Tue, 16 Sep 2003

How can Qurei curb the conflict with Sharon?

Daoud Kuttab, Director Institute of Modern Media, Al Quds University, Ramallah, Project Syndicate

The new Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, faces daunting challenges. He must tread between the shrapnel shards of constant Israeli military actions against the Palestinians, the ambivalence of the U.S. about the road map, and a plethora of militant Palestinian groups seeking revenge for every one of their assassinated leaders. This sickening cycle of violence is all too predictable. It need not be inevitable.

Breaking the sequence of Israeli assassination followed by Palestinian suicide bombing requires a change of thinking and action.

The idea that either side can crush the other and declare victory has proven to be a seductive and dangerous mirage, leaving behind only a trail of blood and hate. Israeli leaders must be made to understand that preemptive attacks and assassinations only increase the chance of more anti-Israeli attacks, not less.

So far, the right-wing Sharon government, which seems to give only lip service to peace, is more than happy to engage in military actions that it knows will lead to Palestinian retaliations. As harsh Israeli actions fail to deter Palestinians, Israel seems to raise the stakes, hoping that even harsher, more inhuman acts might bring the Palestinians to heel. Instead, brutal Israeli actions produce only more determined Palestinian reaction, and the cycle of killing and violence continues.

The U.S. government must change its attitude, too. Instead of stating that they understand that Israeli must defend itself, the Bush administration should take an unambiguous stand against Israel's assassinations and collective punishments, which now include uprooting decades-old olive trees and destroying eight story buildings. Travel restrictions and continued settlement activity must end. If the Americans can get Israel to agree to these straightforward requests, the situation could be ripe for a ceasefire, which in turn would be the prelude to a genuine peace process.

Until recently, Israeli officials have publicly and privately refused to respond to the Palestinian request for a ceasefire agreement. Instead, they press for the impossible request that the Palestinian Authority dismantle the militant groups, an act that Israel, with all its powers, has not succeeded in accomplishing. A deadly civil war would surely ensue if the Palestinian Authority seeks to crush Palestinian militants at a time of relentless Israeli attacks and no tangible progress in the peace talks.

Any ceasefire agreement requires both parties to refrain from attacking the other. Such agreements normally include a clause creating a mandate for neutral third-party monitors. But a ceasefire agreement to stand, it must be followed immediately with a concerted effort to produce a political solution to the issues that caused the warring parties to attack each other.

The hudna, or ceasefire, worked out between militant Palestinian groups and the Palestinian Authority (with the knowledge of the Americans) clearly lacked a major component: Israel's assent to the agreement. Israel's insistence in continuing its assassination policy led, predictably, to a violent reaction -- a pattern of assassinations followed by revenge suicide bombings and then further assassinations, with neither side prepared to blink.

But Israel's belief that one more assassination will cause the Palestinians to crumble, and the Palestinian belief that one more suicide attack will cause the Israelis to raise the white flag have led both sides to a dead end. India's Mahatma Ghandi once said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the world blind and toothless. There must be a stop to this zero-sum game and a return to a sane policy based on reason, reciprocity, and compromise.

The pattern of the past three years shows that the first order of business must be a ceasefire between the Israeli government (and all its military and intelligence agencies) and the Palestinian Authority (including all the militant factions). Such an agreement must end all types of military and armed attacks as well as assassinations, and it needs to be monitored by a neutral third party -- namely, the quartet (the U.S., the UN, the EU, and Russia) that drew up the road map, which already contains a provision for foreign monitors.

Finally a ceasefire must be supported by round-the-clock negotiations (preferably in secret with top-level U.S. involvement) aimed at ending the basic reason for the violence -- the occupation of the Palestinian areas -- and determining the issues of borders, settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem. In this context, Israel must put aside thoughts of choosing its negotiating partners.

Palestinian President Yasir Arafat is the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinian people. No serious negotiations can take place and no results can last if one party vetoes the representatives of the other side. Real peace presupposes agreement between enemies, not friends.

Everyone involved in attempting to resolve the Israel- Palestine conflict knows what a peace agreement between the sides will most likely look like. In Taba, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were very close to agreement on all the major issues early in 2001. President Bush's vision of a state of a free and independent Palestine established in 2005 alongside a safe and secure state of Israel could also be used as a benchmark for fresh talks.