This is not the way things were supposed to turn out. In the wake of Sept. 11, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was meant to accede to Washington's plea and avoid escalatory actions against the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was to distance himself from more radical
Palestinian forces and end the uprising.
Israel and the United States were to form a united front against terror. And the administration was to launch its long-awaited initiative— a concrete effort on the ground to address today's crisis, coupled with a visionary statement to help create tomorrow's hope.
Six weeks later, everything in this picture looks wrong. Israel has launched its most comprehensive attack against Palestinian-controlled areas, leading some to wonder whether Sharon is seeking to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and rid himself of Arafat. Palestinians have crossed yet another red line, assassinating a member of the Israeli Cabinet.
The United States' relationship with Israel is in turmoil, its capacity to influence Arafat in doubt and its so-called peace initiative again waiting for better days. All this at a time when the U.S. was hoping to quell Middle Eastern flames to keep the focus on things Afghan.
How is one to explain this bleak turn of events? The breakdown in trust between the parties undoubtedly played its part, but it takes us only so far.
As important as what has happened between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is what has happened within them.
For Palestinians, the redrawing of the political landscape is dramatic. Little by little, the governing political rhetoric is ceasing to be diplomatic negotiations and is shifting to outright anti-colonial warfare; the dominant motif is turning from Arafat's extended hand on the White House lawn to Hezbollah's raised fist in southern Lebanon.
The external war against Israel conceals an internal struggle among Palestinians; with each Israeli incursion and killing, the ability of the traditional Palestinian leadership to take control of the young rebels on the street— an odd assortment of radical nationalists and Islamists— grows weaker.
Important shifts also can be seen on the Israeli side. As faith recedes in the possibility that Palestinians will accept any compromise, the predominant impulse becomes military, the overriding instinct that of survival, the central
historical analogy the 1948 War of Independence.
The views of those in the security establishment who see in the Palestinian Authority an enemy rather than a potential partner are in ascendance.
Israelis increasingly think of the day after Arafat with anticipation— rather than with fear. Some would not mind hastening it.
The political vacuum caused by the collapse of the Oslo paradigm, by the Palestinian uprising and by Israel's heavy-handed response has cleared the path for the resuscitation of old folk tales on both sides: that the Palestinians can forcibly expel Israelis or that Israel can unilaterally impose its own solution; that there is a military answer— and that all it will require is a little more firepower, a little less diplomacy, a trifle more backbone.
On both sides, there is an unhealthy closing of the ranks; from both, a growing sense that this is not a conflict to be ended but rather to be won.
A sinister feeling has come over the Middle East. In a land known for the unintended consequences of seemingly logical acts, both Palestinians and Israelis risk ending up the victims of this tragic game. The former by losing their national and political institutions; the latter by inheriting a political adversary— both more militant and less controllable— under the banner of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
There still is time to arrest this cycle and resume efforts to end the conflict. Arafat has an interest in the Palestinian Authority's (and his own) survival; Sharon, in bringing some measure of security and in maintaining the Labor Party in his coalition; both, in remaining in Washington's good graces. But that time is fast running out, and the consequences of failure are profound and largely underestimated.
Success will require a trait that has been sorely missing: genuine leadership on both sides. Diminishing but still sizable majorities of Israelis and Palestinians continue to yearn for a negotiated solution, yet they need to be reminded of what peace ultimately must look like and how they will get there. That is a compass the U.S. alone can provide with a visionary statement about the future and a sustained diplomatic presence on the ground.
At stake is not only the immediate future of the peace process but its long-term survival and the nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations. At stake is whether the historical aberration will be deemed to have been today's ominous violence or yesterday's promising Oslo process.
Robert Malley is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former special assistant to President Clinton for, Arab-Israeli affairs.