A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not likely be signed until after the next Israeli elections in 2000.
Fundamentally, a Palestinian state, though demilitarized, is a necessary part of such an agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition cannot accept this premise. As long as the Likud government is in power, meaningful compromises by either side should not be expected by the United States as it resumes its activity to facilitate further progress toward peace.
As things look now, the peace process is doomed. Its final collapse may be followed by more violence, bloodshed, even war. Yet even with the political chasm that now exists, might there not be some constructive steps to be encouraged, steps that would bear fruit for all parties?
Economic security a key
It is indeed possible to concentrate efforts on concrete programs based on the Oslo accords and not dependent on any "final" agreement. These projects are grounded in the belief that economic security and job creation are essential to lasting peace in the region. The following are examples of programs that should be encouraged by all sides:
1. Develop a new, comprehensive arrangement for the entry of a larger number of Palestinian workers into Israel. This should be closely monitored in order to address Israel's security concerns. In the past, working in Israel has been a major source of income to the West Bank and Gaza population.
According to James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, the income per capita in these areas fell by an alarming 25 percent in 1996. Such a new arrangement would substantially improve the economic situation and would support stability. Israel would also benefit by reducing its dependency on growing numbers of foreign workers who have created a blight on Israel's urban centers.
2. Build a port in Gaza and construct roads that would connect it to Jordan and to the West Bank. This port could serve as a Mediterranean outlet for Jordan. In the future, it may also be utilized by a post-Saddam Iraq.
3. Develop tourism programs that combine Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, providing a unique perspective for visitors. An Israeli-Jordanian tour package has always been attractive to tourists.
The inclusion of the Christian sites in Bethlehem, the holy places in Hebron, and unique archeological sites in Nablus would create a desirable tourist route that stretches from the caves of Petra to the beaches of Tel Aviv. An Israeli-Jordanian airport, north of Eilat and Aqaba, may effectively serve this route.
4. To support economic growth and travel within the Middle East, develop the airports in north Jerusalem and the south Gaza Strip into regional airports. This will provide the area with air links between destinations in the Gulf and in the Middle East.
5. Create a regional medical center, dedicated to serving the health care needs of the population, and also providing economic growth and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians. Located at the border between Gaza and Israel, this facility would be operated by Israeli and Palestinian personnel on full parity basis. It would serve patients from the entire region, and its construction and operation would serve to reduce Israeli and Palestinian unemployment.
6. Accelerate the development of planned industrial parks on the Israeli-Palestinian border. This has already received broad acceptance from all parties and can contribute concretely toward further cooperation.
7. Construct a natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel. This would strengthen relations between the two countries and would encourage Egypt's stabilizing role in the peace process. Additionally, this would provide significant revenues to the Egyptian economy.
These seven programs are predicated on two crucial assumptions. First, Yasser Arafat's security services must demonstrate that they can take effective and decisive action against terrorism. Second, the Israeli government must make a firm commitment to stop any expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
The first step is needed not only to save human lives, it is essential to the creation of an atmosphere that will not intimidate foreign investors and donors and will revive confidence between the communities. The second step is vital to assure the Palestinians that this interim period is not used by Israel to create a fait accompli on the ground, thereby making their future state non-viable.
A help to both sides
The current condition of the peace process is so fragile that prevention of a catastrophic deterioration would be considered a huge achievement. Implementations of projects such as these provides a pragmatic way of improving economic conditions in the Palestinian territories. It will establish the infrastructure needed for a self-sustaining Palestinian economy, and it will curb the recession in Israel.
Most important, such constructive activities will revive the hope that Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side peacefully. It will demonstrate that moderation, not extremism, pays off.
* Ephraim Sneh is a former governor of the West Bank and former member of the Rabin-Peres Cabinets, and is currently a Labor member of the Knesset.