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The Road from Mecca

1.

The idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead. The world, slowly, is coming to this realization. Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.

On the Palestinian side, the national movement is undergoing its most fundamental, far-reaching, and destabilizing transformation since Yasser Arafat took it over and molded it in his image over four decades ago. The transformation is more complex than a mere question of succession. It is the metamorphosis that comes with the passing of a man who gradually had become the movement and on whom all serious political deliberation depended. Arafat achieved what, before him, was the stuff of unachievable dreams and, after him, has become the object of wistful nostalgia: the identification of man and nation; the transcendence of party politics; and the expression of a tacit, unspoken consensus.

Competing organizations, leftist and Islamist in particular, challenged him. He faced opposition and dissent within his own Fatah. One after another, Arab countries sought to bend the nationalist movement to their will. But by dint of hard work, personal charisma, and political acumen, and assisted in no small measure by the steady accumulation and astute use of arms and funds, Arafat managed to control Fatah, co-opt the leftists, keep the Islamists at bay and Arab states at arm’s length.

Arafat never bothered with a detailed program. He trusted his instincts and inclinations that—disputed and contested as they were—implicitly and through a tortuous process became those of the national movement as a whole. As both leader of the national movement and father of the political compromise, he could straddle two seemingly incompatible worlds, that of the revolutionary and that of the statesman, and embody both steadfast commitment to the original struggle of 1948 and pragmatic acceptance of a two-state solution. On core issues, what he did mattered far more than what he said. Accused of indecisiveness and passivity, Arafat acted resolutely when he believed it necessary and when he saw fit.

Arafat bequeathed a system aching to fall apart; it had only a brief, transitional afterlife. After his death, Fatah continued to rule, albeit without the confidence and sense of unquestioned entitlement to which it had grown accustomed. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Fatah still clung to its former habits of domination, controlling the civil service as well as the security forces and, with only rare exceptions, monopolizing international relations and legitimacy.

Much of this was an illusion, and a transient one at that. Deeper down, irreversible structural changes were afoot. Today, a little more than two years after Arafat departed from the scene, the Palestinian movement no longer has workable political institutions. It lacks effective leadership. It has lost any clear and readily recognizable political program.

The Palestine Liberation Organization once could justifiably claim to be the people’s sole legitimate representative. Not anymore. Today, it appears antiquated and worn out. It barely functions and, insofar as it does not yet include the broad Islamist current principally represented by Hamas, it is of questionable authority. Fatah, long the heart of the national movement, is deeply divided, rudderless, and bereft of any clear political program, prey to competing claims to privilege and power.

Rival sources of authority have multiplied. The presidency is in the hands of Fatah; the government in those of Hamas. Gaza is cut off from the West Bank; each is developing its own outlook and creating a separate identity. Old divisions are resurfacing between Palestinians living in the occupied territories and those languishing in exile. Competing security branches and militias are proliferating while families and clans play an increasingly assertive role. Foreign countries, Arab and Western, wield greater influence and in greater numbers.

Today there is serious doubt whether the Palestinian national movement can confidently and effectively conduct negotiations for a final peace accord, sell a putative agreement to its people, and, if popularly endorsed, make it stick. There is insufficient consensus over fateful issues, but also over where decisions should be made, by whom, and how.

The Mecca agreement reached last February between Fatah and Hamas, and the formation of a national unity government that followed, is a first step toward clarification. It’s an important step, but it may yet fail and what has happened since has only partially allayed concern that the two rival movements cannot work together. Fatah clings to the belief that it has not lost any power and Hamas to the notion that it has gained a preponderance of it. In the Gaza Strip, where competition is most intense, fighting between the two groups has persisted, although it is now less violent and more susceptible to control. An immediate wholesale breakdown of relations between the two groups at the moment appears less than likely, for nothing unites Palestinians more than an antipathy to violent internecine strife. Should a breakdown of relations between the two nonetheless occur, fueled by domestic power struggles and stoked by outside interference, it would cause mayhem, instability, and violence, directed initially at fellow Palestinians but also, in time and inevitably, at Israel.

