Hopeful, but not Optimistic

I’m not a fan of the Prime Minister of Israel, but it is important to acknowledge that, whatever his intentions, the dynamic Ariel Sharon has unleashed will have a transformative impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Serious issues remain, not the least of which is Sharon’s continued insistence on unilateralism on all critical issues (borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees). But what is now occurring both within the Israeli and Palestinian societies does give me some hope for the future.

Here’s why.

Because Israeli policy still dictates what is and is not possible in US political discussions, it must be recognized that it was Sharon’s begrudging acceptance of the concept of a "Palestinian state"-however limited his conception of that state-that opened the door for President Bush to use that term early in his administration. Whether Sharon was attempting to co-opt his domestic opposition, limit international criticism of his ruthless suppression of the Palestinian uprising, or simply accept reality and seek to define it his way-whatever his motivations, once Sharon acknowledged that there would be a Palestine to the West of the Jordan River, the dye was cast.

As Bush developed his view into a "vision of two states," this concept-long accepted in the rest of the world, but a taboo topic in the US and Israel-has now become a staple in US discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In this context it is important to recall that even during the "good days" of Oslo, neither President Clinton nor Israeli PMs Rabin or Peres formally accepted the notion of statehood. I recall working with the Clinton Administration as they sought language to describe their support for Palestinian rights. Terms like "right to govern themselves on their own land," "free people on their own land," etc., were used. But never "state."

The problem in Oslo was that, by design, at Israel’s insistence, the end could not be defined-and so the process was accepted, but absent the commitment to two states. The Israeli side was thus able to proceed without forcing an internal debate on the outcome and the status of settlements.

Sharon may have intended a Palestinian "state" in name only. His tentative proposal for Palestinian rule over forty-two percent of the occupied lands, surrounded and dependent looked more like a "reservation" or "Bantustan" than a state. It would not be a state arrived at through negotiations with an equal partner, but one he would impose on his terms. Israel’s actions taken since then have only reinforced that this was his understanding. The "Wall," both east and west was to demarcate approximate Palestinian areas. Plans are being laid to expand and annex settlement blocs, all with US acquiescence, and the entire process being dragged out long enough to make even Sharon’s supporters wonder if it would ever occur. Even though Sharon may take these steps to protect his West Bank settlement enterprise, the Palestinians now have international pressure on their side, including the US.

To its credit, the Bush Administration has expanded its vision and on a few occasions pressed the Israelis sufficiently enough to make changes. The eastern "wall" has apparently been cancelled. The route of the western "wall" has been changed moving it closer to the 1967 border, except in large areas around Jerusalem to the north, east and west, and the timetable for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and northern West Bank has been pushed along.

During his most recent trip to Europe, Bush laid down the clearest markers to date:

Only a democracy can serve the hopes of Palestinians, and make Israel secure, and raise the flag of a free Palestine. A successful Palestinian democracy should be Israel’s top goal as well. So Israel must freeze settlement activity, help Palestinians build a thriving economy and ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable, with contiguous territory on the West Bank. A state of scattered territories will not work.

His points were clear enough to advance the discussion and continue pressure on Israel to respond.

The problem, of course, is that all of these steps are unilateral, and, therefore, unacceptable. Statehood may now be the accepted outcome, but for this outcome to create a lasting peace it must be based, as UN resolution 242 requires, on negotiations. It cannot be imposed by Israel.

Sharon may have moved the discussion forward, but even though he can’t shake his "will to impose," he may not be able to stop the evolving discussion he has unleashed.

Not only has the US political discourse been transformed, but expectations have been created on the Palestinian side. To date, the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Legislative Council and Palestinian public have responded in an extraordinarily positive manner, despite the continuing burdens of occupation and lingering bitterness from its many wounds.

Following the commentary in Israel one becomes immediately aware of the intensity of their internal debate. The extremist settlers movement and their allies term Sharon a "betrayer" and their threat of civil unrest or violence remains a real possibility. But these groups are increasingly isolated. A recent poll shows 80% of Israelis now wanting negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and almost two-thirds now believe that a real comprehensive peace is possible with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, some Israeli analysts have termed the cabinet’s formal acceptance of Sharon’s withdrawal plan "the beginning of the end of the Israeli settler enterprise in the territories." One even compared Sharon to former USSR Premier Mikhael Gorbachev, "the leader who made the crack in the dam, which was followed by the flood." While these descriptions may be too euphoric and over-blown, they nevertheless point to a changing reality that can’t be ignored.

All this being said, I am now somewhat more hopeful than I was a year ago, but still not optimistic that we will see a just resolution to the conflict any time soon. The conversation over borders, statehood, and "Greater Israel" may have advanced in Israel and that is good. But three big issues remain: The need to negotiate all issues and not impose solutions; the resolution of Jerusalem; and the plight of the refugees. The first of these will be pressed by the international community, but the Jerusalem and refugee issues will require a hard push before Israelis and Palestinians debate and negotiate them, as they must, if there is to be peace.