As George W. Bush’s administration ponders its next step in the Middle East—due to be outlined in a speech by Mr Bush—it should remember that a negotiated settlement is the only answer to violence and radicalism.
Waiting for violence to stop before pushing the parties into serious negotiations would only reward, and thus accelerate, violence. It would also encourage both sides to adopt unilateral measures. The suicide attacks in Jerusalem last week show that Israel’s April reoccupation of West Bank has done little, if anything, to reduce violence.
Palestinians who continue with violence hope to force Israel into unilateral withdrawal—a “separation” on which Ariel Sharon’s government has already embarked by building the new “Israel Wall” along its borders with Palestinian territories. Israelis who deny the right of the Palestinians to independence in their own state fear negotiations in just the same way.
A peace strategy articulated by the US and fully supported by Europe has a much better chance of ending violence than building walls and imposing sieges. This strategy should proceed simultaneously with three processes: improving security, building peace, and creating strong and efficient Palestinian state institutions. Without it, the prospect of an end to violence is slim; and demands for Palestinian political reform are likely to be ignored.
In the absence of a political process, the idea that violence pays has taken root in the consciousness of both leaders and people on both sides. The two peoples no longer define victory in terms of what benefits violence brings them, but what damage, pain and suffering they can inflict on the other side. This highly disturbing development means they are willing to sustain conflict for a long time, as long as the other side is bleeding.
Even more significantly, the two sides are approaching the level of political paralysis. On the Palestinian side, a number of developments have weakened Yassir Arafat’s ability to manage the crisis with Israel and have led to public questioning of the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.
These developments include the emergence of a young guard that wants political reform and the end of Israeli occupation through violence; the formation of a temporary alliance between this young guard and radical Islamists; the success of the Israeli military in damaging the civil and security infrastructure of the Authority; and the inability of the already highly inefficient Authority to deliver much-needed services.
This has led to a dramatic rise in the level of violence, and the granting to Islamists of a veto power in Palestinian politics—the first time this has happened since the Palestinian national movement emerged. The time could soon come when Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will indeed become “irrelevant”, as radical nationalist-Islamist militia control the streets of Palestinian cities.
On the Israeli side, even as he sends tanks and helicopters to attack Palestinian cities, Mr Sharon finds himself defending his position against more radical rightwing elements in his own party. They can always threaten to bring him and his government down even if his coalition partners on the left continue to support him. His fear of being ousted by his own party sets limits on how far to the “left” he can go; and increasingly pushes him to adopt more radical means to put an end to Palestinian violence.
Each time a threshold is crossed, the rightwing’s demand for more unequivocal military victories leads to an escalation in violence. Israel could soon find itself in full and long-term re- occupation of the West Bank. Under such conditions, the Labour party might leave the coalition, leading to new elections. But elections held in the aftermath of such violence may increase the dominance of the right. In such circumstances, ideas such as transferring Palestinians to Jordan could gain respectability. The stability of Jordan’s monarchy could be put in jeopardy.
But even in this grim situation there is room for optimism and manoeuvre. Even if both political leaders are under extreme political pressure, there is still the possibility of public support for a negotiated outcome. It is true that the man in the street is falling victim to a creeping radicalisation. But it is also true that two-thirds of Palestinians and close to 60 per cent of Israelis support the Saudi Arabian peace initiative based on two states, a return to the pre-1967 borders and full normalisation of relations.
The US can break the cycle of violence and help to embolden the leaders of both sides to take risks. A US strategy aimed at stabilising Arab-Israeli relations, providing a clear and comprehensive vision for a lasting peace and reconstituting the Palestinian political system could succeed. But it would require a determined US leadership that did not waver in the face of domestic concerns or resistance from those in the region.
In order to stabilise relations, a number of changes would be needed. Security would have to be improved and a geographically contiguous Palestinian state with sovereign powers established. Israeli settlements that impeded such geographic contiguity would have to be evacuated. At the same time, confidence-building measures that demonstrate a commitment to peace would be needed from Arab states.
The peace-building process would take the Saudi initiative as a point of departure and would build on the achievements of the Camp David summit and the subsequent negotiations at Taba. Meanwhile, constitutional reforms would be required to build a strong and efficient Palestinian political system. Elections could be held when each of these processes is complete to put in place a Palestinian parliament and a strong prime minister.
The US, Europe and other countries would have to supervise all three processes, perhaps within the context of a peace conference. Only a bold and comprehensive US strategy can restore life to dying confidence in the peace process. A less ambitious strategy, one that only promises incremental change, is likely to find few takers and restore little or no confidence.