Middle East: The diplomacy

Combine the best of several key proposals

LOCKED in seemingly endless violence, Israelis and Palestinians confront an even more deadly enemy: time. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the sense that it will not end in our lifetime.

Consider the numbers: Thirty-five years of occupation; eight since the Oslo accords. Far too many lives lost as negotiators tried interim and incremental solutions, waiting for the growth of trust as a foundation for lasting peace.

Instead, a second intifada erupted, as Palestinians failed to control terrorists and Israel surrendered to extremists demanding settlements. Time blessed the extremists while cursing the weak and ordinary.

Yet Washington's prescribed scenario remains an intricate dance, moving from a cease-fire to confidence-building to negotiations. Those artfully nuanced, time-consuming steps can only bring a deadly stumble, as before.

Is there no way out except bombs and guns? Four alternatives have been discussed:

First, Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon proposes a "buffer zone protected by a high fence," unilaterally walling off Palestinians, seizing more land, and preserving Jewish settlements. If blocked in attacking Israel, a virtual impossibility, the intifada would predictably move outside the region.

Second, Palestinians call for the stationing of peacekeepers. The Israelis fear outside forces will not block terrorists.

Third, Europeans debate the imposition of economic sanctions to compel withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas. That could end any European Union role as neutral intermediary.

Finally, there is Mr. Sharon's idea calling for a kind of Madrid conference involving Israel, Arab states, and Palestinians (possibly without Yasser Arafat). Arabs reject it as a nonstarter until Israel withdraws.

The answer may be a bit of each. A new Madrid conference could be convened with rotating cochairs – the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia. To get around the Arafat exclusion and Arab distaste for Sharon, representatives could be at the foreign- minister level.

Convening a conference would not wait on a definitive cease-fire or complete Israeli withdrawal. It would be sufficient for most Israeli troops to pull out and for those who remained in Ramallah and Bethlehem to allow Mr. Arafat and other barricaded Palestinians access to humanitarian aid and communication with the outside world.

The object would be a final settlement to the conflict – starting with the understandings reached by the last negotiations at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 and the peace plan of the Saudi crown prince.

In effect, a coherent Palestinian state would be created on land taken by Israel in 1967 with swaps along the border allowing Israel to retain some settlements and Palestine to gain equivalent land from pre-1967 Israel. "Refugee return" would be acknowledged, but only a symbolic number would go to Israel.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians would have sovereignty over their neighborhoods and Israelis over Jewish areas. Palestine would give up heavy weaponry, but receive generous development assistance. As soon as an Israel-Palestine document was approved, work would begin on ending the Syrian and Lebanese conflicts on the same land-for-peace basis. Finally, Israel would benefit from full normalization and peace with all Arab states.

ALONG the "high fence" between belligerents, armed NATO forces would be stationed to preserve peace. (Both Hamas and its Israeli counterparts can be expected to react violently.) A NATO command reporting to the four co-chairs would oversee Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian disarmament.

Once the concepts are adopted by the cochairs and accepted by the participants, implementation would begin. Should any party fail to agree, sanctions would be imposed. When hesitant Israelis and Palestinians grasped their threatened isolation and hardship, reluctant cooperation would surely follow. Then, in the face of determined world consensus for ending the conflict, these long-suffering peoples could begin normal lives.

• Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service officer, first worked on Middle East issues in 1964.

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