Amid the din of the financial crisis and the presidential campaign, the Bush administration's attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has quietly expired. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 16 trips to the region over the past 21 months; last year's Annapolis peace conference; months of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams -- all have sunk under the weight of the corruption charges against departing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the competition of crises from Georgia to Pakistan.
Nor is the peace process likely to revive anytime soon. The winner of last week's party primary election to replace Olmert, Tzipi Livni, will probably be mired in efforts to form a new government for weeks or even months. To succeed she probably will have to make promises to coalition partners that would make a deal impossible. If she fails, Israel will have an election in which the favorite, for now, is hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu.
Those are just Israel's hurdles. The Palestinians are still split between Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And if the presidential campaign is any indication, promoting a Middle East peace won't crack the top 10 on the next administration's list of priorities. How could it? With Wall Street's meltdown, the failing Afghan war, the growing U.S. military engagement in Pakistan and Russia's neo-imperialist eruption -- not to mention the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea -- the perpetual headache of the West Bank and Gaza, where violence is at a relative low point, can barely be felt in Washington.
This isn't an argument for the next administration to write off Middle East diplomacy, as George W. Bush did when he took office. But it is grounds for a President Obama or McCain to try a different approach to an intractable problem, one that focuses on building a foundation for peace from the ground up, rather than pushing fickle and fragile leaders to dictate a settlement from above. The timeline for success would be measured in years, not months. The goal would not be a document that Livni and Abbas could sign but the construction of a healthy and vibrant Palestinian civil society -- that is, independent media, courts, political parties and nongovernmental organizations that could stand behind a settlement with Israel.
The former Soviet refusenik and Israeli political gadfly Natan Sharansky has been proposing this course for years -- mostly to the irritation of peace-process supporters in both Jerusalem and Washington. Some suspect Sharansky of touting his strategy because it would indefinitely delay the necessity of Israeli territorial concessions. Others blame him for talking President Bush into a fleeting policy of supporting Palestinian democracy that led to the victory of Hamas in legislative elections.
But Sharansky's ideas look pretty good compared with whipping the dead horse left behind by Olmert and Rice. Last week he turned up in Washington with a persuasive Palestinian partner: Bassam Eid, a veteran human rights activist who has spent the past dozen years trying to act as an independent monitor of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. It's a lonely, if badly needed, function: By the count of Eid's Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians in the past eight years, but not one suspected killer has been charged or brought to trial. In August, it says, one Palestinian was killed by Israel and 36 by other Palestinians.
Eid makes the point that while Western governments, including the United States, are committed in theory to building free Palestinian institutions, in practice they route all funding through Abbas and his Fatah party cronies -- who, in turn, deny it to genuinely independent groups. He heads a coalition of 10 NGOs that have been blackballed by Abbas, including organizations that advocate for women's rights, fight drug abuse and work with youths. "I have no problem if the international community continues supporting Abu Mazen and the security forces," Eid says, calling Abbas by his nickname. "But you can't strengthen Abu Mazen without strengthening Palestinian civil society. Who is going to support Abu Mazen? It should be us."
Sharansky argues that if the United States were to focus on building Palestinian civil society rather than backing Abbas -- who now is being encouraged to remain in office despite the imminent expiration of his legal term -- "in three years we would have an absolutely different Palestinian authority. Those leaders who then would be elected would be people with whom we could discuss issues like the future of Jerusalem and refugees."
"People say we don't have three years," Sharansky said. "But that same idea caused them to favor Arafat over reform" -- and that was 15 years ago. "The same idea continues all the time: 'We must back the Palestinian leader over building civil society.' And the result is always the same." On that broken record, at least, Sharansky is right.