A tricky road to peace

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defending his endorsement of the `road map' at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem on May 26. - AMIT SHABI/AP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defending his endorsement of the `road map' at a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem on May 26. - AMIT SHABI/AP

The Israeli Cabinet approves with reservations the new road map for the Palestinian peace process, but there are enough potholes along the way to the 2005 deadline.

A UNIQUE feature of the West Bank of the present day is that Israelis and Palestinians use separate road networks to traverse the same piece of territory. Now, metaphorically speaking, they have been invited to travel down different paths to the same destination of a comprehensive settlement of the disputes between them. Either side is capable of making sure that no side will even begin the journey.

Just about the one certainty about West Asia is that there will be plenty of bad news to come. Tell-tale signs of an agreement were visible through the murk on the horizon when the two sides concluded the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000. Although the intifada broke out in the period between the Camp David talks and the next major negotiations held in Taba at the end of 2000, the two sides had closed to within inches of a settlement. But, the momentum of the intifada and Israel's harsh reaction to it proved disastrous for the peace process; and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have since then had no direct or serious negotiations. With several disasters in the background, it would require diehard optimism to believe that the new round of negotiations about to be launched will have a smoother passage.

The resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict is, however, so important to peace and the hope for justice in the world that there does seem to be a shared desire that the new peace plan - worked out by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - will produce positive results. In fact, opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis are willing to concede the major concessions that the proposals ask them to make, even though the majority still believes that the plan will not ultimately work. No poll data are available from the Palestinian side, but the reports that the Islamic resistance movement too is willing to exercise the restraints that the proposals enjoin on them suggest that the majority of Palestinians too are prepared to give the plan a fair trial.

There are a few other positive signs as well. Informally accepting the proposals, and for the first time ever, the Israeli Cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state being created to exist alongside Israel. This endorsement was made with the narrowest of majorities - 12 in favour, seven against with four abstentions. But the Tel Aviv stock market index shot up by six percentage points as soon as the Cabinet decision was announced, indicating that public sentiments were more favourable to the proposal than the Cabinet itself was.

On the negative side, a major but not explicitly stated component of the plan could stall its implementation time and again. The drafters, most probably the U.S. acting under Israel's instigation, have so drawn up the plan that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has been deliberately kept out of the loop. Israel and the Quartet will deal only with the new Palestinian Cabinet of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas or whoever might replace him. It is not at all certain that this attempt to sideline Arafat will actually work. There is another in-built component which could create hurdles. Progress in the implementation of the plan is to be based on set deadlines and according to the performance by either side of its part of the plan. It is easy to envisage situations in which one side will insist that measures be implemented once the deadline has arrived while the other will resist by pointing out that the performance on prior measures has not been satisfactory.

No assessments can be made about the prospects for the plan without taking into consideration the overall global or, at least, regional context. The U.S., the chief force behind the plan, has no doubt thrown its weight behind it because it needs to mollify an Arab world that has been incensed by its actions in Iraq and elsewhere. However, Israel and the ultra-hawks within the U.S. administration also believe that this is a moment of supreme weakness for the Arabs and their instincts will be to drive for a deal that is unfair to the Palestinians.

The new proposals mark a significant departure from the Oslo processes (which broke down with the onset of the intifada) in that the goal of creating a Palestinian state by 2005 is laid out up front. Otherwise it incorporates the basic concepts underlying the Oslo agreements - that the building of Palestinian national institutions should proceed in parallel with peace-making with Israel; that the Palestinians will progressively regain land and other concessions as they prove that they are ensuring Israel's security; that the rest of the Arab world must develop their relations with Israel in tandem with progress on the Palestinian front.

The proposals are envisaged as a "road map", which the two sides will have to abide by as they move from their current starting positions towards a comprehensive solution by 2005. To quote from the text released in Washington, it is a "performance-based and goal-driven road map, with clear phases, time-lines, target dates and benchmarks aiming at progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties in the political, security, economic, humanitarian and institution-building fields, under the auspices of the Quartet". Broadly speaking, in the first phase, which is considered to have already commenced, the Israelis and the Palestinians will have to revert to the status quo that existed at the time the intifada broke out and then begin rebuilding their relationship from there.

In reverting to the status quo that existed up to September 28, 2000, the Palestinians will have to put an end to the violence emanating from their side. This has been a stipulation in all the efforts at mediation made since that time but has always been caught up in the controversy of whether this meant "100 per cent success" (as Sharon has implied without being very specific) or "the 100 per cent effort" that the U.S. has always demanded and that the Palestinians have insisted they were putting in.

This controversy could continue to dog the negotiations to come, but there does appear to be a change. The Islamic resistance movements have suggested that they could consider a halt to attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers too, provided Israel ends its policy of assassinating suspected terrorists, its encroachment into Palestinian-populated areas and removes the cordons it has imposed around these areas. Since the text enjoins Israel to "take all necessary steps to normalise Palestinian life" - and that means an end to the cordons, assassinations, destruction of houses and farmlands and the incursions - there is a possibility that this hurdle can be got around, provided the two sides do not get embroiled in further controversy over who has to take the first step.

