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Friday, February 2, 2007

Test of Syria's intentions

Test of Syria's intentions
By Shlomo Ben-Ami

Holding your breath in light of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest peace trip to the Middle East or the Quartet meeting tomorrow is not recommended. U.S. President George W. Bush needed six years to understand that without an Israeli-Arab agreement, an alliance of the moderates in the region has no future. But Rice's peace offensive comes too late for a president beleaguered at home and abroad. And if this latest effort isn't thwarted by the misguided outlook that motivates it, it will collapse in the face of the anarchy in the Palestinian Authority and the weakness of the Israeli government.
The road map in its current form cannot possibly offer a realistic political prospect. This is the case even if the political weakness of both sides is ignored and the first phase, which requires the Palestinians to dismantle the terror infrastructure and Israel to destroy the illegal outposts, is renounced.
The Quartet meeting will not be able to ignore the Palestinians' intransigent opposition to the second phase of the road map as well, which calls for a Palestinian state within "temporary borders." The Palestinian position is not completely illogical; the effort and political price required to chart the boundaries of a temporary state are such that it's better to invest them in a permanent one. Even if the Palestinians do agree to temporary borders, it's doubtful whether Israel will be able to meet the ensuing conditions: completely freezing all construction in the settlements under close international supervision and paving a road in the area between the temporary border and the 1967 line, including East Jerusalem.
The road map, then, is being disassembled: no first phase and no second phase, but a direct and immediate jump to the final-status agreement.
But will someone who did not manage to evacuate even a single outpost in the course of a year be able to make historic decisions on borders, refugees, Jerusalem and sacred sites? What chance does the government have of adopting an agreed-upon political strategy when four of its key ministers have each suggested different peace plans during their meetings with Rice? And will the Palestinian Authority leadership, which is on the verge of civil war before having dared to even consider dismantling the terror infrastructure, be able to take the risk of the compromises entailed in an agreement with Israel? There is no alliance of the moderates; we must strive for a deal to which the extremists will agree, lest Palestinian society deteriorate into an all-embracing war.
If there is a chance that the Six-Day War, which has continued for 40 years now, will not enter its jubilee, then this despairing process must begin from the end, by coming up with a clear and detailed outline for the final-status agreement and working backward to the implementation stages, under international supervision.
The Israeli reflex is to dismiss out of hand any attempt to internationalize a solution to the conflict. But there is no choice. If Yasser Arafat, with his unchallenged revolutionary authority, could not agree to a historic compromise on the issues at the heart of the conflict unless it was done with international intervention, then will a leader like Mahmoud Abbas - who is gasping for political oxygen and is subject to a violent blockade by the democratic majority controlled by Hamas - make the necessary compromises, especially on issues like the right of return, without the legitimacy and protection of an international and inter-Arab umbrella?
The 2002 inter-Arab peace initiative, which Israel's prime minister praised in his speech at Sde Boker, calls for a regional solution to the conflict now that attempts to resolve it through bilateral negotiations have failed. In this initiative, the Arab League seized the monopoly on the decision to end the conflict from the Palestinians and moved it into an international forum. Internationalizing the solution is also the only chance to strengthen moderates and completely isolate Hamas, if it does not accept the conditions of the agreement.
The Arab world is screaming for an Israeli-Arab agreement not because of a sudden affection for Israel, but because it sees such a move as a way to curb radical Islam and stop the spread of the Shi'ite regime under Iranian patronage.
If Rice and the Quartet members are unable to cut the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead of continuing the Sisyphean task of untying it, they're better off deciding on what steps to take so they can move over immediately to an Israeli-Syrian peace track. Such a move would have an unprecedented effect on creating the conditions for the maturation of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
But there is another failure in the U.S. strategy, which assumes that Syria must be isolated rather than turned into a negotiation partner, as the Baker-Hamilton report recommends. What lies in the balance - a more functional regional order, stability in Lebanon and a severing of the Damascus-Tehran axis - is too important for Israel and the United States to keep refusing to put Bashar Assad's intentions regarding peace to the test.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel to solve the problem on the Palestinian front or on the Syrian front. In both cases, the solution is already known. The problem is the lack of political will and the leadership failure on both sides.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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