U.S. presidential race ignores Israel-PalestineThe clock is ticking for a two-state solution [Archives:2004/786/Opinion]

November 1 2004

by Erica Silverman
For The Yemen Times

Amidst the series of heated presidential debates between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, in which few words regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been uttered, Palestinian and Israeli leaders Ziad Abu-Zayyad and Yossi Alpher have concluded the United States will be consumed with Iraq for the next months, or perhaps the coming year.
On the fourth anniversary of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two leaders are engaged in a speaking tour, visiting non-partisan organizations and universities, discussing the prospects for conflict resolution and conflict management between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yossi Alpher, former senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, warned that “the clock is ticking for a two state solution and the chance for a renewed peace process is very low.” He believes the best strategy at this point is to discuss “conflict management” with “conflict resolution” as forethought. Ziad Abu Zayyad, representative of the Jerusalem District to the Palestinian Legislative Council, stated that planting Jewish settlements in the West Bank undermines the prospect for a two-state solution, and that it is in Israel's best interest to withdraw from the settlements.
Mr. Alpher and Mr. Abu Zayyad agreed that a Palestinian state appears to be a distant goal, and that losses are mounting for all parties involved. They lamented that the Palestinians have suffered an increasing number of casualties and fatalities, the Israeli peace camp has dwindled, settlements have continued to spread, and it is unlikely the “Road Map” can be renewed with Arafat and Sharon in power. Mr. Alpher cautioned that the mounting fear on both sides, the lack of a realistic solution, and an inactive leadership will result in a “South Africanization of this Conflict ithout a South African solution.”
On October 12th Mr. Alpher and Mr. Zayyad held a briefing hosted by the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) and Americans for Peace Now. ATFP, a not-for-profit corporation that aims to educate the American people about the national security interests of the United States in establishing a Palestinian state, is particularly adept at articulating the Palestinian viewpoint to the Washington community. Arab and American journalists, representatives of non-governmental organizations, businesspeople, and academics, were amongst those in attendance.

American Foreign Policy
Mr. Abu-Zayyad and Mr. Alpher described a radical change in American foreign policy toward Middle East politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Alpher argued in a post 9/11 world, Arafat's statements have placed the Palestinians in the camp of US described “bad guys.” He explained the United State's perception of the Middle East is that of a failed region, exporting violence, and warranting pre-emptive invasion of parts of the region in order to reform them.
Mr. Abu-Zayyad referenced Bush's April 14th speech on Iraq as an example of the administration's current ideology. In his speech President Bush proclaimed, “A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East. A free Iraq will show that America is on the side of Muslims who wish to live in peace, as we've already shown in Kuwait and Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.”

Sharon's Plan of Disengagement
Mr. Abu-Zayyad and Mr. Alpher concurred that Sharon's Disengagement Plan is seriously flawed, yet deserves support by default. Mr. Alpher believes that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon sees disengagement from Gaza as a way to hold onto settlements in the West Bank and prevent a peace process. However, Alpher sees the disengagement plan as an incentive for additional disengagement.
Mr. Alpher enumerated four central issues that will determine the success of the plan. Fist, the political will must reflect the public's will. Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Haaretz have all published reports that estimate 70% of the Israeli public supports the withdrawal from Gaza; hence Israeli's plan of action must reflect this consensus. This 70% of the population is politically inactive and the 5% of the population that vehemently opposes disengagement is highly active, creating a misperception of Israeli public will. Second, settler participation in the Israeli Army and security forces has become increasingly common, exhibited by the growing number of religious units. There must be careful coordination between the Israeli Army and the Israeli police to withstand settler resistance. Third is the necessary leadership of a determined, articulate Prime Minister to mobilize the 70% of the Israeli public that supports the plan. Thus far Sharon has been unable to garner active support from this large sector of the population. Fourth, the absence of American pressure makes it harder for Sharon to mobilize the population in favor of disengagement. Historically it has been fairly easy for an American president to influence Israeli politics. Israelis want their leader to be accepted by Washington and Sharon is well aware of this.
Mr. Alpher asserted the plan has a 50% chance of passage, and furthermore a pullout from Gaza does not mean Israel will earn Washington's full approval. He reasoned that the Israelis will need to continue disengagement beyond Gaza and through the West Bank for this to occur. Alpher concluded that Sharon has been unable to articulate this message out of fear of losing the little right-wing support he has.
Mr. Abu-Zayyad underlined that Palestinians view the plan with skepticism, fearing a possible hidden agenda or that it may simply be a redeployment of Israeli troops. Abu Zayyad noted that the instability in the Israeli decision making process has not generated confidence amongst the Palestinians that the Israelis will successfully execute their plan.
In the section of the Disengagement Plan titled, “Security Reality After the Evacuation,” under the subsection, “The Gaza Strip,” the plan reads, “Israel will supervise and guard the external envelope on land, will maintain exclusive control in the air space of Gaza, and will continue to conduct military activities in the sea space of the Gaza Strip.” Mr. Abu Zayyad emphasized that Palestinians must control points of entry and exit, and airspace before Israel can renounce responsibility for the Palestinian population. Both leaders believe this transfer of power is scheduled in phase two of the plan.

Palestinian Reform
Mr. Abu-Zayyad disagreed with Mr. Alpher that “conflict management” is a better strategy than “conflict resolution” at this time, countering it signifies there is no solution to the conflict. Abu-Zayyad argued that within the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian institutions, and amongst intellectual circles, there is a consensus that the Palestinians have been handling the conflict in the wrong way. “There is now pressure for real reform,” said Abu-Zayyad, citing the proposed electoral reforms based on a system of proportional representation as a concrete example. He explained that local government elections in 38 constituencies in the West Bank and Gaza are scheduled for early December, in which the Israelis will not interfere. He suggested that elections would change the mood on the street and ameliorate international perceptions.
Although a bleak outlook was presented, the effort put forth by these two leaders to present their positions in conjunction to a multitude of audiences here in Washington suggests possibilities for peace in its own right. This effort follows on the heels of the PLO Negotiations Support Unit's week long tour of congressional offices and non-profit groups at the end of September, which highlighted the major issues endangering the prospects of a two-state solution.
The consensus was that new leadership for Palestine, Israel, the US, and Europe, will present new opportunities. In the case of Palestine, new leadership could potentially articulate the framework of the debate from a Palestinian perspective, which Arafat has been unable to do.
Ziad Abu-Zayyad previously served as Minister of State in the Palestinian Authority and is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal. Yossi Alpher, formerly the Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the co-editor and co-founder of bitterlemons.org, an internet forum for elite Palestinian, Israeli, and international perspectives, launched in collaboration with Ghassan Khatib, the current Minister of Labor in the Palestinian Authority.