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A Promising Start

Author: Scott B. Lasenksy
June 8, 2003
The San Diego Union-Tribune


President Bush should be applauded for demonstrating his personal commitment to the Middle East peace process by traveling to the region last week and meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders. These bold steps are not without risks, and the president needs to be praised for taking such dramatic action. Not only is American leadership essential if there is ever to be a negotiated settlement, but the president's own personal engagement (which was painfully absent for 2-1/2 years) is absolutely critical.

While the president failed to produce a cease-fire – which remains the central imperative for progress – and came away with "deliverables" that were more symbolic than substantive, the White House does deserve credit for bringing the parties together and injecting new life into a frozen process.

As the president tries to "ride herd" and move the parties toward the two-state solution outlined in the road map peace initiative, U.S. policy must adhere to the following essential principles. Otherwise, the process may never lead to a negotiated settlement that assures Israel's security and identity and also guarantees a viable Palestinian state.

First, a permanent, negotiated settlement can only be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed exchanges of territory. This is the same formula that established peace between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Furthermore, there can be no sustainable solution without meaningful Palestinian territorial contiguity. The president articulated (however inelegantly) the latter point during the summit meetings, but the larger principle still lacks a clear American endorsement.

In order to realize the president's vision of "two states, living side by side in peace and security," any solution of the Palestinian refugee problem must be acceptable to Israel. On this score, most Americans understand why Israel is demanding that Palestinians relinquish their claim to return to pre-1967 Israel. This core trade-off – between territory and refugees – is inescapable if the objective remains protecting Israel's security and its identity while at the same time ensuring the viability of a future Palestinian state. Explicitly stating this formula and incorporating it in the president's vision would build greater confidence in the process.

Second, the United States should not allow extremist violence to delay or derail the process. Terrorists are likely to use violence to hijack the road map, and therefore the United States must find ways to help each side remain steadfast. Moreover, the administration must do more to encourage influential neighboring states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to do everything in their power to promote intra-Palestinian efforts to reach a cease-fire.

If Abu Mazen can bring Palestinian violence to a halt (a big "if" now that Hamas is threatening to pull out of cease-fire talks), and demonstrate to the United States that his government is exerting a 100 percent effort toward this goal, only then can the process move forward. But a cease-fire would eventually need to be followed by full disarmament of Palestinian terrorists and the rejectionist factions. Putting off disarmament may be the price for building quick momentum for the road map, but down the line the process will fail if armed groups are left intact and are allowed to challenge Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority.

Third, the road map's stated goal of "an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel" is inconsistent with continued expansion of Israeli settlements. An immediate end to Israeli settlement activity is a sine qua non. Without such action, the road map will fail.

At the Aqaba summit, Ariel Sharon committed to "immediately begin" dismantling illegal outposts (i.e. settlements built since 2001 without Israeli government approval). Sharon's pledge, however modest, is a promising step. But if the past is prologue, Sharon is likely to drag his feet – which is why the administration has to continue to press Israel on the settlement issue. Furthermore, if Sharon does not implement a verifiable and complete settlement freeze (as called for in the road map) it would be an unambiguous sign that he is not committed to President Bush's vision.

Fourth, the United States must make clear that the objective of the road map, in fact the objective of any process, is finality and achieving a solution that is both sustainable and enduring. Continued Israeli settlement activity or long-term Israeli control over large parts of Palestinian territory will only breed continued conflict. Just the same, continued Palestinian terrorism and demands for a "right of return" to Israel will never lead to an enduring settlement. It is essential for the United States to keep the parties focused on a sustainable settlement, and to identify roadblocks put up by either side.

Without addressing all of these points, there can be no realistic, attainable end-game that embodies the kind of historic compromise essential for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Bush administration needs to articulate these essential principles and signal at the outset of the road map process that there are no other options.

How can these essential principles be translated into policy?

As the president continues his push for a renewed peace process, he should steal a page from the playbook of earlier presidents, like Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton, who understood that inducement-based diplomatic strategies are the most effective. For more than three decades, the United States has relied on positive inducements to advance Arab-Israeli peace negotiations – at times attaching clear conditionality to political, security and economic incentives. The president should continue this approach and use the provision of security guarantees, political assurances and financial assistance to prod both sides to move forward in the road map process.

This also means the United States must be more effective in persuading Europe and the Arab League to attach stricter conditionality to their aid to the Palestinians – much of which has been misdirected over the years. It also means that Washington may need to use more explicit conditionality with new aid to Israel. The stakes are certainly high. Abu Mazen's prospects for remaining in power and cementing the leadership transformation that President Bush himself called for last summer are contingent on progress with the road map.

If the president is resolute and unwavering on the principles outlined above, then both sides may be discouraged from positions and measures they might otherwise take that would foreclose any possible negotiated settlement.

In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, with the rise of Abu Mazen as the first Palestinian prime minister, the release of the road map and its endorsement by the parties, and the renewal of contacts between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a revived Arab-Israeli peace process appears more likely than at anytime since President Clinton left office. The United States can no longer afford to be disengaged. President Bush understands that a revived peace process is indispensable as America embarks on the monumental, long-term challenge of reconstruction and stability in Iraq. U.S. security is at stake in the Middle East as never before and America cannot afford to allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to intensify.

It is the president's leadership that has given the road map the initial traction previous initiatives were unable to achieve. If this approach succeeds in ending violence and setting the parties on a course that will lead to negotiated agreement it will be a historic achievement, one that will have major bearing on America's efforts to make the region and the world a safer place. But if the president takes too much satisfaction from last week's meeting, and fails to convert the powerful images and statements into concrete actions, then Americans should brace themselves for further instability and violence in the Middle East.

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