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Bush can't order Mideast peace la carte

With Robert Malley, Globe and Mail, 21 April 2004

Why all the fuss about U.S. President George W. Bush welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan? Back in 2000, U.S. peace plans made clear that Israel would retain some West Bank settlements and that the Palestinian refugee problem would be resolved through resettlement in Palestine and elsewhere, but not in Israel. Since that time, every unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, from the Geneva accord to the People's Voice campaign, and every informal proposal, including the International Crisis Group's own, embodied those principles. Hasn't Mr. Bush simply echoed them, in order to provide Mr. Sharon with political cover to withdraw from Gaza, a step whose primary beneficiaries will be the Palestinians?

Still, it is one thing for Palestinians to make concessions in the context of bilateral negotiations, or to accept them in the context of a third party's fair and comprehensive deal. It is quite another for the United States to cherry-pick from among the various compromises those that the Palestinians will have to make, to announce them in the wake of discussions with Israel from which Palestinians were excluded and to do so in exchange for a step Mr. Sharon had announced he would take anyway, and which the United States has no guarantee he will implement. Little wonder Palestinians consider that Mr. Bush is giving what is not his to give so that Mr. Sharon will relinquish what is not his to keep.

The danger is that Mr. Bush's statement may erode U.S. credibility and status as an honest broker at a time when its reputation in the region already is at an all-time low. It could jeopardize efforts to mobilize others, Palestinian reformers as well as moderate Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, who are needed to help produce a successful and stable Gaza withdrawal. They will now be wary of association with an enterprise seen to unilaterally dispossess Palestinians of their rights. Nor does it hasten Palestinian acceptance of compromises that moderates wanted to sell as a fair deal and radicals can now denounce as an imposed one.

More significantly, Mr. Bush's decision to single out Palestinian concessions has altered the give-and-take premise of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in which each side held on to some of its bargaining chips in anticipation of a final deal. Most Palestinians were willing to contemplate Israeli annexation of some West Bank settlements, but only in the context of a reciprocal land exchange. Most Palestinians also seemed willing to concede that the refugees would not be resettled in Israel, but they needed a fair compensation package and artful language to soften the blow. And most were prepared to do this only in the context of an overall settlement resolving issues such as Jerusalem, security and water rights.

When negotiations finally resume, this playing field will have been fundamentally skewed: What can Palestinians claim in exchange for compromises that, in Israeli eyes, have already been decreed and blessed by the United States?

The answer to the dilemma created by the United States is not for it to walk its positions back, but rather to take them a bold step further, and, building on what Mr. Bush has said, put forward a full blueprint for a final settlement and seek broad international backing for it.

There is strong logic behind Mr. Bush's approach: Given the lack of trust, Israel cannot contemplate taking a difficult step without knowing in advance what the end of the road will look like.

That applies equally to the Palestinians.

If the selective depiction of a final agreement has undercut moderate Palestinians and undermined the prospects of international co-operation in the peace process, presentation of a fair and comprehensive one can have the opposite effect: Enable moderate Palestinian constituencies to take action against marginalized rejectionists, restore U.S. credibility, and get the international community in particular, Arab and European countries to forcefully promote the U.S. plan throughout the region.

From its first days in office, the Bush administration has resisted calls to tackle final-status issues with specifics. Now that it has started down that path, the United States implicitly has accepted the transition from a peace deal reached exclusively through bilateral negotiations to one whose contents are suggested from the outside. He should not stop halfway. A peace deal is not an la carte menu: It should be presented in full or not at all. Mr. Bush should complete the canvas he has begun to paint, and offer all parties his realistic vision of a just, viable and comprehensive settlement.

Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, is president of the International Crisis Group. Robert Malley is Middle East program director.