By Epharaim Snech, a member of the defense and foreign affairs committee of the Israeli parliament and until recently was deputy minister of defense (THE WASHINGTON POST, 20/08/07):
If the Middle East peace conference proposed by President Bush succeeds, it will be hailed as a milestone. If it fails, it will bring about increased despair and cynicism and mark the gravestone of peace efforts. The key lies in preparation. For this conference to become a steppingstone for real progress, participants must come with well-defined ideas and clear objectives and leave with a genuine plan of action in which all players know the roles they have committed to. Good speeches are not enough.
The most critical parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians, should come ready with an agreed-upon list of permanent-status principles that will outline the contours of an agreement. No details are needed at this stage.
Conventional wisdom suggests that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not strong enough to market such an agreement to their constituencies. That is simply not true. Both peoples are smarter and more pragmatic than even their leaders think, and both publics came to their own practical conclusions long ago. Most Israelis rarely visit the Palestinian parts of Jerusalem and know that a «united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty» is a slogan that has not reflected reality for years. (The security wall constructed in Jerusalem excludes a substantial part of the city’s Palestinian citizens, leaving the city, and the people, effectively divided.)
Most Palestinians acknowledge that the refugees will not return to Haifa, Jaffa, or any other towns or villages where they or their ancestors lived before 1948. The illusion of return served as a pretext to neglect hundreds of thousands of Palestinians stuck in refugee camps. The primary requirement for achieving a permanent-status agreement is that each party gives up one national credo. For the Israelis, it is the exclusive control of a united Jerusalem; for the Palestinians, it is the right of return within the boundaries of the Jewish state. If a respectable end of the conflict can be provided, every public opinion poll will demonstrate just how many Israelis and Palestinians are ready to make these concessions.
Both parties also should be required to bring with them interim reports on what has been accomplished regarding security arrangements in the West Bank. This is critical, and tough questions must be answered. For instance, how are the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fugitives complying with their commitments? How is law and order being imposed by the reformed Palestinian security forces? How is the movement of Palestinians being eased on West Bank roads?
Donor states must arrive prepared to pledge concrete support to specific projects or to finance key activities in Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad’s government. This includes Arab states, especially those enjoying high oil prices. Solidarity with the Palestinian people cannot be confined to speeches in international or Arab conferences. The price of solidarity is commitment and action.
There is great expectation regarding Saudi Arabia’s participation. But if the Saudis intend solely to promote reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, it is better that their delegation stay in Riyadh. Hamas, with its terrorist-Islamist charter, cannot be among the builders of Middle East peace; it is one of its principal spoilers. If, however, the Saudis intend to offer tangible support to President Mahmoud Abbas and his government, and to promote their own ideas for peace, then their participation is paramount.
If the key participants do their homework in advance of the conference, President Bush’s gathering will have achieved something significant at the start. But for meaningful results, and any hope of lasting success, we need at minimum to see:
· An endorsement of the principles for the permanent-status agreement drafted by the two main parties.
· The setting of a realistic timetable — 18 to 24 months — for completing the detailed permanent-status agreement.
· The drafting of a comprehensive development plan for the West Bank that incorporates the support of the donor states.
· An endorsement of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton’s plan for reforming the Palestinian security forces.
· A «Marshall Plan» for economic reconstruction of the Gaza Strip based on private-sector investments in industry and tourism. The plan would take advantage of Gaza’s educated, diligent population, as well as its natural assets and resources, specifically the $5 billion offshore natural gas reservoir. This would require the legitimate and internationally recognized government of Salam Fayad to restore its authority over Gaza. Such a plan cannot be implemented under the terrorist regime of Hamas. A Dubai-like economy cannot exist under Mogadishu-style governance.
Neither the Bush administration nor the Israelis and the Palestinians can afford anything less than real progress. A conference that produces a good show but no tangible results will ultimately disappoint. In the past, in this volatile region, frustration has led to violence and destruction. Serious preparation, commitment and bold leadership are indispensable.