U.S. Must Define Peace Terms

Events of the past few weeks have changed the diplomatic picture for the United States and rendered incremental diplomacy in the Middle East nearly impossible.

The Bush administration has made some important moves in defining a clear American position on issues of final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has endorsed the concept of a viable Palestinian state based on U.N. resolutions and has supported the Mitchell commission report calling for an end to terrorism and violence and a freeze on Israeli settlements. It has supported the Saudi initiative calling for normal peaceful relations between Israel and Arab states once Israel withdraws from the occupied territories.

We must now take the next step: articulating the parameters or framework for a final settlement. Such an approach can succeed only if the president makes the case to the American people that Arab-Israeli peacemaking is central to U.S. interests. As has been evident from the recent suicide bombings and the death and destruction in the West Bank, the consequences of further escalation include regional instability, tension among the United States, Arab and Muslim countries and Europe, and serious obstacles to the global war on terrorism and to Iraq policy. Nothing short of bold diplomacy can turn the tide.

This process could begin with securing the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council for a proposed framework, which could be followed by inviting Arab and Israeli leaders to an international conference to determine the details of a plan within a mutually agreed-on time frame. Many details still would have to be negotiated, but the prospects of success would be significantly enhanced once the endgame was known.

Although there is no guarantee that Israeli and Arab leaders would come, they would face a unified international position if they did not. More important, they would face their publics. Most Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful deal but still support violent means because they don’t see a peaceful solution on the horizon.

Today, the American public sees foreign policy as a priority issue and is fully mobilized behind President Bush’s campaign against terrorism. Recent national opinion surveys indicate that a U.S. majority believes that the Palestinian-Israeli issue has become more important since Sept. 11, supports administration involvement in Mideast peace efforts and supports the call for an international conference. Given the bloodshed in the past few weeks, the international community—particularly Arab governments and Europeans—greatly fears the consequences of escalation and thus would rally behind peacemaking efforts.

The Israeli and the Palestinian leadership must accept the reality that there will be no end to the conflict unless each side gives up part of its national dream. For the Palestinians, this would mean forgoing actual return of a significant number of refugees to territories within Israel’s 1967 borders. The Israelis would have to let go of the vision of Judea and Samaria (“Greater Israel”) and give up Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian dream would destroy the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, and the Israeli dream would prohibit the establishment of a truly independent and geographically contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

The parameters of a comprehensive settlement have been delineated since 1967 in U.N. resolutions and U.S. initiatives, through Democratic and Republican administrations, and especially beginning with the Madrid peace conference of 1991. The parties themselves made significant progress in direct negotiations, including those at Taba, Egypt, in 2000 and 2001.

By making the case to the American people and taking the lead in articulating the framework of a final settlement toward which Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese can aspire, the Bush administration can do much to advance stability in the Middle East and buttress the international campaign against terrorism.