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THE MIDDLE EAST

Traveling a One-Lane Road

With the peace process comatose, hope lies in unilateral initiatives.

January 26, 2003|Yossi Alpher | Yossi Alpher was a senior advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is co-editor of bitter lemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Web-based dialogue.

TEL AVIV — As much as the international community would like to resuscitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that is not likely to happen. Not now. Instead, countries that care about the region should start supporting the new and important unilateral initiatives that are being discussed.

Israelis and Palestinians are currently so distrustful of one another, their credibility in one another's eyes so low, that politicians like Yossi Beilin in Israel and Sari Nusseibeh in the Palestinian territories, both of whom espouse peace through dialogue, have difficulty even finding a niche in their respective political arenas. Outside ideas and proposals for improving security and restoring momentum to the process -- like the "road map" envisioned by the so-called quartet of Washington, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- are generally greeted with cynicism on both sides. People in both Israel and the Palestinian territories have become deeply entrenched in a vicious circle of violence, hatred and mistrust.

The historical causes for this situation -- the mistakes of the Oslo peace process, the failures of leadership on both sides -- have been analyzed at length. Contemporary contributing factors, like anticipation of another war in the Persian Gulf and the impending Israeli elections, are also understandably cited to justify delaying peace initiatives.

Then, too, there has been a historic change in the attitude of the U.S. government. The Bush administration is the first in recent decades to downplay the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a weighty global geopolitical explanation -- the primacy for Bush of the war against terrorism -- but even before 9/11 the president evinced little interest in the conflict or its ramifications. Some Israelis and Arabs expect this set of parameters to change radically should the United States conquer Iraq and become a long-term occupying power in the heartland of the Arab Middle East, but at the current juncture neither a probable war nor its consequences for U.S. policy toward the Middle East are predictable.

Still, most Arabs and Israelis continue to hope desperately for peace. Both sides understand all too well the consequences of an ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict for their societies and for regional stability. At a time when dialogue seems impossible, many of the most concerned and innovative actors in the region have begun to think in terms of unilateral initiatives.

Thus, in the current heat of Israel's election campaign, the Labor Party, led by Amram Mitzna, is spearheading a call for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the territories along with the dismantling of the most provocative settlements. Others on the left and in the center have also embraced aspects of this idea.

At the same time, in Cairo, Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian chief of intelligence, has for the last several weeks been convening the leadership of Palestinian factions -- particularly Yasser Arafat's Fatah and the Islamic movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- in an effort to bring about a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire declaration.

Neither initiative is a sure bet: One depends on the outcome of elections, while the other requires a degree of Palestinian unity and a quality of leadership rarely seen in recent years. Moreover, both initiatives have flaws that detractors are quick to point out. Unilateral Israeli withdrawal might well be misinterpreted by Palestinian militants as a sign of weakness, with violent consequences. And if the Israelis evacuated some, but not all, of the settlements, those left behind could become a new focus of controversy. For the Palestinians, a unilateral cease-fire would be difficult for Arafat to enforce, particularly if Israel didn't immediately loosen its clampdown on the territories. Nor does either initiative by itself constitute a formula for peace: At best, each can help generate a healthy interim period of cooling off and stabilization, during which some of the ideas put forth by the international community -- such as a trusteeship for the West Bank and Gaza -- could be attempted.

Of course the spoilers are waiting: Palestinian terrorists all too eager to torpedo the Cairo talks by blowing up a Tel Aviv bus station and, on a very different, political level, Ariel Sharon and the rest of the Israeli right, who are likely to head the next governing coalition, have defiantly refused to recognize the demographic and security threat to Israel posed by the ongoing spread of settlements.

Yet all recent polls taken on both sides show that the respective publics -- even most of Israel's settlers -- approve or at least accept these initiatives, and that is reason to take them seriously, something the European Union, the United Nations and the United States have not done. These initiatives target the two most intractable issues: Israeli occupation and settlements on the one hand and Palestinian violence on the other. The beauty of these ideas is that they require consensus and political determination -- rare as these commodities are in the Middle East -- on one side only. On balance they offer far more benefits, including a way back to negotiations, than they do costs.

They are currently the only real games in town.

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