Even if the Mecca agreement and the unity government survive, they will face a period of deep and enduring instability, prompting a sweeping and significant change on the Palestinian political scene. The Mecca agreement is about the establishment of a national unity government, but that is the least of what it is about. If successful, it marks the beginning of the end of single-party rule and the dawn of wider political participation. It affects the distribution of power within all Palestinian institutions, those of the PA as well as those of the PLO, political as well as military bodies.

If fully implemented, the agreement will mean Hamas’s integration into the PLO as well as the integration of Hamas’s armed wing into the Palestinian Authority’s security structure. It will set off nothing less than a political revolution concerning the source of political authority, how decisions are made, and what those decisions might be. The agreement is a test of whether genuine power-sharing can work in a system that has never before known anything of the sort. Forming a new government, in other words, has not ended the conflict within the national movement. It has simply set off a different, thornier phase. It has also prompted tensions within Hamas over how to deal with Fatah and how to adapt to new realities. With any diplomatic progress, Hamas will come under pressure to further clarify its position on relations with Israel, and the movement could divide. Some in Hamas might argue that the next phase of the struggle should be a civilian—i.e., nonmilitary—jihad; others that the time has come to further radicalize and expand the fight. A split could give rise to a breakaway, radical jihadist spin-off that might quickly flourish because its members are already operating on the ground and have roots in society. Even under optimal circumstances all this will take time to sort out. Until then, the Palestinian national movement will be a work in progress, caught between one system that has expired and another that is still struggling to take shape.

Whatever happens, the Palestinian movement will remain a fluid entity, as difficult to pin down as it will be to pressure or to deal with. The US and Israeli governments will be tempted to ignore the change, persisting in their attempts to isolate Hamas and deal only with non-Islamist members of the government. But it is only a matter of time before such fantasies come crashing down. One of the goals of the US and Israel may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian president more than misplaced international attempts to strengthen him. If Hamas feels thwarted in its attempt to share power, it will do what it can—and it can do much—to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One cannot prevent the Islamists from ruling and then expect them to acquiesce in a political process from which they have been kept out. To negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously excluding Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the political system, controlling only part of the security forces, and commanding only partial loyalty from a divided, and inherently suspicious, population.

2.

Can Israel’s current political system deliver what its Palestinian counterpart cannot? There is cause for doubt. Not so long ago, Israel acted with apparent self-assurance. Prime Minister Sharon had established himself as master of the nation’s domestic politics; in the diplomatic world too, he commanded the initiative. Seeking direction, Israelis needed to look no further. He said very little, but what he said was telling: he spoke not of resolving the conflict, but of drawing Israel’s borders; not of historical reconciliation with the Palestinians, but of practical separation; not of negotiated agreements, but of unilateral Israeli steps. Captivated, the Israeli people listened; converted, they followed.

How distant that time now seems. If bold peace moves require strong and self-confident leadership, there is little reason for hope. Clarity has given way to confusion, and on an almost unimaginable scale. The performance of the Israeli military in last summer’s Lebanon war was more than a setback; it was a shock to a nation for whom the security establishment historically has been at the very heart of society and polity, a pillar of strength even amid political storms. The political system itself is in quasi-perpetual crisis. Each passing day brings a new, bewildering scandal and more public inquiries implicating in one form or another many of the nation’s most prominent figures.

Corruption, no longer an aberration, virtually is a way of life. Less surprised than resigned, Israelis are disillusioned with politics and government. The scarcity of charismatic leaders and the new generation of run-of-the-mill politicians is another symptom of a system in crisis. Sharon, who presented himself as the last great Israeli hero, openly feared the day Israel would become a country like any other, no longer animated by grand visions and a conquering war spirit, a victim of impatience, weakness, and hedonistic materialism. If he could see it, he might say that the day has come.

Nor is there much ideological enthusiasm remaining for a two-state solution. Israelis accept it and most believe it is inevitable, but gone is the passion or zeal. The dream of Greater Israel has expired, but so has Oslo’s vision of peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians. There has been too much violence and bloodshed, and too much disenchantment with the Palestinians, their leaders, and their methods and ability to govern, for it to be otherwise.

With Hamas’s rise, Iran’s ascent, and Hezbollah’s war, the politics of the region also have become far more baffling; Israelis exhibit uncommon indecision. They ponder whether it is time for bold military moves or grand diplomatic bargains, whether to respond to Syria’s peace overtures or to spurn them, whether to deal with Abbas or to forget him. The government, troubled by its failure to defeat Hezbollah or release its captive soldiers, is still searching for a response to the Islamists’ intensive rearming. Criticized from all sides and divided from within, it lives day to day, as if on borrowed time. A nation accustomed to certainty has become hostage to doubt.

