Posted on January 24, 2000 in Washington Watch

Peace was supposed to turn the resources of the region away from armaments, toward more productive human endeavors. An obvious sign that the current process is not working is the Israeli “wish-list” for new weapons that they provided to the United States last month.

Now is the time for creative new thinking to help achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting Middle East peace.

Nine years after then President George Bush launched the current Middle East peace process with a powerful address to the U. S. Congress, the general mood in the region supports peace, but it remains unclear how peace will be achieved or what it will look like.

After the Madrid Conference, the process developed certain characteristics which have defined it ever since. There were separate negotiating tracks. These were to operate independently of one another while other multilateral gatherings were designed to address overlapping regional concerns. It was hoped that progress in the multilateral sessions would provide confidence that would fuel the individual negotiating tracks.

When the charade of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian track was ended and the Palestinians and Israelis went off to negotiate their own agreement, the Jordanians were freed to proceed on their own as well.

The Oslo process was cleverly designed and did, in fact, represent a breakthrough. The recognition of the Palestinians as a national community deserving national rights was a historic achievement. The rest of the Oslo process, however, as history has shown, was too dependent on Israel’s ability and good will to allow for its full implementation.

The Middle East peace process finds itself, today, at an awkward moment. There are still three unresolved tracks to be completed. Two of them, the Syrian and the Palestinian, appear to be competing for attention. The third, the Lebanese track, is held in abeyance. Meanwhile, the various multilateral sessions, which were to have inspired confidence, have been reduced to occasional symbolic events devoid of serious content. Despite the fits and starts that have characterized movement on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, there are serious problems that face both. It is becoming clear that the piecemeal approach is not working and has become counterproductive.

The appearance that one side is being played off of the other creates a lack of trust. Equally damaging to trust is the fear that Lebanon is either being used as leverage or will pay the ultimate price for the resolution of the other tracks.

Most troubling is the fact that the confidence building measures that have been taken so far have been squandered. They are now taken for granted and have only whetted appetites for more.

There is still a desire for peace, but lost in all of the movement over the past nine years, has been the vision of peace and the confidence that with a comprehensive peace the region would be dramatically transformed.

It should now be clear that it is not possible to solve this puzzle in a piecemeal manner. The separate tracks are, in fact, woven together by a number of powerful strands that cannot be ignored.

The so-call “final status” issues have, in many respects, powerful regional components. The refugee and water issues, for example, cannot be isolated in their impact, on just Israel and Palestine. So too, the resolution of Jerusalem must satisfy powerful regional sentiment.

As we are seeing played out in recent days, another strand that binds the many tracks, is the ability of Israel to muster the political will and popular support to be able to act on more than one track at a time. In addition, the reliance of each track on U.S. financial aid and international donor support for piecemeal agreements can become a taxing affair–that may exhaust the good-will needed to sustain the levels of aid required to achieve the separate and competing interim solutions.

Finally, the nine-year-long effort of competing piecemeal tracks has stolen from the peace process, its most valuable asset–the excitement and creative energy that can be unleashed by a comprehensive peace that puts an end to decades of conflict.

At present, the record and prospects of the current approach look bleak.
The asymmetry of power that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian track has resulted in a distorted interim approach to peace. Because the process was ill defined and left hostage to internal Israeli politics, it has been vulnerable to the violence of Palestinian extremists and the demands and violence of Israeli extremists. The blotches on the map that define the current Palestinian reality represent the inverse of Palestinian expectations. Palestinians expected to gain back the majority of their land that would surround some isolated remaining Israeli compounds. Instead the Palestinian communities have been isolated and surrounded by Israeli settlements and roads and security areas.

To appease the untamed ideological demands of the Israeli right wing and their sense of entitlement, settler growth and road expansion in the West Bank has more than doubled since Madrid.

The northern tracks are faring no better. Lebanon has continued to pay a bitter price with repeated bombardments, and with political tensions resulting from its incredibly vulnerable status.

Syria, too, is exposed and frustrated. As Israeli settlers demand retention of the Golan or exorbitant compensation for having been used as pawns in illegal annexation, Syrians are asked to agree to a much conditioned peace without compensation for its hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Despite this bleak picture, peace remains high on the regional agenda. But to achieve it will require new thinking. I would borrow, for starts, a quotation from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Speaking in Israel in November of 1997, he observed, “The essential requirement for peace is knowing where you want to go. If you do not know the destination, you cannot get there and each step, each concession, becomes harder.

The problems with the current process have been its openendedness, its piecemeal nature, and its lack of a vision to drive it forward.

A step-by-step approach can work, but only if the end of the interim process is defined. The use of confidence building measures can also work, but only if they, too, are tied to defined goals and steps.

What is required today, is what was required nine years ago: a vision of a comprehensive peace clearly defined and an agreed upon set of steps that would take all the parties to that goal.

What was missing nine years ago, was a regional acceptance of the general precondition for peace. Israelis, back then, were not even willing to sit with Palestinian negotiators–they had to be part of a Jordanian team. Arabs, too, were not ready to answer what Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shara’a correctly identified as the existential question regarding the acceptance of Israel in the region.

It is now, largely accepted, on both sides of the lines that there will be a Palestinian state and an Israeli state and that Israel will withdraw from the Golan and Lebanon. The argument today, is not existential, it is on principal and procedure: what will be the exact borders of all the states and how do we get there.

Similarly, nine years ago, the Middle East could not envision itself as a region–nor could it see the benefits that would ensue from regional cooperation. Today, the merits of such a development are clear, what remains is the need to define it and ensure an equitable distribution of the benefits that will result from such an emerging market.

It is, I believe, up to the Arab side to define the steps that can be taken to correct the current peace process. Several Arab leaders and political analysts have called for this–it is time to listen to them. An Arab leadership meeting should be convened to propose a new integrated and visionary approach to peace. Such an effort would rescue the three remaining tracks and provide each with needed support. It would, if its vision were comprehensive win Arab support by demonstrating that peace will be both comprehensive and just. It would also, if its vision were clear and direct, provide Israelis with the confidence that a comprehensive peace is possible and can be both secure and mutually beneficial and will not, as some in Israel argue, be a source of insecurity and instability.

As Arabs seek to move beyond conflict and towards a just peace, they must present a vision of the future that reinforces the words of former President George Bush who, in launching the current process nine years ago, reminded Israelis that “in the modern age, geography cannot guarantee security and security does not come from military power alone.”

Too much has already happened during the past nine years to allow the current deformed process to continue to limp along at its frustrating pace. The remaining pieces are too interdependent to be left to their separate tracks. And the final prize is too great–it is larger then all the pieces combined.

What is required is new thinking: a comprehensive approach to a comprehensive peace.

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