Critical Currents: The fortieth year

Forty years after the Six Day War, Israel needs to get past the road map and out of the desert.

b&w idf tank 1967 298 88 (photo credit: IDF)
b&w idf tank 1967 298 88
(photo credit: IDF)
This week ushers in the 40th year of the Six Day war. For almost four decades Israelis and Palestinians have been wandering - at times aimlessly, all too often violently - in search of a just settlement. Today they are simultaneously closer to and further away from their declared objective of a sustainable peace. What is lacking now, more than ever before, is a workable mechanism to capitalize on areas of agreement and to assist in bridging glaring differences. The building blocks of such a framework exist; they still need to be put together creatively. The events of the past few weeks - most notably Prime Minister Olmert's visit to Washington and the promulgation of the Palestinian prisoners' National Reconciliation Document - highlight both the pitfalls and the promise inherent in the present conjuncture. The limits of the feasible in the aftermath of the Palestinian elections and the Gaza disengagement are now much clearer. Neither continued Israeli unilateralism nor unbridled Hamas rejectionism are acceptable. The former seeks to establish facts on the ground without achieving a modicum of Palestinian consent. The latter persists in questioning Israel's existence without creating an orderly foundation for either Palestinian daily subsistence or national legitimation. Sadly, the Quartet-led road map is unable to provide answers to these dilemmas. As a negotiating document it offers no clues as to how to deal with the incoming Israeli government's intention to one-sidedly redraw the country's boundaries. As a plan for the reduction of violence, it contains no insights on ways to curb the breakdown of central authority in Gaza and the West Bank, or to rein in warring factions. And while the vision of a contiguous, free and viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel in internationally recognized frontiers at the core of the road map enjoys widespread support domestically and internationally, the document no longer provides concrete and timely guidelines for its realization. There is a growing awareness, both in Israeli and Palestinian policymaking circles, of the limitations inherent in their own positions and the weaknesses of internationally designed instruments. Ehud Olmert's impressive appearance before Congress and his demonstrably cordial talks with President George W. Bush cannot obscure the American reluctance to sanction his program to demarcate Israel's boundaries alone. The US, not to speak of its partners in the international community, is distinctly uncomfortable with a partial Israeli withdrawal involving the annexation of settlement blocs on the West Bank without adequate Palestinian compensation within a comprehensive agreement. THE PREMIER, however halfheartedly, has therefore begun to explore negotiation options. Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres's meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm e-Sheikh last week is one example. So too are Ami Ayalon's public visit to Ramallah over the weekend and Olmert's planned meetings with Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah and Abu Mazen himself in the next few weeks. Even if these steps are being undertaken more to mollify critics than to obtain tangible results, they open possibilities that have been patently lacking for the past six years. On the Palestinian side, Hamas's refusal to meet international conditionalities has yielded a virtual blockade whose key victims are the Palestinian people as a whole. The deteriorating humanitarian situation has been intensified by growing internecine strife. The debate sparked by the prisoners' draft and reinforced by Abu Mazen's ultimatum to the Hamas leadership are indicative of stepped-up efforts to forge a new Palestinian consensus around the two-state solution. Such an internal Palestinian understanding may contribute to much-needed stability, especially in Gaza. And while discussions within the framework of the national dialogue reveal very different conceptions of the two-state option and how it can be actualized, the discourse underlines the preoccupation with ways of overcoming the glaring power asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. These efforts are designed to lay the groundwork for the resumption of negotiations with broad popular backing and to increase the prospects for the implementation of future accords. In effect, then, two distinct, locally initiated processes, prompted by differing motives, are taking place in Israel and Palestine. These new parallel developments, while possessing deep introspective qualities, have extensive external implications. They reflect a common desire, however divergently articulated, to move out of the present deadlock. Those still engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and committed to its resolution are urgently seeking an innovative formula that can bring these separate elements together and jump-start the stalled process. A closer look at the Arab League plan, coupled with a reexamination of the procedures ingrained in the advanced phases of the road map, may provide an interesting starting point for such an arrangement, particularly if linked to a mutually agreed cease-fire. Large doses of goodwill and innovation, especially on the part of the Quartet and moderate Arab leaders, are needed to trigger the process. The task of knitting together the disparate but intriguing pieces of the updated Israeli-Palestinian puzzle is pressing. It is not clear who is willing or able to rise to this challenge. What is apparent is that 40 years of political and military peregrinations are enough. The desert generation of Israelis and Palestinians are ready to allow its successors to nurture a different, peaceful, Promised Land.