Israel Report

May 2003         

An Inauspicious Start

May 26, 2003
The cabinet decision to endorse the road map is being billed as an historic moment. It was. For the first time, the Israeli government has formally committed itself to the formation of a Palestinian state on this side of the Jordan river.

Ten years ago this September, there was another, much more festive historic moment the signing of Oslo's Declaration of Principles by Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

That moment too seemed pregnant with possibility for some, with trepidation for others.

How is this moment different? What should be done to ensure that this moment turns out better than the last one? That moment also followed American victories, first in the Cold War, then in evicting Iraq from Kuwait. Then, like now, there was a sense that the defeat of forces most opposed to peace Iraq, the PLO, and the Soviet bloc provided a window of opportunity for peacemaking.

This time, Saddam Hussein has not just been defeated, but ousted from power in a war dedicated to that objective. This time, Saddam's ouster is not an isolated act, but a battle in a wider war against the terror network of which he was one part. This time, the signatory of the last agreement, Yasser Arafat, has been revealed to be addicted to terrorism and the principle obstacle to any settlement.

The regional context of this moment, in other words, is arguably even more promising than a decade ago. Whether this regional climate is translated into a successful peace process depends on whether the lessons of the past decade of failure are learned.

Much will be made of the reservations that the cabinet passed in conjunction with its endorsement of the road map. Yet none of Israel's basic reservations alters the basic destination of that document: a Palestinian state. A document that did not contain so many flaws and yet endorsed a Palestinian state would have passed by an even larger majority that 12 to 7 (with 4 abstentions). The remarkable thing then, is not the reservations, but that a government so right-wing that Ariel Sharon sits on its left flank decided to back Palestinian statehood by a solid majority.

The conventional wisdom will be that it is this government, as much as the Palestinians, that threatens the prospects of the road map successfully reaching its declared destination two states living side by side in a stable, secure peace.

The road map was constructed according to such a conventional balance of blame. This is its primary weakness and threat to its success. The greatest problem with the road map is not where it is going, but where it came from.

Since the Six Day War of 1967, Middle East peacemaking has been built on the idea that Israeli reluctance to give up territory is the principle obstacle to peace. Since the current Palestinian offensive began, this formula has been changed by shifting some of the blame to the Palestinian side. Rather than completely blaming Israel, an equation has been created: Israel must give up land (and stop settlements), the Palestinians must stop terrorism.

These models have failed because they were attempts to ignore reality.

The reality always was, and continues to be, that the "Arab-Israeli conflict" is not about the land Israel took in order to survive, but the repeated Arab attempts to destroy Israel in its entirety.

The insistence that Israel at least share the blame for being under attack is not just a matter of unfairness. Unfairness per se is not pleasant, but it does not matter. What matters is that the readiness to blame Israel has taken the Arab world off the hook, and has been a key force in the legitimization of terrorism.

In September 2000, for example, the Palestinians even used terror to reduce their share of the blame in the conflict. Just two months before, at Camp David, Arafat had rejected Israel's offer of a state over almost the entire territory in dispute, including the redivision of Jerusalem. When the Palestinians launched their offensive, far from compounding the blame on them for scuttling peace, Israel became a pariah again.

The Palestinians have learned time and again that terror works. It is for this reason that, even in our post-September 11 world, they are so reluctant to stop it. This cycle can only be broken by a radical changing of the rules.

US President George W. Bush's June 24 speech did this by, for the first time, conditioning Palestinian statehood on Palestinian behavior a new leadership, a crackdown on terror, and democratization.

The road map undid this by once again shifting the burden back toward Israel. It did this not just structurally, but through its birth: by the US, Europe, Russia, and the UN with almost no Israeli role, as if a peace process by definition must be imposed upon Israel as much as the Palestinians.

Israel's endorsement of the road map presents the US with an opportunity to correct this pattern. Though much importance is being attached to the road map, it is more of an empty vessel than is usually understood.

If the US continues to try to prove its evenhandedness by pressuring Israel, and if it continues to shave off its expectations of the Palestinians (as has already happened with the demand for "new leadership"), the road map will fall into the same dust bin as its many failed predecessors. If, however, the US changes tack and places the primary burden on the Arab world to dismantle the edifice of enmity it has built so deep and so high, there is a chance that this inauspicious start could be salvaged.

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