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A New American Peace Initiative:  Can It Work?

Gershon Baskin, Ph.D.
Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI

October 11, 2001

Since the horrific terrorism attack on America of September 11
th many people have been asking if a new “window of opportunity” has opened up for the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. Arafat’s condemnation of terrorism in general and of the terrorism that hit the United States in specific, following wide reporting of Palestinian sympathy and support of Ben Laden, has seem to create a mode on rethinking within Palestinian political circles. This process has seemed to bring with it a re-engagement of the Palestinian issue for some of the Western nations, with Washington taking the lead. 

The talk of the town is rumors of a new American initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Based on a few statements by President Bush in favor of a Palestinian state and some leaks to well placed sources within the Israeli media establishment, it is now believed that the U.S. Administration will be presenting a full fledged package to Arafat and Sharon aimed at allowing the US to preserve the world-wide coalition it has built for its new war against terrorism. Bush, Blair and others apparently have been told by some of their Arab and Islamic allies that they must use this opportunity to remove the Palestinian issue from the region’s agenda in order for them (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan, etc.) to be part of the coalition.  It is clear that President Bush does not wish this fight against terrorism to be perceived as a “clash of civilizations” meaning a Western war against Islam. The involvement of Arab and Islamic states against terrorism is crucial for the success of the campaign and therefore, it might be an opportune time for this US administration to finally weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The rumors talk about a Pax Americana based on the Clinton principles spelled out verbally by the President at a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators (at the end of the Barak era). These principles set forth an Israeli-Palestinian peace on the basis of an independent sovereign Palestinian state in the June 4, 1967 borders minus agreed upon areas for annexation to Israel to accommodate for about 80% of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank (not 80% of the settlements) meaning about 4% of the territory of the West Bank (the exact details can be negotiated). The plan would include a shared Jerusalem on the basis of: “what is Arab to Palestine and what is Jewish to Israel” (meaning that the new neighborhoods/settlements built in East Jerusalem since 1967 would be under Israel and the three non-Jewish quarters of the Old City and all of the rest of East Jerusalem would be Palestinian, including the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount while the Kotel/Western Wall would be Israeli).  The plan would also provide for a restatement of the principles of mutual recognition and a commitment by both sides to live in peace.  There is no clear mention of the refugee issue and its solution.

So, if the Americans were to come to Sharon and Arafat and say to them “gentlemen, this is our plan, sign on the bottom line” what would they do and what would develop?  Well, first let’s tackle the Palestinian side  their positions are much clearer than the Israeli side.  I would say that in order for the Palestinians to agree to any Pax Americana they would have to receive a minimum of 96% of the West Bank, full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, statehood and real sovereignty, a real political-sovereign foothold in East Jerusalem, control of Haram al Sharif and guarantees of implementation in the form of US and other troops on the ground as a buffer between them and the Israelis. I believe that at this stage the Palestinians could live with some kind of delay in resolving the refugee issue with US guarantees that the issue will reappear at some designated time in the future.

The Israeli side is somewhat more complex due to the nature of Israeli politics and the dynamics of Israeli democracy.  First it is clear that Sharon will reject any US plan based on the Clinton principles.  Sharon will be steadfast in his rejection and unsuccessfully try to convince the world that the US plan is a strategy for the thrashing of Israel. Sharon’s rejectionism will lead to the demise of the coalition of national unity finally paving the path for Peres and his colleagues to leave the government.  If the US initiative is perceived as being serious and if Arafat retakes control of the territories and ceases the attacks against Israel, as the Americans are likely to pressure him to do so, then the time will be ripe for reconstituting an Israeli peace camp and an opposition to the right-wing government of Sharon (those are recognizably a lot of “if’s”!).

In my assessment, the majority of Israelis would return to the peace camp if they truly believed that there was a partner for a deal on the Palestinian side and if the Americans were really going to be on the ground to absorb the first wave of attacks should the process fail. Americans would have to be full partners to any deal with US, British and other troops (Scandinavians are always good, some other Europeans, a few Egyptians and Turks could play a positive role, etc.). These troops would have to be stationed at the external borders of the Palestinian state and at crucial buffer zones between Israel and Palestine and cooperate with Israel in providing whatever security guarantees are required to answer Israeli needs and assuage Israeli fears.

Could Sharon be brought in to the process?  The answer is probably no, but if the Americans could sell the Palestinians a plan that would be spread over a five year(+) period of Israeli withdrawals during which time the Palestinians would be engaged in peaceful state building and if the plan took Jerusalem and refugees off the agenda for the immediate future, Sharon could be brought in (once again a lot of “if’s”). For Sharon, a crucial point would be the immediate end of the Palestinian intifada prior to agreeing to withdraw from any territories  this could be finessed behind the scenes, and of course, a removal of Jerusalem from the immediate agenda could be presented by him as a success of his hard-line politics vis-à-vis the Americans.

Could Arafat agree to less than his demands (as stated above)?  The answer is also probably no, but if the American plan provided guarantees for true Palestinian sovereignty over 96% of the West Bank, even it took five years to get there, and a guarantee that he will get his share of Jerusalem in year six; with US and other foreign troops on the ground, then he too could point to enough political successes to end the intifada and declare victory.

Is any of this likely to happen? The answer is once again probably no.  By the time the American plan gets through all of the filters of the relevant players in Washington, it is likely to be too watered down for anyone to really have much faith in its ability to retract the region from its self-imposed doom. President Bush and his colleagues in Washington will have to take serious note of the opposition that any real pressure on Israel to accept such a plan is likely to generate in Congress after the wheels of AIPAC get into full gear. On this note, it is important not to forget the recent sea change in American public opinion viewing the US-Israel relationship as the main reason for which they explain Islamic and Arab hatred against America (as recently reported in a Newsweek poll). A lot also depends on the success of the war against terrorism  which is likely to take considerable time and it is likely that the US has not seen the last of the ugly face of fundamentalist terror. These factors might very well encourage the US to apply pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to reach some kind of agreement despite potential opposition in Congress generated by a right-wing Jewish establishment in the US.

I for one welcome and invite this new American engagement  but only if they are really determined and forceful with both sides. Since the beginning of this intifada, I have stated that Israelis and Palestinians cannot re-engage by themselves.  The trust necessary for a fruitful Israeli-Palestinian bi-lateral relationship and negotiations no longer exists. There is a need for strong and decisive US involvement. There is a possibility that September 11
th might be the date to be marked as a turning point in Washington’s Middle East peacemaking policies. In an ironic sense, the outcome of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism might very well be the reconstitution of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and the eventual re-emergence of Israel as regional player in the Middle East.