Politics & Policy

Reform Talk Needs Action

Moving along the road to peace?

Last week’s London Conference is a welcome step on the road to Palestinian statehood. But unless the “road map” commitment to dismantle Palestinian terror networks is carried out and terrorists are disarmed, the final communiqué issued by the conference and the lofty intents it expresses will come to naught.

Since a ceasefire was announced at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, the Palestinian Authority has refused to seriously live up to its obligations and disarm terrorists. Before the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on February 25 left five Israelis dead and scores more wounded, there were 130 Palestinian violations of the ceasefire. Several Palestinians–including some innocent bystanders–were also killed.

There is little doubt that, despite recent attacks, much progress has been made since Yasser Arafat’s death. With his dark shadow removed from the scene, there is now a real chance for peace. Palestinian hopes for independence and statehood may yet be fulfilled, thanks in no small measure to the ongoing financial pledge by the international community and international commitments to a democratic Palestine. Those commitments are based on a vision of a nation that is viable economically and territorially, but also reinforces, rather than undermines, the notion of two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian, living side by side in peace and security.

The international community recognizes that this is a hopeful new beginning for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Regional stirrings have cornered those who thrive on violence and hatred. Syria has made one false step too many. And from Baghdad to Beirut, individuals demanding decent governance and a decent life are not going to let their rulers use the Palestinian dispute as an excuse to continue treating them as subjects rather than citizens.

But welcome statements, commitments to democratic change and financial aid aside, the road to peace is still a tortuous path. Israelis and Palestinians will not reach that hopeful destination unless the current context of conflict is taken seriously.

Palestinians are right in asking that Israel lift many security measures which hurt chances of economic recovery and that, even when necessary, are humiliating ordinary Palestinians. But the current context is not only conditioned by Israel’s presence in the territories. Violence continues to loom large and no peace can ever be achieved, unless those who oppose peace and reconciliation lay their weapons once and for all and either rest their case or learn to make it peacefully. Israel cannot be urged to exercise restraint in the face of murder, unless the PA is also pressured into taking action against terrorists. This element was lacking from the London communiqué: a fateful omission that could prove fatal.

This is unfortunate. Calling for a reform of Palestinian security services is necessary, but it is not enough, especially given that Tony Blair’s original intention for the conference was to push for an immediate resumption of final status talks–a position, embraced by Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, that would allow him to skip the first phase of the road map and hence skirt Palestinian obligations to fight terror.

Palestinians need to choose. Expedient condemnations of terrorism are no substitute for a genuine renunciation of terror and an acceptance–in deeds, not only in words–that peaceful coexistence and dialogue are the only acceptable means to pursue Palestinian independence.

Their supporters also need to choose. What the United Kingdom demanded of the IRA before the IRA could join the Northern Ireland peace process is also what should be asked of Palestinians. Decommissioning of IRA weapons was and still remains central to the successful completion of the Good Friday Agreement. Failure to decommission is the principal cause for lack of progress in the process. The lingering doubts about the IRA’s genuine intentions that stem from its refusal to fully comply are the justifiable logic for suspension.

Why should Palestine be different? Why should Israel make concessions and take risks for peace when terrorists are not being disarmed and their deadly potential is not being neutralized once and for all? The London Conference was a great opportunity to accompany offers of support with gentle pressure for more Palestinian resolve to finally fight terror. If terror wrecks the process again, this will have been yet another missed opportunity and the London Conference will join all previous Middle East parleys and peace plans–the Madrid Conference, the Oslo process, the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet understandings, the Saudi initiative, the Aqaba summit, the road map: laudable intentions, lamentable outcomes.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is right: Extremists should not be allowed to derail the peace process. That is why they should be disarmed. Without the tools to carry out their murderous designs, their evil intent will become harmless. But as long as intent is matched by means, their success will be the peacemakers’ failure. It is thus foolish to give the Palestinian Authority a discount based on the mistaken illusion that terrorists can be persuaded to join the political process through incentives. First there must be an unconditional and irreversible abandonment of violence. Otherwise, it will all have been in vain.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University and is currently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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