Critical Currents: Whither a cease-fire?

What a workable truce can now achieve is the resumption of permanent-status negotiations.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The obsessive preoccupation with the viability of the cease-fire announced on Sunday threatens to undermine its purpose. A respite in the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, so vital for purely human reasons, is not a goal in itself. It is one among several measures needed to jump-start a full-fledged process leading to the end of the conflict by agreement. Unless the bevy of diplomatic activity generated by the fragile hiatus in fighting focuses squarely on linking the cease-fire to the resumption of negotiations on a lasting settlement, no truce can endure. The plethora of plans presently circulating center on a series of steps aimed at reining in the violence in the region and reducing the civilian trauma it entails. The latest proposals raised by Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, the (unjustifiably maligned) Spanish-French-Italian initiative, the first stage of the latest Beilin plan, and even the last UN General Assembly resolution, all share the same core ingredients. The centerpiece is an immediate cease-fire which will bring about a simultaneous halt to both Israeli military operations in Gaza and to the Kassam rocket attacks on the Negev. The insistence on the cessation of these hostilities is long overdue - the spiral of attacks and reprisals has made life impossible for too many Palestinians and Israelis. It has fomented alienation and sown disorder. It has goaded extremists and extended their appeal to those who have lost hope. Above all, it has heightened enmity and precluded any rational discussion. TO FORTIFY the initial cease-fire and stabilize the situation on the ground, all the existing plans also suggest the rapid implementation of allied measures. The first is the exchange of prisoners (first and foremost Gilad Shalit and the detained Hamas parliamentarians, but also possibly Marwan Barghouti). The second is the amelioration of conditions in the Palestinian territories, including lifting the blockade on Gaza, facilitating the movement of peoples and goods, and increasing economic and humanitarian relief efforts. The third is the promotion of a new Palestinian national unity government capable of restoring a semblance of order and willing to reengage Israel diplomatically. And the fourth, significantly, is the creation of an international verification mechanism to monitor the cease-fire and protect beleaguered civilians. Any truce - even one bolstered by these additional means - is nevertheless precarious by nature. Militant groups may be weakened if it is sustained; they cannot be totally eliminated. Spoilers will be prompted, especially if some progress is made, to exercise their deadly veto power. Violations will therefore occur, particularly in light of the tenuous authority of formal Palestinian institutions and the temptation of the insecure Israeli leadership to succumb to public pressure to respond to any future transgressions. Israelis and Palestinians must consequently assume that no cease-fire can guarantee a complete end to violence - as in other cases of prolonged conflict elsewhere. For this reason, under no circumstances should it be presented as an objective in its own right. At best, a truce and the immediate measures now under consideration can trigger efforts toward a more comprehensive resolution of the conflict. It is crucial, therefore, that the exact purpose of the cease-fire be specified now. Full compliance cannot be used, yet again, as a precondition for any further movement on the diplomatic front. Such a move plays into the hands of those who reject any notion of rapprochement. The aim of a cease-fire should not be reduced merely to securing a short-term reprieve, particularly since such a respite allows for further military training, organization and rearmament. Neither can it focus on a long-term interim arrangement, as suggested in the concept of a hudna or in various Israeli plans to manage, rather than resolve, the conflict. The prolongation of uncertainty is no longer an option. Nor can the tenuous cease-fire be employed to further more unilateral measures: these have been totally discredited by recent experience. What a workable truce can achieve at this juncture is the resumption of permanent-status negotiations. These may follow the guidelines laid down in the latter phases of the road map (as suggested in statements made by regional leaders this week and echoed in the recent Beilin proposal). Or, perhaps more productively given shifting geo-strategic realities, they may focus on the Arab League initiative of March 2002, which provides a framework for Israeli-Palestinian discussions on a lasting two-state solution within the context of a comprehensive regional peace. At this stage, there is no benefit to be gained from concentrating exclusively on immediate measures or from dragging out diplomatic processes when there is a broad consensus on the endgame. The international community, already implicated in current efforts, has a critical role to play in tying these developments directly to a broad political initiative. The convening of an international conference with the participation of Israel and its immediate neighbors under the auspices of the Quartet within the next few months can go a long way to attaining this goal. The time has come to make a clear distinction between the triggers needed to set a process in motion (a cease-fire and a modicum of order) and their objective (a full-scale peace accord). The test of the durability of the present quiet lies precisely in its ability to lead to the negotiating table.