The present Israeli sense of paralysis only aggravates two more longstanding obstacles to peacemaking. One is institutional: Israeli governments are often short-lived, subject to the vagaries of an anachronistic political arrangement, itself the product of an electoral system which often requires coalition governments and allows smaller parties to dictate their parochial wishes to larger ones or, alternatively, to oust them from office. A peace initiative threatens to upset the delicate political equilibrium and reduce the prime minister’s term in office. The stubborn gap between the public’s support for an agreement with the Palestinians and the leadership’s inability to accomplish it is explained in part by this feature.

The other impediment is strategic. It relates to the vast imbalance of power that separates Israel from its adversaries, whether alone or in combination, and which has proved both a gift and an impediment. Israel’s power provides it with self-confidence but also lures it away from the necessity of compromise. Without the threat, there is little pressure, and without the pressure, there is scant incentive to take political or military risks for the sake of an uncertain and ill-defined peace. Why give up concrete and physical assets in return for promises from parties that may well lack the ability to deliver them?

Israel’s sense of security has its limitations, and these have been tested in recent times. Its foes may employ a tactic for which Israel has no adequate response; Palestinian suicide bombings are one example. Or Israel may embark on a military operation to which its adversaries have an unexpectedly effective answer; last summer’s assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which failed to meet any of its self-proclaimed objectives, is an illustration. In both cases, Israel must confront the limits of the power it holds in such disproportion.

What follows has become a familiar pattern: there is shock in the face of unexpected setback; anger at those who have caused it; exploration of new forms of retaliation; and lethal and often indiscriminate punishment. For a moment, there also is consideration of alternative options, peace initiatives of one kind or another. But once the immediacy of the pressure recedes, Israel tends to retreat into the apparent safety of the status quo. The case for boldness, briefly opened, is swiftly shut. The incentive to move when there is a breakdown disappears when the old imbalance of power is restored.

3.

Five years ago this month, in April 2002, the Arab League’s twenty-two countries put forward a peace initiative offering full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967 and a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Coming at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, they made the proposal with what seemed like a deep sense of awkwardness. Then, they walked away. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, immediately dismissed the initiative. A near-simultaneous Palestinian attack in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya and heavy Israeli retaliation did the rest. From the Arab world as from Israel, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

The multilateral Arab initiative has come alive just at the time when the prospect for successful bilateral talks has faded. Having been dormant for years—with the exception of a passing reference in the 2003 Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap for Peace—it suddenly has begun to attract interest and widespread statements of approval. The US was among the first to change its position. Discredited by both its war in Iraq and its support for Israel’s war in Lebanon, threatened by a rising Iran, stung by Hamas’s electoral triumph, and desperate for some achievement in the Middle East, spokesmen for the Bush administration began to cautiously praise the initiative. In Israel too, the tone of commentary has been markedly different of late. And the Arab League, so skittish at the initiative’s inception, revived it unanimously and with some fanfare at its March 2007 summit in Riyadh.

It’s an eclectic chorus but, also, a deceptive one. The initiative’s resuscitation is seen, by today’s depressed standards, as something of a breakthrough but the surface harmony conceals the divergent views of the major parties on the nature and potential of the proposals.

As Arab countries and Saudi Arabia in particular conceive it, the initiative ought to be valued not so much for its content—its vague language on territory and vaguer language on refugees hardly qualify as a peace proposal, let alone a plan—as for its promise. Rather than provide the substance of an agreement, it was a roundabout way of inviting Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese to sit down and sort out their disputes and it was implicitly a way of saying that whatever they can agree on will be regionally rewarded and protected.

The proposal lacked clarity: about whether there could be territorial swaps to deviate from the 1967 lines; about how the solution to the refugee problem would protect Israel’s demographic interests in maintaining a Jewish majority; about the fate of Jewish-populated areas of East Jerusalem. But this vagueness was in the very nature of the initiative. The Arab League’s offer was not to negotiate with Israel. It was intended to describe, instead, the shape of life after a comprehensive agreement: peace, reconciliation, and normalization of relations with the whole of the Arab world.

