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Middle East Peace Requires A Clear Vision

Madeleine Albright And Samuel Berger, The Financial Times, 09.12.03

In Geneva on December 1 Yossi Beilin, the former Israeli justice minister, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the former Palestinian information minister, unveiled a comprehensive blueprint for peace between their two peoples. The event attracted international attention but it is not the only such initiative. In the past five months, the People's Voice Campaign, the brainchild of Ami Ayalon, the former Israeli military chief of staff, and Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, has collected 113,000 Israeli and 65,000 Palestinian signatures on petitions outlining the basic principles for a peace agreement. These include a requirement that Israel close settlements on the West Bank and Gaza and that Palestinian refugees give up the automatic right of return to Israel.

These initiatives are a reminder that the desire for peace in the Middle East is, like Moses' burning bush, never consumed. While they are no substitute for government-to-government negotiations, they are valuable in challenging two myths: first, that there is no constituency among Palestinians for a peace settlement that recognises Israel's right to exist and, second, that violence is a realistic way to persuade Israel to accept a viable Palestinian state.

These initiatives also reflect the reality that guided President Bill Clinton's Middle East policy during his second term. Although the Oslo process deserves credit for bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table, ultimately it stalled because of its incremental approach. The concessions required along the way eroded mutual confidence. To make progress, it was necessary to give both sides a clear picture of what a final peace would look like, so both could focus on the benefits that peace would bring rather than on the costs of getting there. Both the Geneva initiative and the People's Voice Campaign build on the progress made in 2000 at Camp David and Taba; and both are intended to give Israelis and Palestinians a realistic sense of what peace would entail.

As Colin Powell, US secretary of state, made clear in a meeting last Friday with Mr Beilin and Mr Abed Rabbo, these unofficial efforts towards Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation complement official plans to implement the Middle East road map put together by the US, Russia, Europe and the United Nations. Both the unofficial and official plans envisage Israel and a demilitarised Palestine side by side. Both are designed to ensure Israeli security and accommodate Palestinian rights. The unauthorised efforts, however, reflect understandable frustration at the failure of Israeli, Palestinian and US leaders to act on their plan with any degree of urgency, determination or guts. A few speeches and photo opportunities are no substitute for the diplomatic heavy lifting that must precede a shift of momentum towards peace.

Simply urging Palestinians to make efforts to end violence and Israel to take steps to improve day-to-day life for Palestinians will not bring a solution. To empower moderate Palestinian leaders to take action against those who perpetrate violence, Israelis should be clear about the parameters of the Palestinian state they can envisage and offer them a clear route to it. And to make those parameters acceptable to most Israelis, Palestinians must accept that a two-state solution will ensure the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure and Israel's right to enjoy security and exist as a Jewish state.

We agree with the substantive outline, though not necessarily with every detail, of the Geneva initiative and the People's Voice Campaign. A successful final settlement will certainly require reformed democratic institutions on the Palestinian side and a willingness on the part of Israelis not to allow isolated incidents to impede progress.

The true importance of these initiatives, however, is in their core purpose - which is to remind Israeli and Palestinian leaders that the fates of their two peoples are inextricably linked. Neither can live in security while at war with the other. Peace is the only rational alternative for either side and its general shape is no longer some abstract mystery but inescapable and well known. The time has come, after three years of senseless bloodshed, for Israelis and Palestinians to resume the search for peace, not as a means of gaining a temporary advantage over the other but as a means of learning to live with each other. That is the message our leaders should act on after the wake-up call from Geneva.

Madeleine K. Albright, chairman of the Albright Group, served as US secretary of state, 1997-2001. Samuel R. Berger, chairman of Stonebridge International, was national security adviser, 1997-2001