Critical Currents: A new Israeli initiative

Declare an immediate cease-fire and start talking.

It's happening again: the all too familiar rhythm of rocket attacks and targeted assassinations, sniper killings and massive aerial strafing, attempted suicide bombings and artillery bombardments, horrendous civilian casualties and widespread insecurity. This new cycle of violence attests to the utter bankruptcy of unilateralism and the emptiness of its underlying rationale. Israel must now do what it has avoided for too long: launch a bold, comprehensive initiative that will set in motion a forward-looking dynamic leading to a durable Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. The Achilles' heel of the unilateral concept is that it operates in a vacuum. It consciously ignores Palestinian needs in the name of Israeli interests; it sacrifices Israel's long-term concerns for a series of ephemeral gains that procure neither safety nor security. According to the Tel Aviv University peace index published this week, a majority of the Israeli public understands that Israel cannot expect international backing for such measures. Most have arrived, belatedly, at the inescapable conclusion that unilateralism, far from being a way to shape one's own future, is in fact a means of dooming the country to ongoing strife. At the same time, 75 percent of Israeli citizens support the Olmert government's goal of demarcating permanent borders. The coalition has a solid mandate to promote a viable two-state solution. To jump-start the process, the prime minister should consider adopting a four-point Israeli peace plan consisting of the following steps. 1. Issue an invitation to the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to resume negotiations forthwith. For the past six years, successive Israeli governments have avoided engaging their Palestinian counterparts. It seems easier to assert that there is nobody to talk to than to grapple with Palestinian demands. Such a claim also provides a handy excuse to secure as much as possible with minimal concessions. But this refusal comes at an unacceptable price: it is a certain route to disorder, violence, instability and global isolation. The attack of muteness that has infected innately verbose Israeli leaders is neither reasonable nor justifiable. The fear of talking cannot obviate the need to do so. If Israel continues to rebuff every Palestinian overture, it may well find itself in a situation where its claim to the lack of a partner is devoid of any credibility. Whatever the content of the Prisoners' Document - and many segments are unpleasing to Israeli ears - its popular approval will confirm a Palestinian consensus on talks with Israel. The prime minister can either wait for the outcome of the July plebiscite, make every effort to thwart it, or do what logic demands: preempt its meaning by calling now for the resumption of negotiations. 2. Announce an immediate Israeli cease-fire, including the cessation of air, sea and land forays into the Palestinian territories. The resort to increasingly sophisticated military techniques to halt rocket attacks and deadly incursions into Israel has proven to be ineffective and counterproductive. While the defensive utility of the massive bombardment of Gaza is debatable, its adverse effects are increasingly apparent. The excruciating pictures of 12-year-old Houda Ghalia's anguished search for her dead family pressed home yet again the normative limits of employing military force as a substitute for policy. The waves of Israeli-Palestinian violence in recent years bear a distinct pattern of action and reaction. It has been easier for each side to blame the other for the eruption of a new round than to do anything about bringing it to an end. If Israel really wants to halt this deadly cycle, it would do well to capitalize on its superior military might by taking the lead in desisting from the use of force while it pursues its diplomatic alternative. 3. Facilitate humanitarian assistance and economic rehabilitation in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian population is being punished for democratically expressing at the ballot box its distaste for the pervasive corruption in the PLO and for giving voice to its frustration with the political deadlock. The virtual boycott of the Hamas government has not dampened Palestinian support for a two-state solution nor diminished the call for a negotiated settlement. It has, however, created immense human distress. Israel has an opportunity to demonstrate that, as part of an attempt to foster a new climate for negotiations, it distinguishes between Hamas recalcitrance and the sentiments of the Palestinian people. By linking negotiations to tangible improvements in daily life (including the transfer of Palestinian moneys withheld in recent months and the easing of restrictions on the movement of peoples and goods), Israel can help to solidify popular support for the renewal of talks. Coordination of these moves can also promote some constructive forms of Israeli-Palestinian interaction. 4. Urge the international community, and especially the Quartet, to convene the parties to restart the stalled peace process. The broad dissatisfaction with unilateralism, together with the absence of any non-violent alternative, has visibly paralyzed international activities in recent months. An Israeli initiative could refuel international commitment to a just resolution. Israel has much to gain by undertaking such a peace package of its own volition at this time. If it fails, the worst that can happen is that the lethal default option which now prevails will kick in once again.