As another mass murder seems to snuff out the Aqaba summit’s ray of hope, the unavoidable question screams out: When will this ever stop? At first glance, the roadmap now looks like a sick joke, a pathetic attempt to impose order on a conflict that has no end.
Yet within this chaos, a new structure is emerging that could well determine the sequence of events in the years to come, and their ultimate outcome for Israel. This structure is etched in invisible ink on the roadmap. Once described, it can be seen out in the open, but in practice it is Bush’s and Sharon’s secret plan.
Much attention has been paid to the flawed details of the roadmap: its obsessive evenhandedness between the aggressor and the victim, its vague demands of the Palestinians and concrete demands of Israel, the short shrift played to Palestinian democratization, and so on. But the most fundamental component of the roadmap, one that is staring us in the face, is barely mentioned: the creation of a provisional Palestinian state before final-status talks.
#ad#In style, the roadmap repeats all the mistakes of Oslo. In structure it makes one critical change: In Oslo, Palestinian statehood was to be the end result; in the roadmap, the state comes in the middle.
What difference does this make? In essence, it means a choice has been made between the gradualist and the “big bang” schools. The gradualists believe the Arab-Israeli struggle may never be resolved, because the Arab world will never accept the Jewish people’s right to its own state, only to Israel’s de facto existence.
As David Ben-Gurion put it in 1919,
Everybody sees the problem in the relations between the Jews and the [Palestinian] Arabs. But not everybody sees that there’s no solution to it. There is no solution!…I don’t know any Arabs who would agree to Palestine being ours even if we learn Arabic…and I have no need to learn Arabic. On the other hand, I don’t see why “Mustafa” should learn Hebrew….There’s a national question here. We want the country to be ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs.
Ariel Sharon is a disciple of Ben-Gurion and sees the conflict in roughly these terms. This does not mean that Sharon is being dishonest when he talks about peace. It means that the peace Sharon is talking about is not a full “solution” to the conflict, but a form of livable cold war. The “big bang” school, by contrast, believes the Arab world has fundamentally decided to accept Israel, and therefore a peace agreement simply awaits granting the Palestinians the right terms. The Oslo agreement was built according to this paradigm. Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton were its ultimate practitioners, in that they believed the Palestinians could be induced to drop all further claims and make a full peace with Israel.
It is fashionable on the Right to claim that the roadmap is worse than Oslo. What is meant by this is that, under the roadmap, the Palestinians get a state first, before they have to make peace with Israel. In this view, the roadmap is the latest, most serious step in Israel’s serial capitulation to terrorism. “The only consistent element in the Israeli position has been the constant retreat from its stated positions on issues that are critical to the country’s future. Evidently, terrorism works,” writes reclusive Likud scion Binyamin Begin.
Begin is largely right. Terrorism is what brought Yasser Arafat to power and is bringing the Palestinians a state. But here’s the secret. For Sharon, the roadmap’s “independent Palestinian state with provisional borders” is not at the bottom of the slippery slope, but a brake that prevents precisely the slide that Begin fears.
The deal Sharon is offering the Palestinians is a partial state in exchange for a partial peace. You don’t want to renounce the “right of return” and accept Israel as a Jewish state? Fine, says Sharon, but for that all you get is a truncated state whose borders are controlled by Israel. Why would the Palestinians accept such a deal? Because they know that the only alternatives are the status quo, in which both sides bleed indefinitely, or making a full peace, neither of which they want.
Sharon’s real objective is to get to the middle phase of the roadmap and park there until the Arab world is ready for peace, which may or may not ever happen. It is a reasonably comfortable place for a gradualist to be. Palestine may choose to be belligerent, but Israel will have a provisional border to defend and a state to hold accountable.
The risk of this plan is that statehood will be no more of a firewall against pressure to fulfill Palestinian demands than all the other agreements that the Palestinians sign and the world ignores. Eventually, the Palestinians will use terror again to force their next objective: a full Israeli unilateral withdrawal, without having to concede the demand of “return” to Israel.
The protections against this dangerous scenario are Israeli will and the trust of the United States. Sharon feels that he and Bush can be trusted to ensure that the dates in the roadmap do not mean that Israel will be forced to fill out Palestine’s borders even if it turns out to be a terrorist state. Whether future Israeli and American leaders can be so trusted is another question.
As a good gradualist, Sharon is not troubled by the fact that a full peace is not obtainable in the near future. In 1938, Ben-Gurion said, “The conflict had lasted 30 years, and is liable to continue for perhaps hundreds more.” But Ben-Gurion could never have imagined that U.S. divisions would roll into Baghdad and topple an Iraqi despot, and that other radical regimes would be in the sights of an American president.
While Israel is betting on rolling regime changes, the Palestinians are betting on demography. As long as America and Israel don’t abandon their own interests, Sharon has the better bet.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This was written for the Post and is reprinted with permission.