Middle East Peace: Only with a Will is There a Way

U.S. President George W. Bush’s Road Map for Middle East Peace, while based on widely held hopes for an independent Palestinian state co-existing with a secure and safe Israel, may nonetheless fail to deliver peace in the region. The recent agreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa brigade to temporarily cease all military activities against Israel for the next three months, and the withdrawal of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from some Palestinian territories does suggest that the road map is now becoming a practical guide for reaching fulfillment of these hopes. But the plan has strategic and ethical flaws that make me deeply pessimistic over its prospects for success.

Strategic Flaws

The plan places asymmetrical demands on the two parties, which will become more and more palpable with time. It requires a ceasefire from Palestinian militants but does not call for cessation of hostilities by Israel. Sure, the ceasefire is to be followed by an Israeli withdrawal, already in its initial stages. But it does not put an end to the assassinations by Israeli forces that frequently include killing civilian men, women, and children. If Israel continues to wage war against Hamas and company, the ceasefire cannot be expected to last long. The expectations that the PA will do the job of reining in Hamas, something that the IDF has failed to accomplish in more than a decade, is another tenuous part of the road map.

The map depicts a minimal role for the United States, the most powerful stakeholder in the scheme, while placing the largest share of the burden for bringing about change on the Palestinians, the weakest, the most disorganized, and the most insecure of all players involved. According to the plan, the Palestinians must stop all resistance to the occupation and then transform themselves from a chaotic and a frustrated society to a democratic, orderly, and peaceful community; then Israel will withdraw, dismantle some settlements, and set the stage for denouement.

It is not clear what the United States will be doing during this critical period. If it continues with its coercive diplomacy in Iran and Syria, the negative fallout will most certainly mobilize radicals and undermine peacemakers. The United States cannot make peace between Israelis and Arabs in Palestine while maintaining an actively hostile posture toward other Arab and Muslim nations. There is no such thing as piecemeal peace.

It is also possible that the president’s plan may fail simply because the Palestinian Authority is incapable of delivering. During the past two years, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the IDF have systematically destroyed the capability of the PA to be effective. Now this same diminished PA is expected to accomplish the IDF’s failed mission to pacify Hamas and company. The plan also does not stipulate the incentives for Israel and the United States to follow through on their commitments. If the Palestinians give up resistance, then the issue will be off the front pages, the Bush administration can refocus on other issues, Israel can restart settlement buildings, and the Palestinians could once again be nowhere.

The failure of the road map to offer some route by which Hamas and company can be co-opted in the peace process is its biggest strategic flaw. If this omission is designed to start a civil war between Palestinian factions, then the prospects for peace are over. Saab Erakat, the leading Palestinian negotiator, has repeatedly asserted that there will be no civil war in Palestine, and he has also expressed the willingness of PA to treat Hamas and other groups as legitimate political forces, which can participate in the governance of Palestine. But, as long as the road map excludes Palestinian militants from the dialogue, they have no other option but to resume the intifada. We know now that Israel cannot eliminate or even diminish their capacity. Their means are no doubt abhorrent, but they are a force to reckon with and it is time to seriously start thinking about opening negotiations with them, separately if necessary. The de-radicalization of the militants must be an important goal of any reconciliation. Exclusion exacerbates radicalism and fosters terrorism; inclusion is in the spirit of democracy. Peacemaking entails making peace with the enemy.

Ethical Flaws

Aside from its strategic limits, the plan also reveals a naïve vision of the complexity of the crisis and also a lack of understanding of the Palestinian people’s situation.

The plan is devoid of any strategy to bring about genuine changes in the hearts and minds of the people before peace can be realized. One important reason why Palestinians and Israelis cannot find a way out of their tragic quagmire of violence and suffering is the absence of generalized willingness to find a peaceful solution. Another important reason is the lack of U.S. determination to aggressively pursue a peaceful solution. Bush often is able to step back and ignore the region essentially because U.S. society isn’t putting enough pressure on him to quickly resolve the festering crisis.

The road map to peace must serve first to foster the willingness and sense of urgency to make peace. Unless there is a will for peace there can be no way to it.

I believe that three necessary changes must occur in the mindsets of the major players before a genuinely lasting peace can be achieved.

First, the United States must adopt a sincerely evenhanded approach to conflict resolution. This change in its approach must be perceptible in words and deeds. The U.S. government, media, and people at large must learn about the misery of the Palestinian people, recognize their suffering, and care for their aspirations just as they care for Israelis’. Only then will there be domestic support for a Palestinian homeland offering life with freedom and dignity.

Secondly, the people of Israel must recognize Palestinians as their moral equals. Only through recognition of the equal humanity of the Palestinians will Israelis become conscious of their counterparts’ angst. Nobody knows and understands dispossession, pain, and suffering better than the Jewish community. If only its members could make an effort to understand the Palestinians’ plight, they might be more willing to take risks and make sacrifices for peace. Who could be a more powerful ally for peace than a pro-Palestine Israel?

Finally, Muslims and Arabs must evidence a vision of Israel that appeals to the Jewish community at large. So far all they have done is demand justice for Palestine without directly addressing the future of Israel. Those who threaten the destruction of Israel have confessed their opposition to peaceful co-existence. This position is unacceptable to all who believe in peace and justice. Nobody should understand better than the Palestinians that justice for any nation should not come at the expense of another nation. Who could allay Israeli fears and insecurities more than pro-Israel Arabs?

Just as in the war on terrorism, the struggle for peace in the Middle East must include a concomitant effort to change the hearts and minds of people involved. Peace resides in the hearts and thoughts of peoples, not within territorial boundaries. Before we can make space for the other we must let the other have a place in our hearts and our thoughts.