With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the Palestinian prime
minister, Mahmoud Abbas, each heading to the White House in the
next few days, optimism is in the air. After all, we have an American
president eager to prove that the war in Iraq can lead to an Israeli-Palestinian
agreement, a right-wing Israeli leader who supports the establishment
of a Palestinian state, and a Palestinian prime minister who is
against the armed intifada. Also, the terrorists are holding their
fire for the time being, and both sides have committed to Mr. Bush's
"road map" to peace.
situation, though, is far more complex and fragile. The quiet in
the territories depends totally on the extremist Islamic groups,
which have agreed only to a temporary cease-fire. Mr. Abbas, who
is a prime minister without a state, lacks real control over the
Palestinian security forces and has Yasir Arafat breathing down
the acceptance of the road map by Israel and the Palestinians may
be misleading. In recent years both parties have preferred "yes,
but" responses to new initiatives rather than the traditional "no,
but" ones. They have welcomed every new plan — the Mitchell report,
the Tenet plan, the Zinni ideas, the Jordanian-Egyptian outline,
the Saudi initiative — but none was ever acted on. The problem with
all these proposals was that no real efforts were made to explore
ways to bridge the two sides' conflicting needs.
job will be to sell a formula that would enable both leaders to
continue the first phase of the road map (the cessation of terrorism
and the crackdown on settlements that have been established since
the Sharon government came to power in 2001) while ensuring that
we make progress on the second phase, the creation of a temporary
Palestinian entity with provisional boundaries, and then the third,
a permanent state for the Palestinians with security for Israel,
by the end of 2005.
It won't be
easy. Mr. Sharon is really interested only in the second phase of
the road map — the interim Palestinian state — while Mr. Abbas is
interested only in the third, which will give him a viable nation
and put an end to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
wants to get to the second part of the road map quickly because
creating a Palestinian entity covering about half of the West Bank
would solve for him a huge demographic problem — as things stand
now, in seven years the Israeli government will rule over a larger
number of Palestinians than Jews — while leaving Israel a considerable
part of the territories it captured in 1967.
He has far
less interest, however, in relinquishing the rest of the territories,
as would be required in the third phase. Undoubtedly, he would prefer
if the settlement controversy stalled the road map, keeping the
embittered Palestinians perpetually in a small, economically emaciated
state with no capital or claim on Jerusalem.
for his part, is wary of falling into Mr. Sharon's trap and would
love to skip the second stage altogether. He fears that if the Palestinians
are given a rump state, their conflict with Israel would be transformed
from an uprising of global importance into a run-of-the-mill border
skirmish, and that international impetus toward completing the third
stage would wane.
Bush needs to propose a new way forward that will take into account
these two leaders' different desires, abilities and fears. For one
thing, while each side's demands concerning removing the Israeli
settlements and dismantling the Palestinian terrorist groups are
essential, I see no reason that the completion of these efforts
has to be a prerequisite for beginning negotiations toward the interim
Palestinian state. As long as the United States feels progress is
being made by both sides, why not start talking about Stage 2? As
for the two sides' contradictory interests concerning the second
and third parts of the road map, Mr. Bush needs to make two relatively
simple pledges. Mr. Sharon needs to go back to Israel knowing that
if he goes along with dismantling the settlements and the interim
agreement, America will not try to dictate to Israel the final shape
and status of the Palestinian state. Those must come from negotiations
between Israel and the Palestinians.
For his part,
Mr. Abbas needs to be certain that if Mr. Sharon tries to drag his
feet on final-status talks in hopes that the interim agreement will
become a de facto permanent solution, Washington will accept a decision
by the Palestinian government to dismantle its state on Dec. 31,
2005, or any time thereafter. This is the Palestinians' trump card
— the ability to make the process start over, burdening Israel again
with its demographic problem, if the Israelis don't honor their
part of the bargain.
Fair and transparent
promises from Mr. Bush on these two fronts could transform the road
map from a piece of paper (that both sides accepted largely to appease
the United States) into a document that could resolve the most protracted
international conflict of our time.