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Ziad Asali- Restoring Arab-U.S. Trust

15. 09. 05 (Delivered at Council of US-Arab Relations, 12.9.2005)

In its bare essence, the Palestine/ Israel conflict is about two issues: real estate and dignity. No security, or genuine peace, will take place till the right balance is struck on both these scores for the majority of both people. The interconnectedness of these two issues, and the need to make progress on both, have rendered the conflict intractable and reduced it to a zero-sum game. Historically, any player could exercise veto power on compromise, by just hitting the right chords at the right time, to inflame passions that no politician could control, and bring all progress to a halt.

The most interesting feature of the disengagement plan was that it offered enough incentives to each party to actually implement policies that denied veto power to any would be spoiler. The inherent imbalance of power between the parties was reflected in the unilateral conception and execution of the disengagement by the Israelis; however, it has afforded enough to the Palestinians to remain engaged and to reap as many benefits as they could without officially compromising their goal of achieving a viable state in the land occupied since 1967.

The salient features, with practical as well as symbolic significance, of the disengagement are as follows:

1. The actual evacuation of settlers from their homes as a consequence to the conflict is a clear acknowledgement of the end of the dream of the Greater Israel.

2. The removal of settlers from four outposts in
the Northern West Bank, with no pretense of a meaningful security link, breaks the metaphysical bond to the land and sets a precedent.

3. The settler movement, which has received enormous
media coverage, has proved to be much less of a challenge than it hoped to be. It has engendered sympathy, and exhibited some hooliganism, but on balance, it proved to be a paper tiger and no match to the might of the government. The taboo has been broken and future Israel withdrawals from the West Bank are both thinkable and doable.

4. The Palestinian leadership has been able to deliver on
a peaceful withdrawal. Israel's unilateralism and its consistent criticism of the weakness of President Abbas cannot hide the fact that he did deliver a peaceful period of withdrawal that Israel itself was never able to achieve by force or by the threat of force.

5. Intra-Palestinian conflict remains one of the most
serious potential problems and the challenge for the Palestinian leadership to manage the take over and reconstruction is daunting.

6. The international community has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in providing political, economic, technical and military support to make this withdrawal possible. An engaged American administration made the whole exercise possible and without its engagement no gains can be sustained.

7. Egypt also has played a pivotal role in this process, it has provided security experts in Gaza, has negotiated and signed a bilateral agreement on Rafah crossing that commits its troupes on the border, as it signed economic deals with Israel on industrial zones and the sale of gas. These actions may have started the transition to a warm peace but future violence in Gaza could force excruciating choices on the Egyptian security officers, with major political consequences inside Egypt. However, we can state that a prototype may have already been set for a future Jordanian role regarding withdrawal from the West Bank.

The disengagement is an interim step, and its lasting significance will depend on steps to follow: Will the political realities in Palestine, Israel and the United States allow the making of decisions that will eventually lead to peace and to a viable Palestinian State alongside Israel?

The answer to this question depends on the Palestinians, the Israelis, on us as well as on the international community.

The Palestinians have to establish a central authority that provides security to its citizens and to its neighbors. Asking President Abbas to disarm his opponents without providing him the tools to do so, and without giving him and his people a political sense of their future independence in a viable state, is neither realistic nor achievable. The chaos, violence and lawlessness that can lose the Palestinians the opportunity for independence can only be confronted by a decisive and empowered leader.

A democratically elected president has the legitimacy, but no matter how courageous he might be, he needs to have the means and ability to impose his will as he upholds the law. This cannot be accomplished at the present time in Palestine without outside assistance in terms of weapons and in terms of economic aid. Without security, there will be no state and no peace. The present Palestinian leadership understands this equation. It is only prudent to monitor and to verify its words and deeds, but it is a grave error to deny it the tools to build an effective security apparatus. The crimes committed in Gaza in the last few days, and the lawlessness, could lead to anarchy if not confronted by the might of a state authority.

Israel, even in its present political challenge from the right, acknowledges the difference between Presidents Abbas and Arafat. For it to continue to deny Mr. Abbas a genuine partnership role, will inevitably lead to his defeat at the hands of more militant and non-compromising opponents. Security of the Palestinians and Israelis is indivisible and governments of both sides have to coordinate to achieve it. Unilateralism has run its course. Partnering with moderate Palestinians is in the national interest of Israel if it wants to retain a clear Jewish majority in a democratic state, but its political system may trump its national interest.

