Discarding Blinders in the Middle East

The Washington Post

The quest for peace in the Middle East never exhausts its incongruities.

On the same weekend that an overwhelming majority of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own Likud party voted against his plan to withdraw all Israeli settlements in Gaza and four on the West Bank, Yasser Arafat, in an appeal to the European Union, denounced the withdrawal as "the death of the peace process." President Bush's endorsement of the idea that some Israeli settlements could remain on the West Bank as part of an ultimate resolution and that Palestinian refugees seeking to return should be settled in the projected Palestinian state, not in Israel, suffered a similar fate.

Widely condemned as preempting negotiations, Sharon's plan moved 52 retired British diplomats to protest in an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, charging "an abandonment of principle." Sixty retired U.S. foreign service officers filed a similar protest.

There is no little irony here. The charge of preempting negotiations comes largely from quarters that have been denouncing U.S. diplomatic passivity and have insisted that the United States oblige Israel to adopt a detailed program that includes return to the 1967 borders, the partition of Jerusalem and an undefined formula on refugees – all this in return for recognition of Israel by the Arab states and some sort of guarantees by the international community. Yet the real issue is not the influence of outside powers on the peace process but its nature and timing. The U.S. position seeks to liberate the peace process from the blinders of its preconceptions by establishing parameters whose details are then negotiated by the parties. Its European and domestic critics concentrate on starting a peace process and then imposing their preferred solution when the inevitable deadlock occurs.

However counterintuitive it may appear to conventional wisdom, I believe that the U.S. position, by making explicit what has been an implicit theme of diplomacy for decades, creates the opportunity for significant progress. The peace process has been deadlocked by the refusal to face the root reality that any settlement would not return to the 1967 lines, which were never an international border but the cease-fire positions at the end of the 1948-49 war. U.N. Resolution 242 of 1967 spoke of a return of occupied territories, not of "the" occupied territories. Though Arab spokesmen have never accepted that interpretation, U.S. policy going back to the Rogers plan of 1969 has avowed the need for adjustments in the cease-fire lines. In his last week in office, President Clinton detailed his interpretation of these adjustments, labeling his proposal as "personal."

President Bush has removed all ambiguity about what everybody knew but has been reluctant to express. But he not only accepted a change in the dividing line; he also limited the extent of the change. The settlement blocs accepted by U.S. policy are those discussed by the parties at Camp David in 2000 and during related negotiations in Taba, comprising some 5 percent of West Bank territory in the context of Israel's yielding to the projected Palestinian state a comparable amount of its current territory. To imply that the United States sabotages negotiations by defining the parameters of the possible is to put slogans above substance. A lasting settlement will come about only if each party recognizes the minimum necessities of the other: security for Israel, dignity for the Arab side.

The standard position held by the European Union and many American Middle East experts does not meet these necessities. To return to the 1967 borders and to abandon all settlements would require so massive a renunciation of fundamental convictions as to shake the psychological basis of the Jewish state. No Israeli prime minister or chief of staff since the 1967 war has wavered from the view that the long-term security of Israel was incompatible with a return to the 1967 frontiers. The abandonment of even settlements clearly buffering vulnerable frontiers would turn Israel into the equivalent of a protectorate, dependent for its defense on guarantees by countries whose leaders could not be relied on to understand the nuances of Israel's security and on the sentiments of a public reluctant to sustain major sacrifices on behalf of Israel's security. Such an imposed settlement, far from having the moderating effect on the Muslim world claimed by its advocates, would more likely be viewed by militants as a first step on the road to eliminating the Jewish state altogether.

In the effort to liberate the negotiating process from its blinders, U.S. policy has also sought to break the deadlock over the right of return of Palestinian refugees. No Palestinian leader has ever been – or is likely to be – in a position formally to renounce a return of Palestinians to territory they consider their homeland. No Israeli leader can ever ask for less, since a massive return of diaspora Palestinians would be equivalent to the destruction of the Jewish state. The U.S. proposal has sought to bridge this gap; Sharon abandoned the formal Israeli demand for renunciation of the Palestinians' right of return in exchange for a promise by the United States to use its influence to confine the return of refugees to the territory of the proposed Palestinian state.

Another reason for the hostile reaction is a general distrust of Sharon based on his long advocacy of extending Jewish settlements and his harsh interpretation of Israeli security requirements. In this light, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is interpreted as part of Sharon's lifelong campaign to further Israeli expansion on the West Bank and to manipulate negotiations so that any eventual Palestinian state is confined to a series of non-contiguous enclaves.

