In a classic move of political jujitsu, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has just paired two significant, seemingly contradictory steps.
Last week Sharon said he would meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), but that negotiations would begin only once the Palestinians had given up their demand to “return” to Israel itself.
When White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about Sharon’s new condition, he responded with an ominous “all parties have responsibilities” line what you say to kids fighting in the backseat when you want them to sort it out or equally feel the consequences.
Missed here is the significance of what Sharon has done, which could well have a more lasting impact than Abbas’s appointment. The issue of refugees was defined by Oslo as a “final status” issue and was left to the final stage of Oslo’s new incarnation, the “road map,” as well. What right does Sharon have to move it up to the front, as a precondition for talks?
First a reality check. Now that Saddam is gone, winning the peace in Iraq is rightly uppermost on Bush’s foreign-policy agenda, contending with Syria and Iran next, and making a run at Arab-Israeli peace third. Bush, like Sharon, does not believe much will come of the Abbas/Yasser Arafat combination, but the road map is something that can be used to fend off accusations that the U.S. has no post-Iraq peace policy.
This situation produces two camps: Those appalled that Bush is not pushing the road map, which they equate with the prospects for peace, hard enough; and those happy that the road map will become hopelessly entangled, since it cannot lead to peace in any case.
I find myself in neither camp. My concern is not so much that the Palestinians, Europe, and the State Department will succeed in using the road map to turn the screws on Israel, but that an opportunity for creating a new paradigm for peacemaking is being at least delayed and perhaps missed.
It is in this context that I find Sharon’s new negotiating condition encouraging. It is the first real innovation since Bush postulated, in his June 24 speech, that it was the Palestinian leadership that was the principal obstacle to peace. Sharon has put his finger on a critical truth that anyone who is serious about peace should embrace: If the Palestinians are not willing to give up “returning” to Israel, there’s nothing to talk about.
Those who claim that it is cheating for Sharon to front-load a final-status issue should take a closer look at the road map itself. Right at the beginning, at the “outset of Phase I,” the plan sets out supposedly parallel demands. The Palestinians are supposed to reiterate Israel’s right to exist, call for an end to “armed activity,” and end incitement against Israel.
Israel, at this same stage, is required to issue an “unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel.” There should not be any real problem with asking Israel to say up front that it is committed to living alongside a peaceful Palestinian state, despite the fact this is a final-status issue. Sharon has said as much already.
But the parallel step is not for the Palestinians to once again promise to end terrorism and recognize Israel, promises that have proven worthless. Now that the Palestinian commitment in Oslo to the peaceful resolution of disputes has become a cruel joke, remaking the same promises will impress no one. What would be significant is if the Palestinians say up front they agree to solving the refugee problem outside, and only outside, of Israel.
Such a statement would not take the issue of refugees off the final-status table. There is much to be discussed regarding how to resolve a problem that the Arab world has carefully cultivated all these years. But unless the idea of a “right” of Palestinians to move to Israel is dropped, talk of recognizing Israel’s right to exist is meaningless.
Rather than acting piqued, the White House should endorse and amplify Sharon’s new precondition. This is where the Arab world should come in. Bush, to his credit, always mentions the responsibility Arab states have in advancing peace. But he does not say what those responsibilities are, except for not supporting terrorism.
The Arab states could, at U.S. insistence, take the lead in saying that they will help solve the refugee problem, and agree that it can be solved outside of Israel. This may sound unrealistic. But it is more unrealistic to expect Israel to embark on serious negotiations before such a step is taken.
The simplest way for Bush to get the ball rolling is for him to point out the obvious inconsistency of claiming to recognize Israel on the one hand, and flood it with refugees on the other. Either the Palestinians believe in two separate states or they do not. Israelis do not imagine they would have a right to move to a Palestinian state; no Palestinian should have a right to move to Israel. If Washington is unwilling to reiterate this, why should Arab capitals?
It took a while, but the Americans and Israelis became used to saying that there will be a Palestinian state. Americans and Arabs must become equally used to speaking of the “right of return” as an obsolete concept, abandoned in favor of creating two states for two peoples. Until this happens, the spell of failure cast by Oslo will not have been broken, and a peace process worthy of the name cannot begin.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This piece originally appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permission.