A Destination, Not a Road Map

By Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah and founded the Arab world’s first Internet radio station, Ammannet (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/07/07):

I vividly remember the weeks leading up to the first international conference for Middle East peace. U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who had shuttled frantically to resolve the issue of Palestinian representation, kept the 1992 conference’s location under wraps. Once he declared Madrid the site, many of us Palestinians felt a sense of jubilation at the looming discussions.

I thought of this after President Bush’s call last Monday for an international parley on the Middle East to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I and many other Palestinians are much more skeptical now. Attending the Madrid conference felt essential, but the importance of summits has diminished as such forums have failed to produce results.

Palestinians have been more hurt than helped by the false trappings of a state that were provided as part of the Oslo peace process and the famous White House handshake of 1993. Palestinians got an elected president and a government whose ministers and legislators are not guaranteed passage between Gaza and the West Bank; passports whose numbers must be entered into Israeli computers; a postage system and lightly armed police — but no real sovereignty over the land or contiguity between our communities in Gaza and the West Bank.

Palestinians have been made to endure hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank, an eight-foot wall deep in our territories and tight Israeli control over borders. In return, Israel was relieved of the need to guard populated Palestinian areas and was no longer obliged to pay public servants or support the occupied population economically as stipulated by international law.

Israeli, Palestinian and other world leaders promised that these imbalances would eventually be rectified and that Palestinian sovereignty would be solidified. But that has not happened, thanks to Israel’s backtracking on its obligations, its settlement activities and the disruptive actions of Islamists who had little interest in the Oslo process or even the idea of a two-state solution.

In the absence of an effective plan leading to independence from Israeli occupation and the ability to govern a sovereign, contiguous state, dissent has been on the rise among Palestinians. Some, seeing so many Jewish settlements dotting the West Bank, want to scrap the two-state solution and focus on a single bi-national state.

Forty years after the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, Palestinians have yet to find the formula for liberation. They have attempted cross-border violence (late 1960s), Arab and international diplomacy (1970s and ’80s), the first intifada (1987), secret talks in Oslo (1993), suicide attacks (throughout the 1990s and culminating in the second intifada), cross-border rocket attacks (2006 and this year), regional Arab initiatives (2000 and this year), international initiatives and peace envoys (since 1967) — but nothing has succeeded.

The transcripts of conferences, peace initiatives, lofty speeches and U.N. agreements aimed at resolving the conflict could fill rooms. The reality is that, in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which states that it is inadmissible to occupy land by force, Palestinian territories are still under foreign military occupation.

Skeptics of U.S. motives have good reason for concern. To overcome mistrust based on past failures, President Bush will need to spend substantial political capital. In the early days of the Bush administration, the idea of using the cachet of the office of the president was anathema because of Bill Clinton’s failed attempts to broker a peace agreement. But such high-level influence is critical today.

Bush sent an early positive sign, beginning his speech last Monday by saying that “Iraq is not the only pivotal matter in the Middle East.” He appeared to have accepted the advice of Rice and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. Bush and other Westerners must understand that winning the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims cannot be accomplished by creating an Arabic satellite station or congratulating Muslims on the month of Ramadan. It requires a just solution to the Palestinian conflict.

We can no longer afford a step-by-step approach like the process begun in Madrid. In the past, plans employing incremental improvements have been targets for extremists seeking dates and locations to use to derail the peace process. Consider what a radical Israeli citizen did to Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. And Palestinian extremists have carried out suicide bombings and other horrific acts on the eve of Israeli elections and important redeployments, virtually guaranteeing the abandonment of Israeli withdrawal plans.

What we need, as suggested in the Arab peace initiative and a number of Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives, is an agreed-upon final status — something like the 1967 borders — and the process to implement terms that will be agreed to by all parties. Otherwise, future summits will continue to fail.