Thirteen months from now the Israeli people are scheduled to go to the polls to elect a new government for the coming years. If the government doesn't fall in the coming months, the Sharon government will be the first in many years to last its full term in office.
One of the main reasons for Ariel Sharon's success in remaining in power is because the overwhelming majority of the public is pleased with his performance - at least when it comes to disengagement from Gaza. Sharon will remain popular in the public opinion polls if he continues to move Israel in the direction of peace. While the public is quite skeptical about the possibilities of making peace with the Palestinians, the public trusts that Sharon will not go too far and will not take too many too dangerous risks. On the other hand, if Sharon does nothing with his time remaining in office in moving Israel toward peace, the public will support calls for early elections and will search for political alternatives, even though these seem quite limited.
On the Palestinian side the situation is amazingly similar. The public is behind President Mahmoud Abbas's platform for peace and negotiations. Palestinian public opinion polls show, for the first time ever, concern for the economy above and beyond other political issues. Palestinians want to move toward peace with Israel. They don't want to drag the process on for a long time. They believe that Abbas is the right person for the job at the right time and do not wish to see another opportunity lost.
Abbas's White House visit was a great disappointment to the advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The main news item from the summit was the removal of the time frame for the creation of the Palestinian state which is now no longer linked, as many had thought, to the length of Bush's stay in the White House. This puts the possibilities for peace too far into future for it to have any real meaning for pushing toward peace in the present. The removal of the ticking clock as a means of pressure enables Israel to demonstrate complacency in the face of the developing stalemate with the Palestinians. This is a very dangerous attitude and state of mind in the Middle East. It should be well enough understood today that if there is no progress there is regression. There is no such state as the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The state of complacency might be viewed in Israel as a means of putting pressure on the Palestinians to act; however, no progress and more regression works more against Israeli interests - both short-term and, more importantly, the long-term interests, than it does against the Palestinians. Israel needs the Palestinian state for its survival at least as much as the Palestinians do.
Rather than celebrating the de-linking of the time frame from the Bush presidency, Israel should be urging President George W. Bush to assist the sides to speed up the clock. The disengagement from Gaza should have been the lever that moves the process forward.
ISRAELI TABOOS have been broken - the most important of these are the dismantling of settlements and agreeing to have third-party forces deployed and involved in monitoring. These are major steps forward. The momentum of progress has been halted by the failure of the sides to reach agreements on the issues of passages and access from Gaza to the world. James Wolfensohn, the special envoy of the Quartet has already complained about the wasted time and the dangers imposed as a result of the freeze. Allowing despair to overtake hope in Gaza is a precarious wager that neither Sharon nor Abbas can afford to take.
Abbas has been proposing for months now to enter into a secret back channel of permanent status negotiations. This has been rejected by Sharon, but nothing else has been offered except the usual mantra of dismantling terror. This should not be dismissed because of the overriding importance of basing any peace process in a process of disarming and reducing the threats and the realities of terrorism.
Abbas has now launched a process to disarm those militias working under the Fatah title. This is an important step forward. The US is apparently not opposing Abbas's plan to allow Hamas to become a legitimate political party through its participation in the elections. There is little that Israel can do now to prevent the Hamas from participating without taking the blame from the international community for preventing legitimate processes of democratization. Hamas parliamentarians will sit in the Palestinian parliament after January 2006. The true test of Abbas' governing ability and capacity will come after the January elections - if he achieves a large enough majority in the parliament to support a continuation of the disarming process that will then include Hamas.
In the meantime it is essential that the Palestinian elections take place in an atmosphere of a real political horizon. The Gaza questions must be resolved immediately. The economic hopes for Gaza and the willingness of the international community to assist with significant amounts of capital will only come to fruition if Gaza is opened to the world, to the West Bank and to Israel. Sharon's political leadership is necessary to break the deadlock (not between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between the various players inside Israel - including the competing policies of Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz). Israel must demonstrate its commitment to a negotiated process by beginning the dialogue (if not negotiations) with the Palestinian leadership.
It is time for the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and people to open a process of imagining peace. This is not to be confused with designing the "New Middle East" fantasy world, but rather beginning to paint realistic pictures of scenarios of how each side envisions Israeli-Palestinian peace. Imagining peace must not be detached from the difficult realities on the ground. Imagining peace is a useful tool that could enable each side not only to present their visions, but also to define their threat perceptions and fears regarding the policy options that are available to each other. Imagining peace would enable the sides to eventually approach the real negotiations with a greater understanding of the real red lines of each side while also being able to create new possibilities for resolving some of the more complex issues, such as Jerusalem.
The process of imagining peace should begin with an exchange of letters between Sharon and Abbas. Other Israeli and Palestinian leaders, writers, academics and ordinary Israelis and Palestinians should add their own visions to the public debate. The 13 months ahead of us should be used for changing the Israeli-Palestinian public discourse and for creating the atmosphere for negotiations and compromise. This process will enhance the process of enabling and concluding successful negotiations that can take place during the Bush presidency.