A significant change that has occurred in the period since the outbreak of the intifada is that the control exercised by the Palestinian Authority (or such authority as exists now) over the militants has eroded considerably. Even if the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad were to refrain from action against Israel, there are too many loose groups that are keen on avenging the atrocities that Israel committed during its occupation. A fairly effective, though far from perfect, method of stopping infiltrations and terrorist atrocities in Israel was through the security cooperation which the two sides effectuated through the mid-1990s. But for that security cooperation to be re-established, it would be first of all necessary to rebuild the Palestinian security forces that have been decimated. Once cooperation on the security front is re-established, Israel will have to begin withdrawing its forces from those parts of the Palestinian territory in which they have been stationed since September 28, 2000.

At the outset, Israel has to dismantle all the Jewish settlements or their outposts that have been strung out in the West Bank since Sharon took over as Prime Minister in March 2001. Once there is general agreement that the Palestinians have improved their performance on the security front and re-established cooperation with Israel in this regard, Israel will freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This will include a ban on building even in existing settlements under the pretext that it is necessary to cater for the natural growth of the population.

The road map requires the Palestinians to begin a major institution-building process. They will have to undertake a comprehensive political reform, including the drafting of a Constitution and the holding of elections, within a fairly short period of time. A pluralistic, liberal and responsive Palestinian administration is viewed as being essential for the success of the negotiations. But the negotiations will not be suspended while the Constitution is being drafted and elections are held. Since Israel and the Quartet are already dealing with Abbas' Cabinet rather than with Arafat, these procedures will continue even as the Palestinians go about building their national institutions.

A Palestinian state will be created as soon as the holding of elections signifies that a viable order of governance - a parliamentary democracy is the pre-approved model - is established in the territories. This state will initially have provisional borders to be marked out through engagement with Israel. Previous agreements that marked out tentative borders will be implemented and further action will be taken on the settlements. It is not very clear whether any of the isolated or scattered settlements will be dismantled at this stage. The Quartet will help the new state acquire international recognition and membership of the United Nations. An international conference will be held to mark this, the launch of the second phase (envisaged as lasting from June to the end of this year). Those Arab countries that had closed their trade offices in Israel after the outbreak of the intifada are expected to reopen them and also re-engage with Israel in multilateral fora dealing with economic issues, water sharing, environmental issues and so on.

Yet another international conference will be convened in the beginning of 2004 to mark the launch of the third phase. This conference will endorse the agreement setting up the Palestinian state with provisional borders and formally launch a process to achieve a permanent and comprehensive settlement by 2005. All the outstanding issues - such as the future status of East Jerusalem, the plight of the refugees, the final borders and the future of the settlements - will be dealt with in this phase. Once a full-fledged Palestinian state is set up alongside Israel, other Arab countries would have to make peace with Israel and recognise its right to exist within secure borders.

Israel's largely right-wing Cabinet tried hard to have the plan changed before it was made public and had drawn up a list of 14 reservations that it had. The Quartet refused to do so but the U.S. has told Israel that its reservations will be taken into account as the negotiations get under way. For their part, the Palestinians accepted the plan without reservation and instead insisted that it be implemented with no alterations.

The Israeli Cabinet, however, protected its flanks on the one issue in respect of which the vast majority of the citizens of the country believe there can be no compromise. The Cabinet passed a resolution that it would never approve the right of return of Palestinians displaced in the 1948 war or their descendants to their old homes in Israel. It also took care to point out that it had not approved the plan as a comprehensive whole but line by line and insisted that it strive to ensure that all 14 reservations were taken on board as the negotiations progressed. After the Cabinet had approved the plan, Sharon was to make a statement which had people in Israel and outside wondering whether the old super-hawk had seen the light. Appearing before parliamentarians of his Likud party, Sharon said, "Ruling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely. You may not like the word but what's happening is occupation. Holding 3.5 million Palestinians is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians, for the Israeli economy. We have to end this subject without risking our security".

While this statement was encouraging, its tail might contain the proverbial sting. Sharon has since his first term in office maintained that he was prepared only for a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians. In this interim period the Palestinians would be granted only autonomy and not full sovereignty and Israel would concede land only very gradually, if at all. Sharon's detractors and followers in Israel alike believe that the Prime Minister will try his best to ensure that the process to be launched will not be very different from his conception.

There seems to be little reason to believe otherwise. Sharon, who has been likened to a bulldozer for his political style, will follow the road map only at the pace of this piece of heavy machinery. It is also far from certain that the Palestinians will be able to repair the broken-down vehicle that passes for their administration and get it on the road.

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