Seen in this light, and though it has little to say on issues of substance, the proposal presented several advantages. Given their current domestic situation, Palestinians cannot make historic decisions on their own; but they could do so, perhaps, with the backing and political cover of the entire Arab world. Internal Palestinian problems, which loom so large in direct, bilateral negotiations with Israel, will dwindle in the wider frame of an Arab-Israeli deal. Facing an Arab, Muslim, and domestic consensus in favor of a peace agreement, Hamas would have to adjust its position. While it is unlikely to be satisfied with an agreement that recognized Israel and marked the end of the conflict, Hamas would find it difficult to actively oppose it. Hamas may sponsor suicide missions but it is not a suicidal movement. The normal divisions of Palestinian politics would be neutralized, in part, by the weight of a broader Arab unanimity—just as divisions between Fatah and Hamas over the Arab Initiative itself became less prominent at the Arab summit in Riyadh in March. Arab involvement could compensate for the current weakness of the Palestinian political system.

Israel would benefit in similar ways. On its own, a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but without agreements with Syria and Lebanon, will not necessarily prompt peaceful relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world and will do nothing to discourage either Damascus’s allies in Palestine from undermining the deal or Hezbollah from maintaining its military pressure in the north. For Israel, the strategic advantages of a separate Palestinian deal are partial and the political costs are high. By contrast, a comprehensive agreement with Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese would amplify the payoff. It will result in peace treaties, diplomatic recognition, and normal relations with Arab neighbors, far and near. If Israel and Syria can settle their conflict, a pragmatic Hezbollah will have to put much less emphasis on its military component and accelerate its transformation into a purely political party. The Iranian leadership will also have to adapt, not so much by cutting its ties to Syria as by fitting into a radically different Arab-Israeli relationship. By boosting the rewards to Israelis from making territorial concessions, a comprehensive deal can make up for the absence of sustained effective pressure on Israel to reach it. In short, peace negotiations under the Arab Initiative’s umbrella could help minimize Palestinian obstacles to a deal while simultaneously maximizing the returns Israel can expect from it.

One of the Arab Initiative’s fundamental assumptions is that there must be concurrent movement toward a deal on Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks. That might seem like a recipe for failure, for it is hard to contemplate Israel digesting so many difficult compromises at one time. Yet today it is just as difficult to imagine diplomacy on any one track moving very far on its own. Palestinians will need full Arab backing and cooperation—including Syria’s—to legitimize their compromises, notably on issues that are not exclusively Palestinian, such as Jerusalem’s status or the fate of refugees. The fragmentation of the Palestinian political scene has made it more porous, giving additional breathing room to factions with ties to outside players. If Syria is excluded from negotiations it will continue to support its allies in Palestine—whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or elements in Fatah—who will continue to undermine the chance of a peace accord. Conversely, Syria, intent on preserving its status as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, will be reluctant to fully conclude a deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still festers.

On grounds of self-preservation alone, Lebanon will not make peace with Israel before Syrians and Palestinians do. Besides, for Lebanon to conclude an agreement with Israel requires addressing the fate of the Palestinian refugees residing on its soil—a virtual impossibility without the creation of a Palestinian state.

4.

The hitch is that neither Israel nor the US has embraced the Arab Initiative in quite the way its authors intended. Five years after the proposal was first put forward and then summarily dismissed, the Israeli government is suggesting it may have some merit. This is not based so much on its content. The initiative’s call for full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, division of Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee issue in accordance with UN resolutions prompts more Israeli hostility than hope. Moreover, few Israelis today believe in the possibility of a comprehensive peace. Rather, the Israeli government views the initiative as a possible means of sidestepping, for the time being, direct negotiations with Palestinians and Syrians, and instead engaging directly with Arab countries and thus achieving the normalization Israel so craves. Convinced that little can come of talks with a two-headed Palestinian Authority, having lost faith in Abbas, and having little desire to deal with Syria, Prime Minister Olmert speaks enthusiastically of a joint Arab-Israeli interest in countering Iran. He invites Arab leaders to visit Jerusalem and discuss their initiative. He mentions his desire for face-to-face talks with the Saudi monarch, and he asks whether the initiative can be altered to meet Israeli needs. The one thing he does not contemplate is doing what the Arab Initiative assumes he must: negotiate with Palestinians and Syrians.

