- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Two peoples still want same parcels of land

Navigating the “Road Map” to Middle East peace will most certainly be more difficult for the Bush administration than going all the way to Baghdad to defeat Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein from power. This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell is back in the Middle East attempting to bring the incessantly derailed “process” back on track.

One hates to be a wet blanket, but when it comes to resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the record of failed peacemaking attempts is too long, depressing and blood-soaked to inspire much faith at this stage.

The crux of the matter is readily recognizable — peoples claiming the same parcel of land. The problem is in one way or another found in many of the world’s trouble spots — Kosovo or East Timor come to mind. Yet, no other place is quite like the Middle East. Israel contains the holy shrines of three world religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all intimately interconnected. When you stand in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, at the Great Mosque or in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it’s like standing at the center of the universe. How can mere politicians possibly disentangle this immense paradox?

The Bush administration landed this thankless task as part of the negotiations leading up to the war in Iraq. Other partners in the coalition, most significantly Britain’s Tony Blair, insisted that the action against Iraq not be part of a plan to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. In late April, the so-called “Quartet” of international negotiators — consisting of The United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — handed Israelis and Palestinians a 2,000-word “Road Map” towards peace. This would include a Palestinian state by 2005, and an immediate end to Palestinian violence and Israeli building of settlements. It is the latest in a series of Middle East initiatives from the Bush administration, dating back to June, when President Bush endorsed a Palestinian state, but under new Palestinian leadership.

Success depends primarily on one thing — recognition by both sides of the other’s right to exist in peace, secure within the borders of their own state. In fact, most Israelis long ago accepted a two-state solution, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Since the beginning of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, following the first Gulf War, Israeli governments have made progressive concessions, offering land for peace.

Unfortunately, the majority of Palestinians have not reached that same conclusion, believing still in a one-state solution. Under PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinians have continued to reject Israel’s existence.

Regrettably, Israeli concessions have only led to more violence. The territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip handed over to the Palestinian Authority by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s became breeding grounds for terrorist attacks. The fear among Israelis is that they would have a Palestinian terrorist state right on their borders. It is an entirely legitimate concern.

In addition, terrorist groups read the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon under Prime Minister Ehud Barak as a sign of weakness. It encouraged hopes among Palestinians for the first time in decades that Israel could be made to withdraw entirely from the West Bank, and maybe disappear altogether from the map of the Middle East.

On the more optimistic side, it is true that some things may be changing, creating an auspicious moment. The destruction of the entire Iraqi army by American forces in less than a month created a new respect for U.S. strength and determination in the Arab world. Also, a new Palestinian government under Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas immediately denounced the latest terrorist attack against Israeli civilians at a jazz club close to the U.S. embassy. Such rejection of violence against Israelis must be heard loud and clear from Palestinian leaders.

How far Mr. Abbas will be able to exercise his power, however, is not clear. Mr. Arafat is already attempting to regroup by making himself the head of a new National Security Council, placing himself above Mr. Abbas. As noted by Clinton administration Middle East envoy Martin Indyk, speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, if the “Road Map” fails, “it is because the Palestinians do not have a viable government as a political partner for Israel or the security capability to stop the violence.”

Finally, the mediation process itself does not inspire confidence, conducted as it is through the so-called Quartet of international actors. Palestinians may consider the United States biased in favor of Israel, but the European Union is unabashedly biased in favor of the Palestinians and is perceived by Israel as such. One strong mediator would provide a great chance of success. Furthermore, the current arrangement will render negotiations even more fraught with difficulty by adding on the baggage of damaged U.S.-EU relations — as though the Middle East was not difficult enough itself.

All this is not to say that peacemaking is not a worth another try. Only that the odds are very long indeed.

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