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Middle East

What's Missing? A Strategy for Peace

April 21, 2002|YOSSI ALPHER | Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He co-edits bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Web-based dialogue.

TEL AVIV — U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell failed to achieve a cease-fire and to restart a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians last week, because none of the three key leaders--Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and, yes, President Bush--has a realistic strategic commitment to peace.

Powell registered some important achievements. He appears to have persuaded Syria to restrain Hezbollah's provocative attacks against northern Israel. He successfully launched the idea of a future regional or international conference to discuss the groundbreaking Saudi peace initiative. And his very journey signifies that the administration is beginning to take its megapower responsibilities more seriously and abandon its hands-off attitude toward the violence in the Middle East. President Bush now has one foot in the arena.

But if the U.S. is going to try to move Arafat and Sharon onto the peace track, it will have to work harder.

Arafat has no strategy for peace. He seeks to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state, and he relies on extreme violence to achieve this aim. Arafat, together with much of the Arab and Muslim world and a few European leftists, fully equates deliberate Palestinian targeting of Israeli civilians--we now have documentation of his deep involvement in the detailed planning of suicide bombings--with the regrettable civilian casualties caused by legitimate Israeli acts of self-defense. There is a weighty moral-equivalency issue here, which puts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--along with America's war in Afghanistan--on the cutting edge of the clash of civilizations.

But there is more to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than terrorism. There is also a conflict over land that pits an anachronistic Israeli occupation and settlement strategy against a Palestinian war of liberation. Here we encounter Sharon's lack of a strategy for peace. Over the past three decades, Sharon has managed Israel's settlement policy with the clearly articulated goal of preventing the emergence of a demographically and geographically contiguous Palestinian state. In parallel, in his attempt to eliminate Arafat and dismantle the Palestinian Authority, Sharon seeks to fragment and humiliate the Palestinian leadership and replace it with docile, collaborationist leaders.

We've been down this road with Sharon before, when he was minister of defense: in Lebanon in 1982, and when he set up the abortive Village Leagues Palestinian leadership in 1981 and then watched as all the Palestinian leaders he appointed resigned or were assassinated. Sharon's latest grand design is again destined to collapse like a house of cards. It took Israel 18 years to climb out of the Lebanese morass. How long will it take to repair the strategic damage Sharon is currently wreaking?

The current Israeli military offensive is justified and has been a success at the operational level. The Israel Defense Forces have decimated genuine terrorist concentrations. Israel has nothing to apologize for if Palestinian civilians and their houses were caught tragically in the destructive battle at the Jenin refugee camp; the Palestinians knew perfectly well that they were living in the world's top terrorist base for suicide bombers. But at the political level, the Israeli operation is a failure. Arafat is widely seen as an embattled hero. Israel has lost support worldwide, its economy has been severely traumatized and Israeli-American relations are frayed. Worst of all, the human suffering caused by the operation will produce a new generation of Palestinians dedicated to fighting Israel.

In view of Sharon's and Arafat's lack of strategic will to move forward politically, Powell will need more than good intentions to succeed. He will need clout in the form of a presidential decision to exert more U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and he will need to seek out and encourage additional Arab and European pressure on Arafat.

Sharon will have to be pushed to allow for the immediate introduction of a significant political element into cease-fire negotiations, and he must withdraw Israeli forces from areas occupied during the recent fighting, including from Arafat's compound. He will have to signal to the Palestinians that negotiations, when they resume, will touch on all the issues abandoned when the violence started.

Arafat will have to be pressured to abandon violence convincingly, in deed as well as in word, and to refrain from bringing to the table positions that delegitimize Israel, like the right of return for 1948 Palestinian refugees and the denial of a binding Jewish link to the Temple Mount.

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