Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory in Israel’s election this month has left observers around the world deeply pessimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Because Mr Sharon’s name is associated internationally with war and invasion, many see his election as an Israeli vote against peace. But as Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, begins a visit to the region today, the US and its allies should stick to their conviction that the only acceptable solution is a negotiated peace.
In fact, Israel’s support for Mr Sharon was not a rejection of peace, but of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s methods of trying to achieve it, and the Palestinians’ violent response. Mr Sharon is all too aware of this. It is no accident, for example, that his first decision as prime minister-elect was to seek to form a national unity coalition. That has not changed in spite of Mr Barak’s surprise decision yesterday not to take part. The guidelines for such a coalition will likely include Mr Sharon’s commitment to honour past agreements as long as the Palestinians do the same-a far cry from his earlier declaration that “Oslo is dead, ” a reference to the 1993 interim accords.
The west should base its policy towards achieving peace in the Middle East on six points.
First, it should seek to restart peace negotiations notwithstanding the Palestinians’ deep aversion to Mr Sharon. Before Oslo, most Israelis were appalled by the notion of negotiating with Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, but they ultimately swallowed hard and agreed to do so. In fact, the Palestinians have already negotiated with Mr Sharon-when he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister during the 1998 Wye Plantation negotiations. Some of Mr Arafat’s post-election comments have been encouraging, but those of many of his colleagues have not.
Second, the west should warn Mr Sharon against unreasonable demands. The Israeli prime minister has long been an ardent “grab every hilltop” advocate of Israel’s settler movement. Pursuing this course now would end hopes for peace. Mr Sharon needs to understand that new settlement activity or renunciation of previous agreements will inevitably lead to the international isolation Israel has worked so hard to overcome since Oslo.
Third, the west should support Mr Sharon’s reasonable security demands. These include insisting on an end to Palestinian violence-or at least that Mr Arafat make serious efforts to stop it-before negotiations resume. The west should also support Mr Sharon’s refusal to contemplate a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel, which would undermine Israel’s viability as a state. Financial compensation and settlement in a new Palestine are better approaches to the refugee issue.
Fourth, the US and its allies should expand their co-operation in the persuit of peace. In exchange for Mr Sharon’s commitment to abide by past agreements and work towards the foundation of a viable Palestinian state, Europe should use its influence with the Palestinians to encourage them to eschew violence and pursue reasonable compromise. While Washington has long been wary of giving the European Union any formal role in the peace process, US-EU co-ordination will become essential as the process enters an uncertain phase.
Fifth, the west must encourage moderate Arab regimes to maintain relations with Israel and resist the temptation to return to the days of diplomatic isolation and trade boycotts. The Arab Summit in Amman at the end of March will be critical in this regard. Syria, in particular, should understand that Western support for its internal reform efforts will require Damascus to end its inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric. Hostile regimes such as Iran and Iraq should know that their isolation will continue if they encourage terrorism and violence. Turkey, perhaps the only regional power with credibility among both Israelis and Palestinians, can continue to play the useful go-between role it established last year.
Last, the west should lower expectations. A comprehensive peace deal is unlikely given the wide gap on so many issues and Palestinian expectations that Mr Sharon will not be in office for long. Interim solutions involving limited Israeli withdrawal-designed to enhance Israeli security by reducing points of friction with the Palestinian population-might be the most that can be hoped for in the short term.
It would be too much to suggest a Sharon victory will bring peace. But it is also wrong to assume that it must mean the end of the peace efforts. At least with Mr Sharon, Palestinians know that more violence will not mean more concessions. In turn, if Mr Sharon realises that only a viable Palestinian state and measures to reduce Palestinian resentment can bring an ultimate end to this conflict, his election need not mark a turn for the worse.