken too many lives and caused only misery and destruction on all sides of this enduring conflict.
Changes in Israel are also contributing to the mood swing. There is a growing awareness in Israel that the current situation – one of open-ended Israeli occupation of lands mostly populated by Palestinians – is inconsistent with Israel’s determination to remain a secure, prosperous, Jewish, and democratic state.
The formation of a new Israeli government, one more centrist in its composition and support, is another positive development. Israel is now led by a prime minister who has the ability to make historic choices and a government inclined to support him.
But opportunity is just that. Middle East history is replete with examples of missed and lost chances to make peace. The challenge now is to break this pattern and turn today’s opportunity into reality.
This requires that the promised Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank succeed. But “success” entails more than departing Israelis. It also requires that Palestinians demonstrate that they can govern responsibly and that they can put an end to terrorist violence emanating from Palestinian soil.
What happens in Gaza after Israel leaves will have a profound impact on Israeli politics. If Gaza turns into a lawless failed state, one that is a base for attacks on Israelis, it will be extremely difficult to persuade Israel to withdraw from other areas that it now occupies. But if Palestinians in Gaza demonstrate that they can rule themselves and be a good neighbor, a key justification for Israel’s continuing occupation elsewhere will weaken.
Palestinians will need help if things are to turn out right in Gaza. The US, Europe, and Arab states such as Egypt, along with Russia and the UN, all have a responsibility to assist Abu Mazen. Palestinians need financial and technical help to build up a unified and capable security establishment, to revive a moribund economy, and to build a modern, transparent political system.
It is also important that the Gaza withdrawal be a beginning, not an end, to the political process. There must be a link between what takes place in Gaza and a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian question if Mazen is to persuade a majority of his people that diplomacy and compromise deliver more than violence and confrontation.
Here, too, there is an important role for America to play. In fact, the US has already begun to do what is required. In a September 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush reassured Israelis that it was “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue “will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”
These promises meant a great deal to Sharon as he faced domestic political challenges. What is needed now is a parallel letter from Bush to Abu Mazen. Such a letter could spell out the US commitment to a viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with compensation provided by Israel wherever territorial adjustments are agreed. The US would also commit itself to provide resources to help construct a modern society and economy. Help would also be extended to settle the Palestinian refugees, whether in Palestine, other Arab countries, or, in special cases where Israel agrees for humanitarian reasons, in Israel itself.
In return, Palestinians would need to pledge to reject the use of violence and terror once and for all. The US should not, however, make the establishment of a full Palestinian democracy a prerequisite for territorial return and peace. To delay negotiations until Palestinian democracy matured would only persuade Palestinians that diplomacy was a ruse and give many a reason to turn to violence. After more than a half-century of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, translating opportunity into reality will be difficult enough without introducing new requirements that, however desirable, are not essential.