Posted on May 20, 2002 in Washington Watch

Even the most diehard pessimist couldn’t have helped but notice some recent positive developments in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. apparently pulled its weight and pressed Israel not to re-invade or bombard Gaza last week. Meanwhile, an Arab consensus seems to be emerging following the Sharm al-Sheikh summit and conversations between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. Arafat’s swift condemnation of the May 7 suicide bombing and his recent speech pledging reforms were welcomed in many capitols.

At the same time, however, even a diehard optimist could not help but be concerned about the dangers that exist that threaten to re-ignite terrible conflict. Israeli forces have still not fully withdrawn from their encroachment into Palestinian areas and violent raids and assaults against Palestinian communities continue. The Likud central committee’s rejection of Palestinian statehood exposed anew the extremist and racist nature of that political movement. And recent public addresses by Prime Minister Sharon and his Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu can only be described as threatening acts of vile incitement.

Meanwhile, Palestinians are living in the rubble left by the Israeli onslaught, with not only militants angry and desirous of striking out anew at Israel and Israelis whom they blame for bringing them so much death and destruction.

The situation is quite fragile and needs immediate and dramatic tending to if any forward progress is to be achieved. Recognizing that rapid movement on the political front is not possible, given the current constellation of forces (i.e., the Likud in power in Israel; the Palestinian Authority in tatters with its security forces and infrastructure in shambles; and the always problematic domestic political situation in the U.S.), there are, nevertheless, still some positive steps that can be taken, or rather, must be taken to help transform the current bleak situation.

What follows is my humble contribution to setting an agenda.

First, political leadership in the U.S., the European Union, and the Arab world must speak out publicly and forcefully on the futility and dangers of violence. If the last twenty months have established anything as true, it is that there is no military or violent solution to this conflict. Violence has brought Israel nothing but more violence. Reoccupation and wanton massive destruction instead of burying terrorism have only planted the seeds of new terror.

Similarly, Palestinian bombers have only brought the Palestinian people nothing but more pain and destruction.

The truism of this case–occupation does not end violence and violence does not end occupation–must be restated over and over again. The political discourse must change and must be challenged to change.

The Arab initiative has made a singularly important contribution, and it must be strengthened. But the U.S. also has a responsibility here. Cautioning Israel in private does little to challenge the deteriorating political climate in that country. Provocation from the Israeli side will continue and Israel’s peace forces will remain weak until the U.S. moves to publicly challenge the Likud government’s use of aggressive military force against the Palestinians.

Simultaneous with this effort to change the political discourse must come a determined effort to change the situation on the ground. Even before the still ill-defined international conference is discussed, or efforts to restart negotiations are planned, an immediate and radical transformation of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza must be realized.

A substantial reconstruction effort for the Palestinian territories is the prerequisite to any further advance in the direction of peace.

Israel’s assault devastated the physical infrastructure of the West Bank. Buildings and roads were destroyed, government ministries, hospitals, schools and even private businesses and homes were wrecked and looted. The water and sewage systems whose construction was supported by the U.S. and European Union have been seriously damaged.

In the face of this destruction, Palestinians are in a state of shock. Even before this, the last eight years of “peace” had not been kind to the Palestinian people. During that period, the Israeli military-imposed economic closures of the West Bank and Gaza, and land confiscations for new settlements or road construction had taken a severe toll. As a result, Palestinians became poorer, more unemployed, less free to move about within their territory, and less hopeful. This defined the Palestinian reality before the collapse of Camp David and the terrible cycle of violence that culminated in the deadly wave of suicide bombings and Israel’s recent assault on the West Bank.

To break this cycle of despair and violence that has gripped the Palestinians, the U.S., the European Union, and the Arab states should lead an international effort to help radically transform the West Bank and Gaza. As the dust settles and the shock wears off, Palestinians will not be able to wait for months for yet another conference with vague promises or “visions” of what their future might be. To give diplomacy the time it needs, it will be important to give Palestinians signs of concrete change on the ground. An immediate FEMA-style reconstruction effort would fit the bill. New roads and infrastructure, repaired buildings and restored services will create hope and invest people in the promise of peace. Only when and if people see real change in their lives will they be able to give the time needed for political processes to work out.

The next step requiring urgent attention is the recreation of important Palestinian institutions that were destroyed by the Israeli assault. Ministries and security forces will have to be reconstituted and reformed.

The Palestinian Authority needs to be strengthened and the Palestinian people need to feel hope. With the Palestinian Authority in ruins, anarchy and not stability may soon prevail. The European Union and the Arab states can play an especially helpful role here. They can make a collective effort to help President’s Arafat’s Authority rebuild and reform itself. They can be interim partners with the Palestinian Authority in reestablishing its structures and its ability to govern and provide services.

Only if these two steps are successfully taken will there be sufficient stability and hope to take the region to an international conference.

A word of caution about the conference itself. After all the disappointment and destruction, Palestinians will expect the meeting to be a transformative event. They will not accept another open-ended process or a long-term incremental approach to a future settlement. The situation is too volatile, and the need for concrete movement too great.

Here is where firm American and Arab leadership must play a decisive role. They must lay out more than a vision. They should provide the parties with a detailed plan to implement that vision and then provide a strong and sustained collective push to urge acceptance by the parties.

These tasks will, no doubt, entail some risks and will require some heavy lifting. But with the Middle East on the brink of a new war, the risks of not acting are even greater.

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