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"Bush's plan is simply unrealistic"
Comment by Gareth Evans and Rob Malley in the International Herald Tribune


JERUSALEM In his long-awaited Middle East speech, President George W. Bush has defined U.S. policy in clear and simple terms. The Palestinians are to get on with reforming themselves. While they reform, the Israelis are to hold the line with tough-as-you-like self protection. Until they reform, all the difficult political issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees are to go on the back burner. If they reform, a permanent solution can come together within three years.

Meanwhile the role of the United States and others is to give financial and technical help, and maybe talk up an ultimate two-state solution - but to remain otherwise disengaged.

None of this is very compelling for those who believe that incremental solutions have had their day, and who want much more committed U.S. and international leadership, a much clearer political road map to be presented, and more realism about what can be expected from the Palestinians in the absence of both.

Some unanswered questions cry out for response, and sooner or later Bush is going to have to fill in some of the key missing pieces, both in terms of substance and process.

The first question is: What is going to drive the Palestinians to accomplish the necessary reform? The Palestinians are expected to change their leadership, reconstruct their institutions and start building a free-market democracy - all with the help of Arab states that, in their own countries, would have none of it, and all while Israel's harsh military occupation persists. And in exchange for what?

As a first incentive, there is the idea of a provisional Palestinian state - lacking defined borders, a capital and fundamental attributes of sovereignty. Further down the road lies the prospect of resumed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, but with little if any guidance as to where such negotiations should lead. No third-party mechanism is proposed to minimize the risk of deadlock in any such talks.

A call for regime change, but with no serious carrots to accompany the sticks, won't provide the Palestinians with any genuine incentive to implement the necessary security steps or structural reforms. And it will undermine, rather than strengthen, growing voices within Palestinian society itself that are calling for domestic changes and an end to terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

The second question is: What if the Palestinians do succeed, under close international monitoring and in conditions of exemplary electoral fairness, in producing, as is perfectly likely, a landslide victory for Yasser Arafat as executive (not merely symbolic) head of state? The implication from the White House is that that won't be good enough.

Of course new, moderate, less compromised Palestinian leadership would be helpful in advancing the peace process. But so long as U.S. policy makes progress conditional not only upon decent structures but the right people emerging, it will ensure that they don't.

The third and most serious question of all is: What happens if the violence continues or gets worse? Talk of a new regime, of free and open markets, of the rule of law and an exemplary democracy is fine. But it has a distinct air of unreality when, every day, Israeli and Palestinian civilians are being killed and maimed, victims of the deadly logic driving a conflict that the parties can't solve themselves. Just how long can the United States sit this one out?

The issue is not whether Palestinian violence ought to be rewarded. Of course it should not. The only issue is whether U.S. policy, in its present form, can work. Precedent and logic suggest that it cannot.

The tragedy is that there exists a realistic alternative way to end the bloodshed. A majority of Israelis and Palestinians appear ready to accept a final peace settlement that would meet the basic needs of both sides. It is predicated on the creation of two states on the basis of the lines of June 1967 with mutual modifications; two capitals in Jerusalem; a nonmilitarized state of Palestine; and a solution to the refugee problem that does not entail a return to Israel.

Such a settlement would be based, too, on a heavy multinational military and civilian presence to help ensure its implementation and to address legitimate Israeli fears regarding the current nature of the Palestinian entity. But that solution, today, cannot be reached by the two parties acting on their own. Lack of political will and lack of political capacity both stand in the way.

The United States may have the luxury of waiting for the emergence of a hypothetical democratic state governed by hypothetical Palestinian leaders. Not so the Israeli and Palestinian people who live in the here and now. Bush needs to make another speech soon, not just imagining the future but offering a practical plan how to get there. It is not too late.

Gareth Evans is president and Robert Malley is Middle East program director of the International Crisis Group. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune



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