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Critical Currents: Revisiting how to end the conflict

By Naomi Chazan, The Jerusalem Post

Date: 11.12.08

The February 10, 2009, elections will be decided, like all previous polls in this country since 1967, first and foremost on matters of peace and security. The economic crisis notwithstanding, the next 10 weeks therefore provide a unique opportunity to reexamine conventional wisdom on the state of negotiations and suggest new approaches to ending the Arab-Israel conflict.

Following are five central observations and attendant propositions that can expand the discourse during this critical period and beyond.

OBSERVATION 1: The trajectory of negotiations, laid down in the Oslo Accords and pursued with mild modifications in the Road Map and last year at Annapolis, has run its course. Any additional effort to continue talks along these lines will meet with the same results: endless backroom bickering with no measurable outcome. Under these circumstances, it is time to jettison the rubric that launched Israeli-Palestinian talks but has been unhelpful in guiding them to a successful conclusion.

Proposition: regionalize the solution. A new conceptual approach is called for, one which takes a comprehensive look at the Arab-Israel conflict and seeks to address its various manifestations with a view to normalizing Israel's standing in the region.

The Arab peace initiative fits this bill. It suggests a multi-track dynamic (including Syria as well as the Palestinians) and offers Israel the hope of achieving the goal enshrined in its Declaration of Independence: securing a legitimate sovereign state at peace with its neighbors. Tellingly, it also provides a long-term strategic cushion against the spread of Islamic extremism.

OBSERVATION 2: Israelis and Palestinians cannot, at this point, achieve a permanent settlement on their own. The most recent round of talks has highlighted the repeated inability of the parties, despite some progress, to conclude lasting agreements on core issues. The bilateral format of the negotiating process is simply not working. To persevere on this track is to invite frustration and, ultimately, failure.

Proposition: internationalize the process. The United States under the Bush administration recognized the limitations of bilateralism and helped construct the Quartet umbrella which launched the Road Map in 2003. The Annapolis conference last year expanded the notion of an overarching international forum to include the Arab League and other key international actors. The institutionalization of such a broad global commitment by the incoming Obama administration can assist in promoting a more conducive climate for negotiations and supplying positive inducements for their successful conclusion.

OBSERVATION 3: The political weakness of successive Israeli and Palestinian leaders, along with the ongoing ambiguity of Syrian positions, raises serious doubts about the ability of even the most well-intentioned interlocutors to carry out an agreement should it be reached. The political incapacitation of the partners (albeit for very different reasons) has meant that even though there is a solid majority within Israel and Palestine regarding the necessity of a two-state solution (reaffirmed just this past week in the Tel Aviv University Peace Index), there is growing skepticism regarding the prospects for its implementation. This disbelief has, in itself, become a serious impediment to further movement.

Proposition: enhance proactive engagement. The feasibility of a comprehensive accord depends to no mean extent on the ability of the various parties to take courageous steps without sacrificing fundamental needs, especially in the security sphere. External guarantees, including a willingness to deploy forces, can allay justified concerns and augment the probability of arriving at a workable solution. The deliverability of its provisions can be further increased by making a concerted effort to guarantee protection and economic betterment to close the gap between the deteriorating situation on the ground and the diplomatic process. The international community cannot credibly press for a solution without taking the necessary steps to make it happen.

OBSERVATION 4: Negotiators have become prisoners of the five Oslo-framed permanent settlement issues - borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlement and security arrangements. The broad strokes for reaching an understanding on these matters were presented in the Clinton proposals, subsequently advanced in the Taba talks and detailed in the Geneva Initiative. Nevertheless, for quite a while it has been impossible to reach closure on these questions. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that there are veritable substantive impediments to achieving a lasting accord.

Proposition: reframe the negotiating agenda. A great deal of creativity is required at this time to prod discussions forward. A key starting point would be to admit the essential asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians (including not only the obvious power, economic and social imbalances, but also the inherent inequality between a sovereign state and a political movement in the context of negotiations). Creating artificial parity at the table, far from reducing these asymmetries, only exacerbates them and adversely affects discussions. It is crucial to develop mechanisms to level the playing fields in any future talks.

Such a move would allow for greater flexibility on other matters, such as overcoming the reluctance to go back to the roots of the conflict. For much too long, wariness of history has locked the parties into discrete, mutually exclusive, narratives that have prevented any understanding of the other's worldview. Revisiting the background of the conflict may be the only viable way to liberate it from the shackles of the past and facilitate constructive progress.

The same can be said of the possibility of dissociating the end of the occupation from the evacuation of settlements. Clearly, the substantive agenda is not as fixed as it appears. It is high time that it be reviewed in these and other ways.

OBSERVATION 5: The prospects for a durable two-state solution are fading rapidly. There is no time for procrastination or for the introduction of additional interim measures that will delay a permanent agreement and its implementation. The alternative - including institutionalized inequality under Israeli overrule, escalating violence and the specter of a regional conflagration with non-state actors - is truly alarming for all involved.

Proposition: expedite a permanent settlement in 2009. Barack Obama assumes office on January 20. The Israeli elections will be held on February 10. It is not advisable to do anything during this 20-day hiatus. But on the 21st day of the new administration in Washington, and on the first day of a different political reality in Israel, measures should be set in motion to restart negotiations within a revised framework with a view to completing them by the end of the year.