About a month has passed since President Bush articulated a new American policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but today, despite the optimism expressed at last Thursday’s White House meeting with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, little or no progress can be seen. In his speech of June 24 , Bush made any further American engagement conditional upon a change of Palestinian leadership. And by doing so, he made elections the key that would open the door to negotiations and statehood for Palestinians. But those elections will not take place before January. What is supposed to happen in the meantime? It seems to me that the choices are clear: Either we allow the escalation of violence to destroy any chance of a negotiated outcome and thus do away with any election plans or the United States must embark immediately on a course of action that would make elections possible and indeed influence their outcome—one that would create conditions conducive to both political reform and peacemaking.
The Bush speech was short on details regarding a vision for peace but clear in its advocacy of a two-state solution, calling for the end of “Israeli occupation that began in 1967.” It provided no road map or timeline. It did, however, ask the Palestinians not only to change their leadership, but to reform their political system and to put an end to violence before any negotiations could begin. The president seemed intent on reducing his risks of failure before engaging the parties, learning a lesson from his predecessor.
Those weren’t the only problems with Bush’s approach. By framing a change in Palestinian leadership in terms of peace and security needs, rather than the needs of good governance, the new U.S. policy seems to have inhibited any serious internal Palestinian debate on Yasser Arafat’s succession. Palestinians and Israelis alike view the new policy as making one-sided demands on the Palestinians, thus leaving Israel under no pressure to help stabilize conditions on the ground or “to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state” as the president called for.
Bush left no doubt in the minds of Israelis and Palestinians that Israel can wait until the Palestinians act first to fulfill his demands on security and reform. Indeed, the Israeli army still holds hostage almost 1 million Palestinians under 24-hour curfew, arguing that this has proven the most effective means of stopping suicide bombings. The debilitating curfew and siege has also made it impossible to implement any significant reform measures. No wonder there’s no sign of change.
Given the importance attributed to the speech by the administration and the regional actors, one would have expected that the Americans would have translated their ideas into clear and practical steps. By placing great emphasis on leadership change before negotiations could start, Bush introduced an element of urgency for holding elections. Yet, if elections are to have the transformative effect the Bush administration seeks, many things need to happen in the next six months.
An American action plan leading to Palestinian elections—one that provides a road map and a time table with clear and simultaneous tasks for both sides—must sustain reform, rebuild the Palestinian security services and lead the peace process. In order to maintain a primary role in shaping the three, the administration needs to engage the current elected Palestinian leadership.
Since the United States asked for his removal, Arafat has become stronger. Reformers are reluctant to criticize him for fear of being associated with Israel and the United States. The U.S. belief that a coalition of moderate democrats competing against the Palestinian leader would win is nothing but an illusion. Indeed, Arafat has used the reform process to remove from operational positions strong potential candidates (and potential rivals) whom he fears are supported by Washington, such as the two security chiefs, Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. Instead of removing Arafat at the beginning of the reform process, it would be more practical to let him head up a process that would gradually undermine his authoritarianism and lead to his own marginalization.
Early this month, the Palestinian Authority (PA) embarked on a reform program, the “100-day plan,” that would, when completed, transform the face of the Authority. The plan, which addresses political, administrative, security, financial and judicial concerns, has the potential to change a dysfunctional PA into a true governing institution with financial transparency, an independent judiciary, a more effective security structure and a more powerful legislature. An official committee is working toward drafting a constitution that would transform the Palestinian political system from a presidential to a parliamentary one, creating a strong prime ministry and making the presidency ceremonial. The United States, in cooperation with the Mideast policy planning group known as the “quartet”—the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia—needs to step into this process immediately.
Those 100 days end on Oct. 13. In order to support this reform effort, the United States must be prepared to link a successful implementation of the plan with steps Israel must take—including a settlement freeze, evacuation of outposts and isolated settlements, and withdrawal to its pre-September 2000 deployment.
Its emphasis on getting rid of Arafat forces the United States to support early elections. Yet such elections raise many difficult questions that must be addressed immediately. For the candidates to have freedom of movement necessitates the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the removal of checkpoints. Fair and free elections require the participation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both regarded as terrorist organizations by the United States and Israel. As in the last elections in 1996, voter registration in Arab East Jerusalem needs full Israeli cooperation, a matter no longer certain. Free campaigning requires the cessation of Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas. Meaningful elections presume respect for their results; the United States must be prepared to deal with those who are democratically elected, even if it does not like them.
But perhaps most importantly, the timing of elections six months from now may reward those who support violence and extremism. To encourage moderation, the United States needs to present the parties with a stabilization package that provides security for Israel and a clear peace vision for the Palestinians. The package should contain three elements: the reconstruction of the Palestinian security services, a clear description of the attributes of the provisional Palestinian state and the elaboration of a detailed vision for the permanent status agreement.
In cooperation with the Palestinian leadership, America should lead the process of building, training and equipping the security services. It is not realistic to expect Egypt and Jordan, for example, to help in this endeavor, because Palestinians fear that those two countries could dominate and thus destabilize the Palestinian forces. U.S. involvement, on the other hand, would reduce Israeli concern and help protect the new security infrastructure against Israeli attacks as it is gradually rebuilt.
The provisional state for Palestinians makes no sense unless it brings significant changes to our lives. A state lacking territorial contiguity is not viable or genuine. Similarly, a state that does not enjoy significant attributes of sovereignty will be viewed with ridicule by its own people; it will be nothing but a make-believe state. The administration should make public its own ideas of how to make the state viable even if its permanent borders are to be negotiated later. In doing so, it must remember that territorial contiguity is impossible without the evacuation of outposts and settlements situated deep in Palestinian lands. It must also remember that sovereignty involves not only international diplomatic recognition, something the Palestinians already have, but also control over people, resources, borders, airspace, territorial waters and international crossing points.
Finally, an American stabilization package must affirm commitment to the 1967 borders, to equal territorial swaps and to a negotiated settlement for the refugees. It must be fair and based on international norms, and it must respect the sovereignty of Israel and Palestine.
The new U.S. Palestine policy seeks to use the process of Palestinian reform and democratization as an instrument of foreign policy. Regardless of how genuine the effort is, it is not an alternative to much-needed leadership in the peace process, leadership that tells the Palestinians when occupation will end and helps them get there. By focusing instead on regime change, the U.S. administration makes it more difficult not only to reform but also to provide security for itself and for the Israelis.