Get to Peace by Putting Politics First
The Observer Online, 14 April 2002
The massive Israeli military assault on the West Bank may crush the intifada for now, but will never deliver the security and peace the Israeli people so desperately want. The horrifying campaign of suicide bombings by young Palestinians has enraged and frightened Israel, but will never give the Palestinians the security and dignity of their own state. The United States, trying to secure a ceasefire, is not focusing on how to translate this into political re-engagement. Those Europeans calling for sanctions against Israel are falling into the trap of knee jerk responses. All these are short-term responses that will do little for long-term peace.
If the international community continues to think and act incrementally - somehow get a ceasefire, then build trust, then come to the hard political issues last - failure will be inevitable. With all-out war now the backdrop, and mutual hatred so intense, that approach can't work. Initiatives that once might have been capable of stabilizing the situation - including the recommendations of the Mitchell Report - have become increasingly detached from the realities on the ground.
The current approach must be turned on its head. Of course every possible diplomatic effort has to continue to be made to stop the current violence, but an immediate effort must also be made to give weight and substance to the political track. While it was encouraging this week to see the Madrid Quartet (US, EU, Russia, UN) saying that there was "no military solution to the conflict", and calling on all sides to "move towards a political resolution of the conflict", a good deal more than rhetoric is going to have to be delivered by the international community if that movement is to occur.
What is necessary to achieve a real and lasting ceasefire, and to build upon it a real and lasting peace, is for the parties to see now laid out on the table by the international community the terms of a political settlement fair to each of them, and to know that there is massive international backing for that plan. The key international players, led by the US, have to cut directly to the main issues, identify in detail what terms would consitute a just and comprehensive final settlement, put maximum pressure on both sides to accept the principles and negotiate the final terms of that settlement, and put in place machinery that will make it all stick.
The US, EU, Russia and UN Secretary General - supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - should be the group through whom that settlement plan is developed, and delivered to the parties. This "Contact Group", not unlike the one established to end the war in Bosnia, would also put in place at the appropriate stage further machinery, including an Implementation and Verification Group - an on-the-ground international monitoring presence - to consolidate and advance the process.
The outlines of the kind of single negotiating text that is required are clear. Such a document would be a composite of the Abdullah initiative principles endorsed by the Arab League in Beirut in March 2002 and an extension of the positions - extraordinarily close - that were actually reached by the negotiating parties at Taba in January 2001. The main substantive provisions would be along the following lines:
- Two states, Israel and Palestine, would live side-by-side, in accordance with pre-1967 borders, with Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and most of the West Bank, and land-swaps of equal size enabling Israel to incorporate most of its West Bank settlers;
- Palestine's capital would be the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, with Israel's capital in West Jerusalem and the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem;
- Palestine would govern the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) and Israel would govern the Kotel (Wailing Wall); there would be firm internationally-backed guarantees regarding excavation, building, security and preservation of antiquities at these holy sites;
- Palestine would be non-militarised, and a U.S.-led international force would provide security to both states;
- The refugee issue would be resolved in a way that addresses the Palestinians' deep sense of injustice without upsetting Israel's demographic balance through the mass return of refugees. The solution here might include not only financial compensation, and the choice of resettlement in Palestine or third countries, but an option to return to that part of the present Israel which would be swapped for territory on the West Bank.
Of course in the present environment it is simply impossible to think that the present Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, left to themselves, could negotiate any such deal. But the dynamics would be completely different if it's basic terms were agreed by the US and EU, supported by Russia and the key Arab states (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and the UN Secretary General. That kind of backing for a specific plan - particularly if the key Arab states were prepared to be vocal and public - would put huge pressure on, and at the same time provide cover for, the Palestinian leadership. US commitment to a specific plan - not just support for a process to produce one - would also place huge pressure on the Israeli political leadership: while the present Government could be expected to be hostile, there is every prospect of a new internal political dynamic being created by an international initiative of the kind proposed.
With the political plan on the table, the immediate next step would be for Israel and the Palestinians to be pressured to implement a real and lasting ceasefire, on which both sides can confidently rely. This will be extremely difficult to achieve, but not as difficult as the task in the absence of any such blueprint. Knowing that the international community will press for a fair and comprehensive deal, Palestinian militants will have an incentive to end the violence and the Palestinian leadership will have added leverage and legitimacy to compel them to do so. And genuine efforts by the Palestinians to restore security will make it much more likely that the Israeli public will in turn accept the difficult compromises entailed by any fair final deal.
The third step would be for an on-the-ground, Implementation and Verification Group to be dispatched to help sustain the ceasefire, verify its implementation, register complaints and resolve local disputes. To be effective, it would need to have direct ties to the Contact Group (which would be simultaneously pushing to conclude the detailed end-of-conflict settlement negotiations), and be empowered, with the support of both sides, with more than enough specific authority to carry out its responsibilities. The mandate, role and size of the Group would need to evolve as the whole settlement process moved forward. This is all a hugely ambitious agenda, but the new report issued last week by the International Crisis Group (which can be read at http://www.crisisweb.org/) shows how all the pieces might come together.
What is needed above all else is, as always, the necessary injection of political will, particularly by the United States. The European states are extremely important element in the equation, and should - starting with this week's ministerial council in Luxembourg - take the initiative to get the political process moving if Washington won't.
Internationalisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer an option: it is a fact. Regional players are fueling the conflict by providing support for radical groups, and the conflict is exacerbating instability well beyond its borders. Playing the incremental game - focusing on a cease-fire, rebuilding trust, and reaching partial agreements - will not end the violence. The vicious cycle of terror and military attacks can only be broken by a fair and comprehensive end-of-conflict political agreement returning to centre stage. And it can only get back to centre stage if the international community puts it there.