Just talk peace

Aaron Miller, formerly a member of the American peace team, writes in his book "The Much Too Promised Land" that when the roadmap was proposed to the Israelis and Palestinians in April 2003 the Americans were mired deep in the war in Iraq, the Palestinians accepted the map without comment and with no intention of implementing it, and the Israelis added 14 comments that would have neutralized it had anybody taken them seriously.

Phase II of the roadmap was the most important. Indeed, this is the only "invention" in the roadmap: without it, there is a first phase of confidence-building measures and a final phase of permanent status negotiations. The Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia) took the greatest weakness of the Oslo accords, phasing, and amplified it into a multi-phased proposal fully four years after a permanent status agreement should have been signed. Roadmap phase II proposes something we never dreamed of suggesting in the preceding years: establishing a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

At the close of the first decade of the third millennium, this idea looks even more bizarre than it did when the decade began. Yet there was method to this madness. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to talk to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Occasionally he sent his son to Arafat until this idea too, borrowed from very different regimes, was discarded. Sharon did not for one moment believe in peace with the Arabs; from his standpoint there was no difference between Fateh and Hamas. Sharon considered the Oslo process anathema. He never even bothered to inform the Palestinians that the outgoing Barak government’s commitment to renew the Taba talks after Israel’s elections had been tossed into the garbage pile of history.

Arafat, who did not initiate the second intifada but rode its wave of violence and convinced himself it would advance his cause in the political process, understood by this time that he was at a dead end. He agreed to a plan he never wanted only when his advisers explained to him that phase II could be interpreted as a non-binding option: "In the second phase, efforts are focused on the option of creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders". Ostensibly Arafat could agree to the roadmap but, when the time came, reject phase II, which was only an "option".

If the Americans wanted to build a rhetorical bridge between Sharon and Arafat, then this was a work of art. But if they wanted to find a solution, then they caused heavy damage. They halted the process of agreements (the Oslo Declaration of Principles of 1993, the interim agreement of 1995, the Wye River agreement of 1998, the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement of 1999), released the parties from their Oslo commitments and replaced them with a document of their own that was never signed by the two sides and that allowed them to wait for one another and not advance toward peace to this day.

Paradoxically, it is the Israelis who have fulfilled none of their obligations under roadmap phase I, while the Palestinians have appointed a prime minister, organized their security forces and built Palestinian Authority governing institutions. Were an American leader to appear today, in the name of the Quartet or in the name of the world’s only superpower, and propose that Israelis and Palestinians implement phase II of the roadmap–a phase that, according to the original plan, should have been carried out between June and December 2003 (!)–one would have to ask why it doesn’t make more sense to hold final status negotiations now and implement an agreement in phases based on Palestinian security capabilities, rather than creating a state in phases.

On the Palestinian side, there is a president who emerged from the recent Fateh conference much stronger. He is undoubtedly interested in peace based on the two-state principle and understands that agreement means historic compromise. On the Israeli side is a leader with a large Knesset majority and a public that supports the two-state solution, and who can implement an agreement if he puts his mind to it. In the United States there is a president who is prepared to devote considerable effort in generating Middle East peace because, unlike his predecessor, he understands that this is an American strategic interest. If this is the situation, why do the three have to postpone the moment of truth until eventually such a leadership triangle no longer exists? Why again fear and flee a decision and again grant the extremists on both sides time to sabotage a final status agreement as it grows ever distant.

The Palestinians, who have constantly feared lest an interim agreement become a final agreement, will under no circumstances accept a state with provisional borders unless there is prior agreement to final status terms. That means that Israel will have to reveal in advance its readiness to compromise but will get in return only a partial agreement. In parallel the Palestinians, even if they get from us the outline of final status, will constantly fear that it won’t come to pass. The Arab Peace Initiative will not be implemented because this will not be real peace. And with all due respect to flights through Saudi airspace, this is really not a viable alternative to peaceful relations with the Muslim world.

There is no reason to agree in 2009 to a plan that was cut to the dimensions of Ariel Sharon more than five years ago. Instead of shaking the mothballs off a plan that no one ever took seriously, we should simply talk peace.