Wed, 07 May 2003

The stony road to peace in vexing Middle East

Terje Roed-Larsen, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East, Peace Process, New York

Up to now there have been two approaches to peace in the Middle East. Either you set out a vision of peace based on fundamental principles, or you focused on the next concrete step, hoping to reduce tension and build confidence so that another step would become possible, and then another...

Both these approaches are valid, but we have learnt that neither can work by itself. The vision of peace attracts both Israelis and Palestinians, but they do not see how they can get there, because neither people believes the other will make the concessions needed. And indeed, neither is willing to take those necessary steps, so long as it is not clear where the road will lead.

In short, what has been lacking up to now is a road map, on which both sides can read not only the final destination, but also each successive step of the road.

As of this week, it is lacking no more. On Wednesday the Quartet -- composed of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- formally released the seven-page document on which they had been working for nearly a year.

That document, the Road Map, is very clear about the end goal, which is the two-state solution described by President Bush in the White House Rose Garden on June 24, 2002: A secure and prosperous Israel and an independent, viable, sovereign and democratic Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security, in a Middle East from which terror and violence will at last be banished.

And the Road Map is equally clear about steps for getting there. It specifies not only who must do what, but also when. It recognizes that peace will not be achieved if each side waits for the other to move first. At every stage in the process, both sides must be able to see a tangible improvement in their situation, and an unmistakable movement towards the end goal. