President George W. Bush’s decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Mideast represents a welcome admission that his administration’s hands-off approach to the region was a mistake.
Left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians are destined to escalate their conflict—with the only sure result that more and more people will be killed. The United States had to step in.
But merely engaging at a higher level will not be enough. What the region needs is a bold new initiative that abandons the incrementalism of the past in favor of decisive action and commitments for the future.
The situation in the region has reached a crisis point—perhaps worse than at any time since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israeli forces are systematically dismantling the political and security structures created since the Oslo Accords in 1993 opened up the prospect of final settlement. The Palestinians have formed a mass movement of terrorism, with countless 18-year-olds yearning to do nothing less than blowing themselves up and killing Israeli civilians. And many Arab leaders are confronting nearly irresistible pressure from their streets to break with the United Statesand possibly join in defense of the Palestinians.
Under these circumstances, Bush had little choice but to get engaged. The continued stability of the Mideast, America’s standing among its friends and allies around the world, and international support for the war on terrorism all were at stake.
But in sending his secretary of state in an effort to rescue any chance to revive the peace process, Bush may have done too little, too late. Though Powell has a “broad mandate,” his immediate aim is to stop the violence as part of an incremental effort to get the peace process back on track.
There is little chance Powell will succeed. The problem is no longer susceptible to the incrementalism of the Oslo process. When Oslo failed, the Mitchell plan offered confidence-building steps to get the parties back to Oslo. When Mitchell failed, a Tenet plan was devised to promote security cooperation in order to get to Mitchell. When Tenet failed, Anthony Zinni was sent on a mission to breathe life into Tenet. And now Powell is being sent to the region so we can get to Zinni in order to get to Tenet, then get to Mitchell, then on to Oslo and ultimately to a final peace.
Under current circumstances, it is not possible to condition a political process on first achieving a durable cease-fire. There are too many people—on both sides—who are bent on undermining that process through violence. The administration must accept—and so must the parties—that a political process must be conducted alongside efforts to end the violence. There will be more suicide bombers—and, inevitably, an Israeli response. But to hold a political process hostage to the absence of violence is to give the terrorists exactly what they want.
A bolder approach is needed. Of course, there are risks in being bold, as President Bill Clinton learned when he launched his Palestinian statehood gamble at Camp David two years ago and was rebuffed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Nevertheless, President Bush has no choice but to be bold. He should invite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafat and the leaders of the Arab world to attend an international peace conference that he will chair in four weeks’ time. That conference would affirm five key principles:
The unconditional condemnation of terrorism—the deliberate killing of civilians—of any kind.
A final Israeli-Palestinian settlement to be based on the Clinton parameters of December 2000, as further developed during the Taba talks in early 2001.
Agreement by Arab countries that any final settlement acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians will trigger their commitment to establish normal relations with Israel.
Deployment of a U.S.-led, international military force to implement a settlement.
An internationally funded Marshall Plan for the new Palestinian state designed to give its citizens a stake in a peaceful, prosperous future.
In order to persuade all parties to attend the conference—and accept these principles—Bush should send his two immediate predecessors (Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton) on a joint mission to the region to make clear that his proposed conference is the only way out of the crisis. By sending these two former presidents, Bush will demonstrate his political commitment to forging a durable peace in ways that are both unmistakable and impossible to criticize, be it at home or abroad.
With hundreds of tanks in Palestinian cities and thousands of youngsters ready to blow themselves up, the situation in the holy lands has reached an extremely perilous stage. Only a bold act of leadership by the president of the United States stands any chance of reversing the spiral of violence before it goes completely out of hand.