How to Rekindle the Peace Process

By Marwan Muasher

Friday, August 2, 2002

Two weeks ago I and two colleagues, foreign ministers Ahmed Maher of Egypt and Saud Faisal of Saudi Arabia, had a series of candid discussions with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as senior officials of the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The focus was on achieving both short- and long-term progress in the moribund peace process. As Arab diplomats representing countries that have either signed peace treaties with Israel or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, successfully advanced a viable framework for comprehensive peace in the region, we were heartened to hear President Bush reaffirm his personal commitment to a two-state solution.

The president was quite clear on this point. He is not backing an interim arrangement. He is not espousing a series of protracted negotiations with no clear definition or endgame. Moreover, he stressed the critical importance of a timeline -- within three years -- as a means of offering a real sense of hope to the beleaguered Palestinian and Israeli peoples.

Our discussions were significant in another regard. We agreed that our differing opinions on the fate of the democratically elected Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, should not deter us from working together on other aspects of the peace process and from pushing ahead toward achievable objectives. One such objective, on which we briefed senior administration officials, was the ongoing, high-level, intensive cease-fire negotiations with all Palestinian factions.

On the day that the leadership of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, confirmed that these talks were in fact serious, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the assassination of Hamas's military chief, Salah Shehada. The one-ton bomb claimed not only 15 innocent civilian lives but the fragile optimism that was born of our discussions in New York and Washington. In the Arab world, the attack was viewed as compelling evidence that without sustained and active American leadership, the situation on the ground will continue to deteriorate. Palestinian elections will be impossible to carry out, the current humanitarian crisis will turn catastrophic, and neither population will live with any real sense of security or hope for the future.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, during talks in Washington this week, outlined his proposals for the next logical step following the president's vision. He emphasized the need for a plan of action with three major components: a set of obligations to be fulfilled by both sides, acting in parallel; a timeline for reaching these goals; and a monitoring mechanism to guarantee enforcement, no matter which party is in violation.

As natural allies of the president's efforts to move the region toward peace and away from mutual assured destruction, both populations should be made aware of the plan. The two peoples must be constantly engaged to ensure that the tragedy of the past two years does not repeat itself. For the Palestinians, with nearly one million people living under military curfew and 70 percent below the poverty level, such a plan offers what President Bush's vision hopes to achieve: a clear path toward ending the occupation, and an alternative to the horrific agenda of those espousing suicide attacks.

For the Israelis, the plan would include the historic commitment of 22 Arab states to end the conflict, and a real sense of security, provided by the whole Arab world, something no amount of of electric fencing or Israeli military occupation could ever guarantee. The Arab initiative put forth at the Beirut Summit in March offers comprehensive peace in the region based on the internationally recognized formulation of "land for peace" -- a return to June 4, 1967, borders in exchange for normal relations and a collective peace treaty.

While the initiative's significance cannot be overstated, it is just the most visible element of more than six months of active Arab diplomacy. The Bush administration called on us to engage, and we have. I credit the administration with shifting from a purely security focus, one centered on implementation of the Tenet work plan and Mitchell report, to a more panoramic vision of the endgame. The Palestinians have also mapped out a pragmatic approach to final status negotiations, one that includes their most flexible position to date on the right of return of refugees.

Quite frankly, the one missing element is Israeli willingness to negotiate seriously and in good faith. Israel has not presented a credible plan that could realistically address even the most fundamental of Palestinian positions. Instead, for more than 22 months, the timing of Israeli assassinations and incursions has unerringly derailed whatever tenuous negotiations were underway. To be fair, so have suicide bombings. We continue to condemn these bombings as morally and politically wrong. But the only response we receive from the Israeli side is seizure of Palestinian land, deliberate delays to vital humanitarian relief efforts and promises -- not of a return to negotiations but of more such actions.

None of these draconian measures has dramatically improved Israeli security. Senior Israeli defense officials have determined that a political solution is the only viable means of achieving lasting security. The impending humanitarian catastrophe in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will only fuel Arab anger, deepen Palestinian despair and disgrace the Israeli government. Israeli political leadership has, until very, recently, failed to respond to repeated calls from the international community to avert this tragedy. Security cannot be used as the pretext for depriving millions of food and medical services. In doing so, Israel is in clear violation of several international conventions that pertain to the delivery of humanitarian aid to populations living under military occupation.

The peace process should be strong enough to guarantee children under the age of 5 a life free of malnutrition. It should guarantee that they can board a bus for school without fear. It should guarantee them a future of economic and political opportunity. Today, sadly, it cannot.

The EU, the United Nations and the Arab world have heeded President Bush's call for international cooperation to restore momentum to the process and, by doing so, infuse the region with some measure of confidence in the future. We have gone as far as we possibly can without strong American leadership. Now it is time for President Bush to join us in pressing ahead. Only then can we expect Prime Minister Sharon to participate in a constructive manner. Otherwise, we are left without a peace partner and without the possibility of achieving President Bush's vision.

The writer is foreign minister of Jordan.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company