Too many unanswered questions

In recent months, under the direction of Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Ministry has been studying new and original ways to break out of the current deadlock. This commendable approach has now produced an initiative that is being seriously considered by the European Union. While the initiative itself appears to be flawed, the idea behind it is not: room must be made for a political concept or vision.

In contrast, the United States’ approach, as embodied in the Tenet/Mitchell recommendations, gives primacy to a ceasefire and offers no political “horizon.” After nearly 18 months of violence, this approach must be judged a failure. Elsewhere in the world, when a state encounters a determined liberation struggle, the parties usually end up shooting and talking at the same time. This is what must happen here. In this sense, the French have got it right.

But the French plan itself is short on logic. The idea of declaring a Palestinian state and holding elections as a confidence builder for the peace process–a kind of political jolt designed to break the spiral of violence and reintroduce political concepts–appears to ignore a number of key issues. Incidentally, so does the so-called Peres-Abu Alaa plan to jumpstart the process by declaring a Palestinian state. That initiative has almost certainly influenced the French plan.

The problems can be summed up in a series of questions. They more or less follow the chronological order of the French plan:

1. Why would the Sharon government agree to withdraw Israeli forces to their pre-September 2000 positions in order to enable elections, while Palestinian terrorist attacks continue? Doesn’t there have to be a genuine ceasefire first? And doesn’t this take us full circle back to the Tenet and Mitchell plans? If, on the other hand, the outlines of final status were already known– whether achieved through negotiations held under fire or imposed by the international community– then it would be logical to withdraw to enable elections.

2. Assuming elections were held under current circumstances, why would Arafat and Fateh campaign on a platform of peace rather than one of ongoing struggle, given that there is no agreed peace plan or concept?

3. Assuming they did campaign on a platform of peace, would Palestinian voters support them, considering the current atmosphere and the legacy of the past year and a half? Why would elections necessarily (as the French initiative claims) “support the Palestinian Authority’s popular legitimacy in its efforts to crack down on the extremist movements”? Isn’t the Authority already an elected body? Aren’t the extremist organizations likely to boycott these elections, as they did in 1996?

4. Assuming a Palestinian state is declared now, why should it function any better than the current Palestinian Authority? Won’t the leadership of Arafat and his cronies just perpetuate existing corruption, toleration of violence and lack of credibility?

5. In other words, what is the basis for the assumption that Palestinian elections and statehood implemented now would make a difference to the atmosphere, jumpstart a political process, and (as the French proposal claims) “trigger the psychological effect that could justify ending the Intifada”? What is the logic of this cause and effect relationship?

6. Finally, one must ask why this proposal, like the Peres-Abu Alaa scheme and so many others, insists on ignoring three key lessons of Oslo? First, you can’t base renewed territorial negotiations on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 without first reaching agreement on its meaning (essentially, whether withdrawal is from “territories” or “the territories”). Secondly, phasing tends to destroy confidence rather than build it, particularly when the parameters of the final phase remain undefined. Third, Israel and the Palestinians need a compulsory arbitration clause in any agreed scheme, like the one that rescued the Israel-Egypt peace process over Taba. In short, we cannot afford another failed peace process based on so- called constructive ambiguities.

At the level of international realpolitik, this initiative will certainly fail unless the Europeans succeed in enlisting the support of the United States. This would also have the commendable effect of uniting rather than dividing the western alliance over a key Middle East issue.

In this sense, European energies would be better employed in merging the French initiative with a modified version of the Clinton proposals of December 2000 and packaging them as a new UN Security Council resolution, designed to articulate the parameters of 242, and binding upon the parties. The US, and indeed the Arab countries as well, would be hard put to reject such an initiative. The growing body of Israelis who want to save their country from destruction from within by disengaging from occupation would have an internationally backed flag to rally around. So would Palestinians looking for a way out of the current cycle of death and destruction. We could indeed begin talking constructively while we shoot.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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