Critical Currents: What next?

Retaining the status quo in the shifting dynamic of the Mideast is illusionary and counterproductive.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Since the Gaza war, the inauguration of the Obama administration and the ushering in of the second Netanyahu government, the key strategic question has been apparent to all: How is it possible to achieve a viable two-state solution? The bevy of activity surrounding the insistence on a settlement freeze and its implications has not, surprisingly, been accompanied by a discussion of the issue at hand. The seemingly endless series of visits and consultations by American officials in the region, as well as the internal deliberations within Fatah and decision-making circles in Israel, have centered more on prerequisites for movement than on focusing the strategic debate. Any further delay in laying out the main options, prioritizing their desirability, assessing their feasibility and determining a course of action is untenable. Two major working assumptions guide the delineation of choices at this juncture. The first is that an Israeli-Palestinian accord must take the broader Middle East context into account. The regionalization of the solution means that bilateral arrangements, however important, are no longer enough to resolve the conflict. The second is that the process itself has become internationalized. The US has taken the lead, but it is making a concerted effort to include the main regional and international players. IT FOLLOWS from here that certain possibilities are really not options at all. The military alternative has proven time and again to be both dangerous and fruitless. Retaining the status quo in the shifting dynamic of the Middle East is as illusionary as it is counterproductive. And the notion of a long-term interim arrangement - an exercise in conflict management if there ever was one - is unsustainable. This leaves three strategic alternatives - in descending order of preference and probability - for creating a two-state reality in the foreseeable future: negotiations, imposition and international takeover. Although each may stand on its own, these possibilities are integrally intertwined. Failure of one inevitably leads to the other; failure of all denotes the demise of the two-state scenario. The negotiations option continues, as in the past, to be the most appealing. Yet talks cannot simply pick up where they were suspended six months ago. Nor can the incremental approach established with the signing of the Oslo agreement be resurrected once again with mild adjustments. The format launched in 1993 has run its course. Productive negotiations today require a thorough revision of basic parameters. The composition of the interlocutors must be changed to incorporate an active third party. The timetable should be specified in two critical respects: the deadline for the conclusion of talks and their frequency. A plan for linking negotiations with concrete changes on the ground has to be put in place. And since unexpected snags can derail the process, mechanisms for dealing with such crises should be designed and these ground rules accepted by all participants. The terms of reference must therefore be crystal clear to all involved - in particular the overarching significance of the Arab peace initiative and the need for a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. Above all, there must be an unwavering commitment to the goal of the actual establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as opposed to just achieving an understanding on this eventuality. Reaching agreement on these or similar provisions is no simple task. A mixture of carrots and sticks is currently being employed to put a mutually binding framework in place. The trigger for the commencement of negotiations will come in the form of a public announcement or as an outcome of an international conference convened for this purpose. Not only is the road to the resumption of negotiations fraught with difficulties, but there is no reason to believe that agreement on the details of the permanent settlement issues will be any easier than in the past. Some reframing which goes back to the roots of the conflict, acknowledges ongoing asymmetries and highlights heretofore-neglected issues (notably, reconciliation) may go a long way toward smoothing discussions. Negotiations, even if set in motion in a sensitive and sophisticated manner, might nevertheless fail. This may enhance the potential appeal of a second strategic option, one that proposes the imposition of a solution on the parties. An imposed settlement, by definition, requires external agreement on the substance of an accord. Such an understanding, while taking into account some of the concerns of Israelis and Palestinians, would undoubtedly also reflect the interests of its drafters. The document would then be presented to the parties, who would be expected to comply with its contents. This strategy presumes a willingness on the part of the international community, and especially the US, to take on a proactive role. It also assumes a commitment to involvement on the ground, both through the allocation of resources and supervision of their distribution and through the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Besides the fact that the readiness for such levels of engagement does not exist at this time, it is extremely difficult to set such a strategy in motion. This can be done by passing a binding resolution (probably in the UN Security Council) and/or by applying diplomatic (gradual isolation) or economic (various forms of sanctions) pressure, primarily on Israel. THE PROBABILITY of such a concerted campaign today is remote; with the collapse of negotiations, its likelihood might increase. This does not mean that an imposed strategy will necessarily succeed without the cooperation of the adversaries. Unless used as a catalyst for a negotiated agreement, the political and practical problems of implementation of such an approach may prove as much a boomerang as a boost in the quest for a durable resolution. These reservations notwithstanding, forcing an agreement may be more doable than the third strategic option - an international takeover of the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a trusteeship en route to the creation of a Palestinian state in these territories. This scenario rests on the assumption that negotiations will continue to falter and that acceptance of outside dictates will not be forthcoming. Under these circumstances, only an international repossession of the area can end the Israeli occupation and pave the way to Palestinian self-determination. This alternative is not as far-fetched as it appears. Such a strategy was successfully employed first in the case of Namibia and most recently in East Timor. But it was facilitated by an international consensus backed, at least partly, by concessions made for political reasons by South Africa and Indonesia respectively. Israel evinces no similar propensities at this time. This situation might change if gross destabilization sets in or if the Palestinians announce their independence unilaterally and seek international protection. Thus, this seemingly unrealistic strategy may become more conceivable if all else fails. Each of these possible approaches to the realization of a two-state solution has, as comparative experience demonstrates, multiple variants. Components of one can constructively be incorporated into the others. In broad strokes, however, there is a clear progression from negotiations to imposition and from there to the reconstruction of an international protectorate. If these options seem problematic, the specter of inaction for a lasting peace based on a two-state solution is even more so. Now is the time to seriously weigh these possibilities and their permutations. Preoccupation with haggling over preconditions for progress has delayed strategic thinking for far too long.