The United States, by declaring an end to illusions on substance, makes possible as well a reconsideration of the role of the Israeli prime minister in the peace process. Sharon is now 75 years old. He cannot be oblivious to the hostility not simply of the Muslim countries but of European and most other public opinions. If Israel remains in occupation of the West Bank, even if it allows a series of Arab enclaves, it will be overwhelmed by demographic trends. Palestinians would, within a measurable time, become a majority of the population in Israel. They would transform the Israeli state by an electoral process.

Perhaps Sharon sees that his last service to the country that he helped shape, and that he has defended with such dedication and ferocity, is a settlement that, while extremely painful, preserves the essence of Israel's security and prevents its total isolation. Implementing the spirit of the understandings with the president is a necessity for maintaining a long-term relationship with the United States, and Sharon knows it. It is the best explanation for his daring to risk a split in his governing party.

Obviously, U.S. Middle East policy cannot be based on speculation about the motives of an allied leader. U.S. diplomacy will have to pursue the principles to which Sharon committed himself in Washington, even if this interpretation of his motives proves incorrect or if he is prevented by Israeli domestic politics from carrying them out. Our overall Middle East position requires a significant diplomatic initiative to achieve the full implications of the Washington understandings with Sharon. In pursuit of that strategy, the United States needs to be in contact with all parties, including the Palestinians. But it must avoid being tempted into multiplying assurances that could cancel themselves out.

At the same time, the Muslim world and especially the Arab countries must assume their own responsibilities. Foremost among them is to overcome radical elements that see in any Israeli withdrawal a capitulation to violence and a stage in the step-by-step elimination of the Jewish state. Public opinion – especially outside the United States – judges harshly the tough measures by which Israel seeks to protect itself against suicide bombers. But it shows far too little understanding for the deep yearning for peace on the part of Israelis who have lived unrecognized by their Arab neighbors for most of their history and who daily read in Arab publications and see on Arab television fervent exhortations to destroy Israel. A change of official propaganda would be an important Arab contribution to the peace process. Finally, the Palestinians cannot insist on an outcome to which their sole contribution is the recognition of the Jewish state without any other sacrifice. In normal relations between states, mutual recognition is not a prize; it is where foreign policy begins, not where it ends.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will force the central issue: whether it is possible for a peaceful, progressive and productive Palestinian entity not dominated by a foreign power to be established in the vacuum left by Israeli withdrawal. Such a step, more than any negotiating formula, would bring home to the region the opportunities of peaceful coexistence. The moderate Arabs states have an important role in contributing resources and legitimizing the sacrifices required for peace.

A contribution by the European Union is equally important. For decades our European allies have concentrated on hortatory declarations in support of the maximum Palestinian program – an approach that is either unachievable or, if implemented, undermines Israel's long-term security. The major thrust of their policy has been to induce the United States to impose their preferred solution and to use their diplomacy to appeal to the Arab street.

In the process they have unintentionally fostered the stalemate in diplomacy. If Europe were to support, among Arab states, the need for a flexible program, the possibilities of a breakthrough would be greatly enhanced.

U.S. diplomacy, therefore, has three tasks: to carry through on the implications of the negotiating position outlined by the president; to seek to enlist the European allies to help promote such an outcome in the Arab world; and to induce a group of moderate Arab states to assume some responsibility for negotiations and implementation on the Arab side.

In regard to this negotiating process, another look should be taken at the Israeli territorial compensation to the projected Palestinian state for those Israeli settlements that remain. Heretofore the assumption has been that Israel would cede some territory in the desert – the Negev in the south. A more thoughtful approach would be to cede land populated by Palestinians close to the 1967 dividing line. In this manner, the dividing line would more closely follow demographic realities.

Such an approach would have to overcome initial resistance on both sides. Israel might be reluctant to establish the principle that Arab communities now in Israel should live henceforth in a Palestinian state. The Israeli Palestinians would be reluctant to accept the lower standard of living – at least initially – of the Palestinian state separated from a more prosperous Israel. The current Palestinian leaders would probably object to any outcome that makes the partition of Palestine more tolerable for Israel. Yet these are all problems that, if not dealt with now, will mortgage the future. The issue of sustaining the standard of living of the areas that move to Palestinian control could be dealt with by the international community, especially Europe and the United States.

The time is approaching for a major effort on Middle East peace. The groundwork must be laid now. But the real obstacle is substance, not process. And recent events have provided a unique opportunity to make a conceptual breakthrough under U.S. leadership.