Give It a Chance

James Zogby’s Column

Washington There are some positives, some negatives and some very real dangers ahead on the “Road Map” to peace. I want to focus, for a moment, on the positives.

I am reminded of a crude but telling joke that has often been used in lessons about “situational ethics.” The story line of the joke runs something like this:

“A rich man approaches a young woman and asks if she would go with him for $1,000. She hesitates, considering the offer, whereupon he immediately counters with ‘What about $10?’ She slaps him saying, ‘What kind of woman do you think I am?’ He responds, ‘We’ve already determined that, now we’re haggling over the price.’

Much has already been written in the Arab world criticizing or questioning the sincerity of President Bush’s “vision” of a two-state solution or of Israel’s halting acceptance of that “vision.” But what, of course, must be recognized is that what all parties now agree to is the fact that a final peace settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict much include both a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. “Now we’re haggling over the price.”

To some this may not seem so significant, but in reality it represents something of a breakthrough. Palestinians, at their historic 1988 Algiers PNC meeting, and the Arab League, at the 2002 Beirut summit, are on record supporting a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israeli leaders, however, especially from the Likud bloc, have been loathe to recognize any right of self-determination for the Palestinians west of the Jordan River.

The official U.S. political discourse on these matters has usually followed the Israeli lead. And so it is important to recognize that until now no U.S. Administration has been so clear so early on in addressing the right of Palestinians to a sovereign independent state.

I can testify to this from my three decades of involvement in the American debate over Palestinian rights. In 1988, for example, I was defeated in my efforts to pass an amendment to the Democratic Party’s platform calling for a resolution to the conflict based on “mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The best formula we were able to work out with the first Bush Administration was the “implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 based on land for peace and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” Interestingly enough, a resolution commending President Bush’s adoption of that formula was soundly defeated at the 1992 Republican Party platform meeting.

President Clinton began a process of ratcheting up the language used to affirm Palestinian rights. At his request, in his second term, we worked on language to elaborate these rights coming as close as possible to “statehood,” without ever crossing the threshold of using the word itself. He spoke of the Palestinians’ “right to live free and independent in a land of their own,” or their “right to govern themselves as a free people in their own land.” It was not until January 2001, as he was preparing to leave office, that Clinton made it clear that “there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable Palestinian state.”

And so, even with the onerous pre-conditions now being imposed by the U.S. side, and the bizarre and humiliating interpretations of statehood imposed by the Israeli side, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that what is now on the table is the Bush Administration’s concept of a “viable Palestinian state.” The rest is “haggling over the price.”

Another positive development along the road has been the reigniting of a fierce internal Israeli debate. Despite intense domestic opposition from within his own coalition, Prime Minister Sharon has been forced to accept Pres. Bush’s vision and at least the outlines of the “Road Map.”

During and after the Israeli Cabinet debate on this matter the far-right dug deep into its lexicon of hate, using language they had previously reserved for the likes of former Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres. Said one Likudnik, “Sharon has betrayed Zionism.” Said another, “On Sunday, May 25, 2003 (the day the Cabinet accepted the “Road Map”) the state of Israel ceased to exist.”

In an effort to defend himself, Sharon, in a pique, chastised his followers stating that the “occupation” of the Palestinians had to end. The left in Israel was delighted, the right incensed. Sharon, a day later, lamely tried to correct his remarks, but the die had been cast. The Israeli and U.S. debates over “statehood” and “occupation” are now in full bloom and, to return to our original metaphor, “we’re just haggling over the price.”

All that having been said, real dangers lay ahead and even an optimist must be wary of what may come next. Extremists – Israeli, Palestinian and American – all remain committed to scuttling this still too feeble attempt to restart negotiations on the road to peace.

Given past performance, Arabs are justifiably suspicious of the U.S.’s commitment and Israel’s intentions in this process. The Likud government will, no doubt, make every effort to limit their concessions, impose unrealistic conditions on the Palestinians and define an unacceptable outcome to the process. Already they have set pre-conditions which, if accepted, would abort the entire peace effort. All the while they continue to establish “facts on the ground” – an  annexationist wall, and new additions to their obscene settlements – all in an effort to realize their aspirations and appease their supporters.

The Bush Administration, if it continues to apply pressure toward realization of its vision, will face significant domestic reaction from an unholy alliance of neo-conservatives, Christian fundamentalists and Likudniks, within the ranks of their supporters. But no real progress can be made unless Pres. Bush uses balanced pressure to alter Israeli behavior. And, in many ways it can be said that the success or failure of the process will be determined by the political resolve of the White House.

Through it all, the Palestinians will continue to suffer from suffocating repression, economic depravation and humiliating occupation.

But a homegrown debate is developing within Israel and the U.S. and this must be encouraged. Here in the U.S. some mainstream Jewish American organizations and an unlikely collection of pro-Israel members of Congress have come together in support of the President’s “vision.” Major U.S. newspapers have editorialized in favor of the “Road Map” and a Palestinian state. And recent polls show that once again significant majorities of Americans and Israelis support an independent Palestinian state.

The position taken by the Palestinian Authority with regard to suicide bombings is correct. Those killings are morally wrong and politically damaging and they must be stopped. Even if Israel acts to provoke, anger and revenge are not acceptable or productive responses.

Despite having endured enormous losses and unbearable pain, Palestinians retain substantial worldwide sympathy and the possibility of winning a great moral and political victory. But to do so will require national unity and tremendous self-restraint.

The “Road Map” may not succeed, but it has already produced recognition of Palestinian statehood and a renewed international debate about the need to end the occupation. It is better, at this point, to pocket these advances and unite behind the leaderships’ efforts to build broader international recognition and support in the difficult days that lie ahead. If this effort fails, it ought to be clear that it was as a result of Israeli intransigence or a lack of American resolve, not a rogue bomber playing into the hands of those looking for a reason to deny Palestinian rights. Let the process and the haggling begin.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.