For the US, too, the Arab Initiative has become an instrument capable of serving higher purposes, of which achievement of a comprehensive Arab- Israeli settlement is neither the most significant nor the most pressing. Indeed, insofar as the Bush administration remains intent on isolating Syria, reaching a comprehensive peace—which necessarily would include an Israeli-Syrian agreement—is precisely what it does not aim to achieve. For Washington, the more worthy objectives are to revive its battered reputation in the region and, above all, work out a strategic coalition between itself, Israel, and so-called moderate Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia, aimed at containing Iran and its presumed regional allies—Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Unlike Olmert, the US administration believes that progress between Israel and the Palestinians is an indispensable ingredient, the glue that can hold the strategic coalition together and reverse Tehran’s ideological gains. Unlike the Arab League, it is convinced that the initiative must contain more than a pledge of a future normal relationship in order to induce Olmert to take political risks. In essence, Washington hopes to see a down payment from Arab countries in the form of their making initial contacts with Israel; and it hopes to see Olmert, emboldened by these contacts, agree to full-fledged negotiations with Abbas on a final status agreement. The wait could be long.

The very different motives for ostensible support of the Arab initiative have created a debilitating state of confusion. Arab countries view normalization of relations with Israel as a reward, the US considers it an inducement, and Israel believes it is a requisite. Whenever Washington or Jerusalem brings up the question of Arab contacts with Israel, they magnify the value of such contacts, lessening the likelihood that they will occur. Likewise, most Arab countries have no intention of negotiating with Israel, leaving that to the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon. The vagueness of the Mecca initiative and the room it leaves for compromise say as much.

A clearer Arab initiative at this stage will no longer be a consensual Arab initiative but that of some Arabs only, and not necessarily of those that can ensure its success. The more Israel seeks clarifications and modifications from the Arabs, the more the Arabs will demand prior Israeli acceptance of their initiative, and the less either side will like the responses it will get. If asked, Arabs will insist they mean a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and recognition of the Palestinians’ right of return; if asked, Israel will assert it rejects the Arab initiative. In both cases, these are questions that should never be posed. The Arab Initiative is turning into what it should not have been: the object of futile bartering between Israelis and Arabs.

There are further misunderstandings. The US, Israel, and key Arab governments such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia distrust Hamas and have an aversion to the Syrian regime. But dislikes come in different shades. Saudi leaders worry about the rise of Islamists, yet deep down they realize there can be no agreement without them. They know that Abbas is the Palestinians’ president but not their only leader, and that a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be built on the ruins of an inter-Palestinian war. Similarly, however sour the relationship may be between Riyadh and Damascus, Saudi Arabia is not about to make peace with Israel while Israel still occupies parts of Syria. Without a comprehensive and inclusive Arab-Israeli settlement, one that includes the issue of the Golan Heights, there is unlikely to be anything more than a symbolic Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

5.

The impasse of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians and the impediments to multilateral negotiations under the umbrella of the Arab initiative could lead to a revival of Israeli unilateralism. Assuming he survives the investigation into the conduct of the Lebanon war, lacking better options, and eager for some diplomatic movement, Olmert—or his successor—may revert back to the platform on which the prime minister originally was elected: a unilateral withdrawal from large portions of the West Bank.

The idea has logic. For most Israelis, the occupation of the West Bank has become a burden more than a benefit. It represents a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority, a security threat to its tranquillity, and a strategic threat to its international standing. If Israel wants to get rid of parts of that territory and if it cannot do so through bilateral dealings with a dysfunctional Palestinian entity, why then not do it alone?

Hamas’s electoral victory, in a sense, makes this option all the more attractive. Neither Israel’s leaders nor the Islamists today believe in the possibility of a final status agreement. Neither wishes to deal with the other. Both potentially could live with a long-term arrangement centered on new Israeli territorial withdrawals from the West Bank and a mutual cease-fire. Palestinians would obtain territory without making commitments they could not honor; they would realize less than their full dream without relinquishing any part of it, and benefit from an active Israeli strategy without having to come up with one of their own. For its part, Israel would promote its interests without having to depend on undependable Palestinians.