This is the where the United States can render the most valuable
service: with the goodwill that it has earned in Israel, it can prevent the dynamics of Israel's political system from enacting measures that will do damage to the cause of peace. It can do so by, publicly and clearly, voicing opposition to all unilateral measures that impact the future of Jerusalem and by drawing red lines that must not be crossed, on settlements and borders, to preserve the viability of a Palestinian state. Few Israeli politicians will publicly defy this president of the United States. The difference between pressure and advice amongst allies and friends should not be hard to tell. The coming few months of internal stock-taking and political maneuvering cannot be used to establish more facts on the grounds, and the United States can best help responsible Israeli politician survive the attacks of demagogues by assuming the responsibility for this decision. There has to be no ambiguity about the political linkage between the fate of Gaza and that of the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem. The international community has a clear interest in establishing peace on the basis of a viable Palestine alongside Israel. Its involvement in the economic development, as well as the security enhancement, of the Palestinians is being supervised by Jim Wolfensohn and General Ward. Economic assistance provided right now, with visible and palpable results on the grounds, with job creation, infrastructure and liquidity will prevent the breach of the levee that could flood Gaza with extremism and violence. Some Arab and Muslim nations have offered assistance and the G8 made commitments, but much more needs to be done. However, no amount of external assistance will do without free access to people and goods between Gaza, the West Bank and the rest of the world. This seems self-evident but, as in all other areas, mistrust and legitimate concerns have prevented complete resolution of this issue as we speak.

The corruption that has plagued Fatah and the PLO can be remedied by the most intrusive external measures to provide accountability and transparency, and these must and will be accepted. The competent management of Salam Fayyad, minister of finance, has given comfort to all relevant international agencies. The Palestinian private sector has already committed a hundred million dollars to Gaza, however much remains to be done to gain the confidence of outside investors.

The resolution of some of these issues, and progress on others, will have a great impact on the Palestinian legislative elections set for January 24. Denying Hamas and others the chance to compete by setting unachievable criteria for inclusion, as some Israelis have suggested, is a sign of weakness. Having them compete in elections against credible candidates who promise a future of hope and prosperity is a much better alternative. The clock is ticking on winning the hearts and minds of the people and the challenge is to put the remaining time to best use.

Having discussed the formula for peace, a two- state solution, we cannot underestimate the difficulties that face the adoption and implementation of this solution. Indeed, an ever increasing number of people are convinced that Israeli settlements have already closed the curtain on a viable Palestinian state. We should ask, what are the other possible options if this one fails?

Option one: A one-state solution, with one man one vote, with no one disenfranchised and with reconciliation and healing ala South Africa. This is the option of people who say that it is too late for a viable state of Palestine. The political realities facing such an option in Israel are insurmountable. The Jewish people who wanted to have a state of their own for ages are not going to volunteer to give it up without a fight. No matter what the future may bring, in the near term this proposal means continued conflict.

Option two: Separating Gaza from the West Bank: This can be done by failure to establish easy communication and transportation to the West Bank, by making no political progress on the road map, by implementing policies that favor Gaza economically, or the exact opposite, by allowing it to descend into chaos and instability. This option will simply leave the all the ingredients of the conflict unresolved.

Option three: Establishing new borders for Israel unilaterally, as defined by the wall/barrier/fence which will eat up around 15% of the land and will separate Jerusalem from Palestine. Such a state will not be viable and there will be no political leadership in Palestine capable of accepting it. Significantly, it keeps the problem of Jerusalem unresolved and invites the jihadis across the Muslim world to call for its liberation for generations to come. It will define the conflict as a holy war between Muslims and Jews rather than a national war between Palestinians and Israelis.

Option four: A variation on the pre 67 arrangement: by letting Gaza drift to the Egyptian sphere of influence and having the majority of the West Bank and its people revert to Jordan, perhaps even by making Jordan the Palestine option. This will add to the present mix a conflict with, and within, Jordan and will expand the geographic area of confrontation and strife. It too will hand the issue of Jerusalem to the holy warriors of the twenty first century.

Option five: A provisional Palestinian state without borders. This is an acknowledgement of the political impossibility of dealing with permanent status issues at this point in time. Managing a protracted process to lead to peace will take a level of coordination and discipline on the part of so many parties that ignores the historical record. Any option that extends the uncertainty about the end game will guarantee continued conflict.

Having outlined these options, I submit that the prudent course of action would be to empower the present Palestinian leadership to control and manage the transition to a state, to encourage the trend towards compromise and withdrawal in Israel initiated by Mr. Sharon, and to have the heavy hand of the international community guide the massive effort to rebuild a peaceful viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. Such a formula is a bargain at today's prices. Human passions run amuck at a large scale could make Tsunamis and ruptured levees seem like minor events.