This week the Biden administration has been busy unveiling its new “road map” for a Mideast peace to Israelis, Palestinians and other nations. It is an exhaustive document that has a little of everything except what is needed most: a detailed blueprint of a comprehensive political settlement and a realistic, internationally monitored way of getting there. As one horrific act of violence follows another, the gap between high-level diplomacy and on-the-ground realities rarely has seemed wider. Diplomats are now wrestling with an elaborate sequence of steps and questions over the minutiae of Palestinian government reform, the timing of Palestinian elections and the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.
But all of that will fade into irrelevance unless the international community demonstrates the will to promote a settlement plan that goes beyond the generalities offered by President Bush and shows how a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders can be achieved without threatening Israel’s security.
The current approach appears premised on the belief that Mr. Bush’s call in June for sweeping improvements in Palestinian security procedures, across-the-board institutional reform and leadership change as prerequisites for genuine political progress is having its intended effect. It is not.
There is no doubt that Palestinian politics have been shaken. There is open discussion of reforming Palestinian institutions. There are growing complaints about the Palestinian Authority’s lack of transparency and accountability. And there is increased awareness among Palestinians that attacks against Israeli civilians must stop. But it is not the shake-up that is in question; it is its meaning and direction.
Yes, talk about reform is getting louder. But reform means different things to different people. For some Palestinians, it means starting to build more modern, state-like institutions, as the United States has called for. For most, however, the central concern is neither regret over Yasir Arafat’s failure to reach a peace agreement with Israel nor disillusionment over the consequences of the intifada. Indeed, Mr. Arafat is often accused of having been too accommodating of Israel, and the intifada is seen less as a war the Palestinians have chosen than as one Israel has imposed upon them. For many, the call for change is rooted in a critique of the Palestinian Authority’s inability to resist the Israeli military offensive, the lack of a coherent political strategy and disunity within Palestinian ranks.
Under these pressures, reform of the Palestinian Authority seems inevitable – but it can take one of many directions. If Palestinians are not offered a clear and credible way to end the occupation and reach a comprehensive settlement, moderate Palestinians will have little to offer. Instead, the type of reform most likely to emerge is one that would establish a leadership composed of all national and radical Islamic forces, including Hamas, in order to resist Israel’s occupation.
Likewise on the issue of security, the predominant mood among practically all Palestinians is to pull back from terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. But the cycle of revenge is unlikely to end without some sense that there is reason to hope for a settlement. At the same time, so long as Israelis are persuaded that the Palestinians have not relinquished the option of violence, they will continue to feel the need to engage in both pre-emptive and retaliatory action.
The Bush administration believes that raising final-status issues now will undermine genuine Palestinian reform. In fact, the absence of that element is undermining genuine reformers. In a similar vein, until Israelis can see a realistic political way forward, they are unlikely to challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies that are harming the chances of reaching a peace agreement.
What is puzzling is that so many in the international community publicly endorse an American approach that they privately concede has no chance of succeeding. Israel is likely to say yes to the road map because it knows it is going nowhere; Palestinians are unlikely to say no because under current circumstances they have nowhere else to go. But neither they nor any of the principal international actors harbor any illusion that the security steps, reform, elections or negotiations over provisional borders will yield anything like what Washington claims to have in mind.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has suggested a better way forward. His little-noticed call for an international peace conference by the end of the year – at which the key parties could place a blueprint for a comprehensive settlement on the table – is what is required. Offering a plan, of course, will not mean its immediate implementation. But it would have the effect of reviving political debate on both sides, bolstering the fortunes of the Palestinians and Israeli peace camps and providing them with a common political platform around which to rally.
Palestinian terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, the siege of Yasir Arafat’s headquarters, the killing of Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories: these are not unexpected roadblocks but the natural consequences of the path currently pursued. They provide powerful evidence that attempts to resolve the conflict through sequential or incremental means – starting with Palestinian reform or with security agreements in localized areas – will not work. The conflict is of a whole and must be resolved as such.
The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is at yet another critical turning point. The less the United States and the international community talk about reform and the more they focus on the broader political picture, the better the chance that it will take the right turn.