A new opening

Recent weeks have marked a clear decline in both the international backing and internal support enjoyed by the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon. This was most recently illustrated by polls that gave Sharon his lowest public approval rating to date, and enunciated by the pronouncements of Israeli politicians from the right, by Ehud Olmert, to the left, by the security leadership or the Geneva crowd. Internationally, United States President George W. Bush was the most explicit he has ever been in criticizing the policies of the Sharon government.

As these events take place in parallel to a deterioration of Israel’s image in the eyes of the world public, it is thus easy to conclude that they are the combined and inevitable outcomes of the policies and practices that have dominated Israeli government thinking for the last three years. The insistence on the use of force (and if that doesn’t work, the application of more force) has brought us all before the conclusion that the Israeli government and its prime minister are responsible for the stagnation of the peace process and for the inhumane conditions in which Palestinians are living.

In parallel and ironically, the Palestinian state of affairs seems to be moving in the opposite direction. After a chaotic several months following the fall of the government of Mahmoud Abbas, the subsequent emergency government, and a period of tension between the presidency and the prime ministry that caused a dramatic deterioration in the credibility of the Palestinian Authority both among Palestinians and internationally, things have been running rather smoothly since the inception of the government of Ahmed Qurei. There has been a healthy cooperation between the prime minister and president, and the outside world has agreed to these arrangements (which are more acceptable to Palestinians and will be useful in fulfilling Palestinian obligations in the course of the peace process).

These positive signs have been further underscored by the progress of the dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and its opposition, held under the auspices of the Egyptian government. This dialogue, which ended with an offer of a partial mutual ceasefire that avoids the targeting of civilians, has the potential of developing into a full ceasefire initiative. If so, the ceasefire will further expose the Israeli government position and Sharon’s intransigence, and Qurei will be viewed internationally as someone who is capable of sorting out internal Palestinian problems, and opening the way for efforts towards peace.

Israel is plagued by two very powerful symbols in its battle to recoup its image. These are the separation wall, which we Palestinians pointedly call the "apartheid wall", and the some 187 military checkpoints marking the Palestinian landscape in an immense diagram of the humiliation and suffering that touches all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel has yet to find a means of explaining these tools of possession and control to the world.

In this situation, it seems a suitable time for a third party to exploit the weakness of Ariel Sharon and the positive developments on the Palestinian side to come up with an initiative endowed with the proper political weight and backed by the Quartet (thus avoiding American election distractions). This initiative should broaden the ceasefire and try to make it stick by adding other necessary components. Of these, the first is a political component, i.e., convincing Israel to stop constructing settlements and building the wall, in order to relieve the major sources of tension between the two parties. The second component is economic and humanitarian and requires removing the checkpoints, taking the Israeli army out of Palestinian populated areas, and injecting the economy with some donor support. Looking at the respective positions of Qurei and Sharon right now, a package like that seems to hold great promise.