But recent events have taken a political toll. Unilateralism, so fashionable when Sharon applied it to the withdrawal from Gaza, lost much of its luster when rocket launches against Israeli territory nonetheless continued from that area. Unilateral action became anathema after Israel came under attack from Lebanon, another place from which it had recently unilaterally withdrawn. Today, Israelis ask who will guarantee their security if they withdraw from the West Bank and why they should feel any safer if that land falls into Hamas’s unreliable hands. The mood eventually could change, fostered principally by the belief that nothing good can come of negotiations, and that something dangerous may emerge from the status quo. At that point, parallel unilateral steps—an Israeli withdrawal; Palestinian progress on the social, political, and security fronts—could be seen as having advantages. But answers will first have to be found to these unsettling questions.

6.

On the face of it, this is an odd time for the US to reactivate its peacemaking efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The Israeli prime minister is weaker than ever before—indeed, weaker than any before him. As Hamas’s strength has grown, the Palestinian margin of diplomatic maneuver has shrunk. Pro-Western Arab regimes, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan, exposed as impotent by wars in Iraq and Lebanon, challenged at home by radical Islamists, and fearful of an ascendant Iran, have also been undermined. No better off, President Bush must confront a rebellious Congress, a disillusioned public, and a failed Iraqi policy.

Can opportunity spring from such collective frailty? It is not out of the question. Abbas needs a political accomplishment to dampen Hamas’s appeal and fulfill his lifetime project of reaching a two-state solution through diplomatic means. Olmert, his public credibility thoroughly dissipated, may at some point search for a diplomatic achievement to regain it. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, having spent the better part of the 1990s largely watching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the sidelines, now may feel they have to step in and help broker a peace agreement in order to reverse a hostile regional tide. For a wounded US administration, an Arab-Israeli breakthrough may mean rescue and redemption. Launching his final peace bid in 1999 with strong leaders in Israel, Palestine, and Syria, President Clinton spoke of an alignment of bright stars. President Bush may be thinking of the current initiative as a realignment of the fallen ones.

Events are not headed that way. Wherever one looks, one sees only deadlock. Bilateral negotiations are generally the most promising, for they directly involve the parties to the conflict who will have to make the commitments and live with the outcomes. But in its current volatile condition, the Palestinian political system is not in a position to withstand such talks on its own: should they fail, Abbas and Fatah will be significantly wounded and, should they succeed, Hamas will be determined to derail them. In both cases the fragile internal political balance will be challenged, which will lead to further confrontation and fragmentation. Nor does Israel display the ability, today, to face up to the historic compromises it too will be required to make.

Multilateral negotiations based on the Arab Initiative are another possibility, one potentially capable of surmounting Palestinian domestic impediments and of motivating Israel. But each side has its own conception of how the initiative is to be used, and with each tugging in a different direction little is likely to come of it. Israel’s apparent decision not to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, the US’s unmistakable decision not to include Syria, and the joint decision of the US and Israel to exclude Hamas rob the initiative of much of its value.

Unilateralism too has merit; it means Israel can withdraw from territory without regard to Palestinian performance and that Palestinians can put their house in order without concern for Israeli behavior. But in the wake of Gaza and then Lebanon, prospects for its revival are uncertain.

Not that all is destined to stay still; for the status quo has its own costs. If nothing happens on the diplomatic front, Abbas and Fatah will be further weakened in relation to Hamas; Olmert will face increasingly pointed questions about his leadership; and US credibility in the region will be further damaged. As Palestinian frustration grows, one hears periodic mention among Hamas leaders of a third uprising—a comment meant as a warning, yet at times uttered as a wish. Alarmed at the Islamists’ reported arms buildup in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli generals raise the possibility of a major land incursion, in one place or the other.

If Syria’s pleas for a resumption of the peace process continue to go unanswered, risks of a Syrian confrontation with Israel also may rise. Tactical military moves by Damascus aimed at attracting Israel’s attention could unintentionally provoke an Israeli response. Alternatively, Syria may feel it can wage the kind of war that Hezbollah, with inferior resources, prefigured in Lebanon: firing rockets into Israel, absorbing punitive responses, and battling incoming troops with lethal anti-tank devices.

One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank—coordinated with President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been disastrously in short supply. The time may yet come. Meanwhile, the wait, and the waste, go on.

April 12, 2007

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