Of Elections, Stagnation and Peace

As the Palestinian intifada approaches its bloody 3.5 year milestone at a cost of almost 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives, the question inevitably arises as to what role the United States will assume in addressing this conflict. Past administrations have avoided the potential negative electoral consequences of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during an election year. President George W. Bush’s public speeches indicate a U.S. disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and point to the U.S. believing that the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is a lost cause and a waste of time and political capital.

President Bush’s 20 January 2004 State of the Union address managed to disappoint even the much-lowered expectations of those concerned with Mideast peace. The speech entirely ignored the issue, not even a repeat of last year’s promise to promote “peace between a secure Israel and a democratic Palestine.”

Once a top priority, the road map seems to have gone from ‘stalled’ to dead.’ Secretary of State Powell didn’t mention the road map when he presented the 2004 goals to his staff. All indications strongly point therefore to the Bush administration placing the road map into deep freeze, at least until after the November 2004 elections.

The White House meanwhile, rejects claims of negligence, repeating the mantra that “the president is involved,” and promising that the coming new order in the region will reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and bring democracy and freedom to the Arab world. The problem with this approach is that the facts on the ground aren’t waiting for either the coming new order or for Arab democracy. Meanwhile, vital U.S. interests in the region continue to be damaged.

Most analysts believe that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to prevent the establishment of a politically and economically viable Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 lines. Meanwhile, he is willing to accept a Palestinian state comprising roughly 45 percent of the West Bank because such a state will be weak and not economically or politically viable. Israel will surround the area, controlling all points of access and be able to intervene militarily at will.

To realize this plan, Sharon has a multitude of weapons at his disposal; the separation barrier which has already resulted in the annexation of 16 percent of West Bank land, the building of settlements and construction of Israeli-only bypass roads intersecting Palestinian land, and the destruction of Palestinian civil, political, and educational institutions. These Israeli actions are ongoing and even accelerating as the 2004 U.S. election approaches since the post-election landscape is unknown and may not be as friendly.

Even Sharon’s most recent statements regarding a Gaza pullout are not inconsistent with this plan and have consequently been greeted with a great deal of skepticism. A Financial Times editorial on 4 February stated that the pullout plan “seen in its proper perspective, however, it is less a startling move than a very cunning one.”

In Israel, Aluf Benn wrote in the English-language daily Haaretz: “Sharon is prepared to pay with the evacuation of Gaza for American consent to Israel’s continued control over a large part of the West Bank.” Benn concludes insightfully that such a tactic has been tried before and has always failed.

This is certainly not helping the diplomatic effort on the part of the United States to improve its image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially with the youth. The introduction of a new radio and TV station to the region aimed at transmitting positive messages about the United States has had very limited success. This only reinforces the fact that until the United States takes vigorous and balanced steps to push for a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the tens of millions of dollars spent on improving America’s image will be wasted.

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a robust and active process of re-engagement by the United States. For this re-engagement to succeed and also be perceived by the Arab and Muslim worlds as sincere, it must consist of the following components:

– A clear and unequivocal articulation by the United States of an ‘end-game’ for the process, not limited simply to a Palestinian state, which even Sharon has accepted. Such a statement needs to include the words ‘based on the 1967 borders’ for it to have legitimacy among the Palestinians and provide them with a firm political horizon.

– Engage, recruit and encourage a ‘constituency of peace’ of Jewish Americans, Israelis, Arab Americans and Arab states who support this vision. Polls have consistently shown a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis in support of a two-state solution. A Baker Institute poll in November 2003 found that 53.3 percent of Israelis and 55.6 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with minor mutually agreed upon adjustments. Stateside, a Zogby International poll of 500 Jewish and Arab Americans taken in mid January 2004 found that Arab and Jewish Americans back U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but are also disappointed with President Bush’s performance in the region.

– Appoint a high-level U.S. presidential envoy to the Middle East to work full-time on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Such an envoy would need to be, and perceived to be, empowered by the president. He or she would oversee each side taking reciprocal steps with close monitoring. On the Israeli side, this would include: a complete cessation of all settlement activity, an end to targeted assassinations, a removal of checkpoints, a freeze on sections of the separation barrier encroaching on Palestinian land, and the creation of conditions for the Palestinians to fulfill their security and political obligations. On the Palestinian side, this would include: the holding of elections, a clear announcement of the end of the intifada and a prompt and effective end to all acts of violence, and a consolidation of the security services.

Contrary to popular myth, such an effort on the part of the United States, although not guaranteed to succeed, would be appreciated in both the United States and the Arab and Muslim worlds, and not come at a political cost for the president. It would be highly advisable for the announcement of such an effort to come in the form of a presidential address to the nation. During this address the president could articulate why it is in the critical national interests of the United States that an independent and viable Palestinian state be established. A Palestinian state would be critical in the war against terrorism, critical for Israel’s long-term security and critical for the flowering of democracy in the Middle East.