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Start with the Endgame

International Herald Tribune, 10 April 2002

With the Middle East crisis ever more alarming, Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit this week is welcome evidence of renewed U.S. engagement. But the critical question now is not the intensity of that engagement but its purpose. If the aim is still incremental - security first, the political issues later - failure will be inevitable, no matter how hard the United States or anyone else pushes. Progress will be hostage to the last extremist on either side.

It is time for the key international players, led by the United States, to cut directly to the main issues, identify the terms of a just settlement, put maximum pressure on both sides to accept that settlement, and put in place machinery that will make it all stick.

This is a hugely ambitious agenda, but a report issued this Wednesday by the International Crisis Group, "Time to Lead: The International Community and the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict," shows how it might be done.

With mutual distrust so intense and widespread, and all-out war now the backdrop, it is illusory to hope that security cooperation can be resumed and confidence rebuilt from the base of a cease-fire alone. Steps that would once have had a profound effect on the political dynamics - like an Israeli settlement freeze - have lost their luster. The sell-by date has already expired on many of the ideas and solutions that were relevant in the past.

It is now clearer than ever before that a genuine political solution is a precondition for security, not its consequence. The vicious cycle of terror and military attacks can be broken only by a fair and comprehensive end-of-conflict political agreement.

The outlines of this settlement are clear. They were launched at Camp David, elaborated in Taba and further refined in informal discussions between people from both communities:

  • Two states, Israel and Palestine, would live side by side, with Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and most of the West Bank, and land swaps of equal size enabling Israel to incorporate most of its West Bank settlers.
  • Palestine's capital would be the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and Israel's would be West Jerusalem and the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
  • Palestine would govern the Haram al-Sharif with firm, internationally backed guarantees against any excavation without Israel's express consent.
  • Palestine would be nonmilitarized, and a U.S.-led international force would provide security to both states.
  • The refugee issue would be resolved in a way that addresses the Palestinians' deep sense of injustice, without upsetting Israel's demographic balance through the mass return of refugees. The solution here might include not only financial compensation, and the choice of resettlement in Palestine or third countries, but an option to return to that part of the present Israel which would be swapped for territory on the West Bank.

Of course it would be wildly optimistic in the present environment to think that the present leaderships, left to themselves, could negotiate any such deal. But the dynamics would be completely different if the deal's basic terms were agreed upon by the United States and the European Union, supported by Russia and the key Arab states (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), and were delivered to both sides by a contact group led by the United States and consisting of these players plus the United Nations Secretariat.

The critical new political ingredients would be U.S. commitment to a specific plan - not just support for a process to produce one - and the kind of vocal and public backing from key Arab states that would both put pressure on and provide cover for the Palestinian leadership.

The second step, with the political plan on the table, would be for Israel and the Palestinians to be pressured to implement a real cease-fire. Knowing that the international community would press for a fair comprehensive deal, Palestinian militants would have an incentive to end the violence, and the Palestinian leadership would have added leverage and legitimacy to compel them to do so. And genuine Palestinian efforts to restore security would make it more likely that the Israeli public would accept the difficult compromises entailed by any fair final deal. The third step would be for an on-the-ground implementation and verification group to help sustain the cease-fire, verify its implementation, register complaints and resolve local disputes. To be effective, it would need to have direct ties to the contact group (which would be simultaneously pushing to conclusion the end-of-conflict deal) and be empowered, with the support of both sides, with more than enough specific authority to carry out its responsibilities. The mandate, role and size of the group would evolve as the whole settlement process moved forward.

Internationalization of the conflict is no longer an option - it is a fact. Regional players are fueling the conflict by providing support for radical groups, and the conflict is fueling instability well beyond its borders. Playing the incremental game - focusing on a cease-fire, rebuilding trust and reaching partial agreements - will not end the cycle of violence. The international community, led by the United States, has to press from the outset for a fair and comprehensive political solution to this conflict.