The current Israeli-Palestinian peace process relies on a step-by-step approach, which is destined to fail. Moreover, its goal is final status negotiations, which are unlikely to succeed.
Enough with the small steps. Enough negotiating. Years of intermittent talks between Israelis and Palestinians have produced a good notion of what a settlement acceptable to both sides must look like. The challenge is to get there before the onset of a catastrophic chain of events. Yesterday's resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israel's attempt yesterday to kill the top leaders of Hamas, could be the first links in that chain.
It is time for a fresh approach that leaps directly to a final deal, presented without further negotiations, backed by a U.S.-led international mandate, and submitted for approval via popular referenda among the Israeli and Palestinian people. This is the best and most realistic way forward.
The Bush administration's road map, by contrast, is faltering -- because of its own deficiencies, not merely those of the negotiating parties. Like past peace plans, it is based on the idea that incremental stages will bring Israelis and Palestinians to the point where they can negotiate the issues that separate them. The road map is somewhat clearer than previous proposals about the ultimate goal -- a two-state solution -- but not much. Unfortunately, the outcome is as predictable as the recipe is familiar, for an incremental peace process plays right into the hands of those who want no peace process at all.
Because the ultimate solution remains up for grabs, the protagonists pursue policies designed to shape its contours rather than to promote a common enterprise. The vagueness of the goal and an excess of suspicion mean that neither side has an incentive to live up to its obligations in a wholehearted way. Instead, such obligations -- Israeli evacuation of settler outposts or Palestinian confiscation of weapons, for example -- are carried out grudgingly and under pressure, if at all. The leadership on both sides must contend with domestic opposition, and neither is prepared to take it on at the outset of an ill-marked path. Each incremental gesture becomes the focal point of the next crisis. Every additional step creates one more opportunity for a misstep or deliberate sabotage.
Even if the parties were to overcome these obstacles and deal with their core issues, negotiations have exhausted their usefulness. They will not serve to build on common ground but to exaggerate remaining differences. But there is another strategy that would have a far greater chance of working.
The United States should, together with the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and Arab and Muslim nations, put forward a comprehensive, non-negotiable final agreement that would resonate with the Israeli and Palestinian people, addressing the vital needs on both sides. The outlines of such a plan are familiar. It would not be concocted outside the region; it would grow out of the history of the parties' negotiations.
The plan would include a U.S.-led international mandate to administer the territory that will make up the Palestinian state. As a result, implementation would not require either side to rely on the other's good faith. International forces would guard borders, supervise the Palestinian security forces' maintenance of law and order, and take control of land from which Israel withdraws. The United States would be the ultimate arbiter, transferring land to Palestinian sovereignty when appropriate. Israel would be offered membership in NATO and a U.S. defense treaty, and U.S. and European security guarantees would be extended to the Palestinian state.
Washington would next do the unexpected. It would not seek the agreement of the Israeli or Palestinian leadership. It would invite them to put the plan directly to their respective peoples. Both the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are more than willing to say no to one another. Each also is capable of turning down a U.S. plan. But, at a time of such high danger, on what basis could they rebuff the simple and straightforward request to check whether their own people are prepared to live with a U.S.-led, internationally backed solution?
The international coalition would mount a concerted political campaign, calling on Israelis and Palestinians to vote in favor of the plan. Selling the deal would be politically sensitive, and would require as much political nimbleness as putting it together. Arab and Muslim countries also would play significant roles, as would Israelis and Palestinians. If opinion polls are to be trusted, and if the campaign were waged vigorously and well, its outcome ought not be in doubt.
Simply imposing a solution would not work. Neither party trusts the other to implement it, and both sides would view it as alien, illegitimate and easy to discredit. Establishing a mandate or trusteeship in the absence of a final deal is equally doomed to failure. Palestinians will see it as a continuation of the occupation under another name and Israelis will refuse to give up their main strategic asset -- territory -- in return for an uncertain outcome. The combination of the three -- a comprehensive deal, an international mandate and a referendum -- would make up for the lack of trust, provide finality and endow it with popular legitimacy.
Like its predecessors, the road map requires leaders to make difficult decisions in a political environment that is stacked against them. The Palestinian Authority is asked to crack down on radical groups that enjoy genuine popular backing without any guarantee of an acceptable solution, while settlement activity and Israeli incursions proceed apace. Israel is asked to take on its settlers and cease its military operations without knowing if the Palestinians have come to terms with its existence and while the risk of terrorist attacks remains unabated. Neither side can mobilize public support; it is far simpler to line up political opposition.
Putting forward a final deal, proposing a U.S.-led international mandate and submitting it to referendums would shift the locus of decision-making to where the balance of power is far more favorable to proponents of an agreement. It would remove responsibility from unwilling or vulnerable leaders and place it in the public's hands. It would create genuine, authentic incentives for Israelis (who stand to gain security) and Palestinians (who stand to gain an end to occupation) to take on extremists in their midst and deprive them of the legitimacy they currently enjoy. The road map was accepted by the two parties not because they believed in it, but to placate Washington and avoid assuming the blame. This would be different.
The enterprise would require a full-time U.S.-led international team to draw up the peace agreement, campaign for the referendum and oversee implementation. The team's leader should be a figure with an abundance of clout and no shortage of respect from all sides. The first President Bush comes to mind.
There is no precedent for such a diplomatic gambit. But all previous efforts have failed. For the United States, the stakes could hardly be higher. Much of what it is undertaking in the Middle East hinges on events in the Israeli-Palestinian theater. There will be risks, to be sure. But the incentive for violence against the international forces would be minimal; unlike in Iraq, they would be seen to be ending an occupation, not initiating one.
Some will label this proposal unrealistic. But it is a surreal realism that doggedly pursues policies that have so plainly failed in the past. By carrying out this plan, the United States would be seen as a liberator of Arab land and protector of Israel's vital interests. President Bush has put forth a bold agenda for the region; for now, it appears stuck at chapter one. He has a chance to pursue an approach that matches his high ambitions.
Rob Malley is the Middle East/North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group.
Hussein Agha is senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University. He has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for more than 30 years. Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group in Washington. From 1998 to 2001, he was special adviser to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs.
7 September 2003