In the last week the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians
appeared to be improving. The Palestinians approved Mahmoud Abbas
as their first-ever prime minister, and he declared that terrorism
threatened to destroy the Palestinian cause — language one never
heard from Yasir Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel reiterated
his understanding that it would take painful concessions by Israel
to achieve peace, including a willingness to part with areas central
to Jewish history like Bethlehem, Shilo and Beit El. And Secretary
of State Colin Powell is on his way to Jerusalem to promote President
Bush's "road map" toward a peacefully coexisting Israel and Palestine.
But these hopeful
signs were accompanied by a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and an Israeli
incursion in Gaza, which yet again left noncombatants dead on both
sides. Then Mr. Abbas was stymied by Mr. Arafat and other Palestinian
leaders over his plans to reorganize the Palestinian security services.
And aides to Mr. Sharon said Israel was unlikely to commit to the
road map until after he meets with President Bush in a few weeks.
Are we watching
yet another brief moment of opportunity undone by Palestinian terrorism
and Israeli reprisal? Perhaps not — we are at a promising stage
because the interests of the Israelis and Palestinians have greatly
converged. But everyone involved must recognize what is possible
and what is not. These shared concerns of the leaders on both sides
only involve stopping the current Intifadah. We must focus on changes
in the near-term reality, not a lasting peace that would require
concessions neither side can make now.
knows that Israel's economic woes cannot be overcome so long as
the daily struggle with the Palestinians goes on. Nor can the Israeli
Defense Force stay in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank indefinitely.
It is not only that Israel's army, largely made up of reserves,
is being sapped in terms of manpower and morale, but also that the
Palestinians' hostility toward Israel will continue as long as they
feel the cities are under siege.
For his part,
Mr. Abbas knows that the war is a disaster for the Palestinians.
Nearly two-thirds of those in the West Bank and Gaza are living
below the poverty line. More than 2,000 have been killed; 30,000
more have been wounded. Some 580 schools have closed, as students
cannot get to them. And polls of Palestinians now show a decisive
majority favor an end to the violence.
prime minister is focused on the endgame of peacemaking right now.
Mr. Abbas has no authority to make concessions on issues like the
control of Jerusalem, borders and refugees. To gain credibility
on tackling these core questions, he has to show that he can reform
the Palestinian Authority and reduce Israeli control of Palestinian
lives. Ariel Sharon, for his part, won't consider addressing the
major issues until he knows that he has a partner who will truly
dismantle all the terrorism networks in the Palestinian areas. None
of this will happen overnight.
From this standpoint,
the road map makes sense. It speaks of three phases to peace, and
does not immediately get to trying to resolve the issues of Jerusalem,
borders and refugees until the third phase. Its weakness, however,
is that it offers an illusion of specificity, with dozens of paragraphs
of obligations for each side, but without any clear way to set in
motion the actions Palestinians and Israelis must take.
absence of clear measuring sticks for judging performance will leave
each side in a position to claim it has done what was required,
no matter the reality. For example, the Palestinians are supposed
to make arrests and dismantle terrorist groups. But how many people
should be arrested, and who are the key targets? What does the essential
terrorist network consist of, and does it include the Dawa — the
social support structure of the terrorist group Hamas?
On the Israeli
side, what is the real number of illegal settler outposts? Israel
is supposed to withdraw to its defense force positions of September
2000, but where exactly were they?
understandings between the Israelis and the Palestinians now, the
road map is likely to go the way of the Mitchell Report and the
Tenet plan before it. However, it is not just the road map that
requires these specific understandings. There also needs to be a
concrete plan on changing the immediate situation. No Israeli prime
minister — certainly not Ariel Sharon — is going to relax Israeli
controls on the Palestinians if it might lead to a new wave of suicide
bombings. And the first Palestinian prime minister is not going
to be able to sustain difficult steps against groups like Hamas,
Islamic Jihad and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah if he cannot
show his people that they are going to be able resume normal life
without border closings, sieges of cities, and Israeli checkpoints
separating their towns and villages.
The two sides
need to be clear on what each is going to do, where it is going
to do it, how it is going to do it, and when it is going to do it.
Can they come to an agreement on their own? I doubt it. From my
long experience dealing with the two sides, I know that the potential
for using the same language to mean different things existed even
in the best of times of dialogue and cooperation. Now, in a very
hostile environment, the potential to talk past each other and inadvertently
create profound misunderstandings is even greater. It is already
visible in the debate over "confronting" Hamas — with Palestinians
feeling this means persuasion, the Israelis that it means physical
must be reconciled with Palestinian capacities — and that will happen
only with American help. Mr. Powell has the best chance of success
this weekend if he puts his emphasis on near-term specifics. His
success at getting the two sides to agree on what to do now will
determine whether the road map is a genuine path toward peace or
yet another Middle Eastern cul-de-sac.
envoy to the Middle East in the Clinton Administration, is director
of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.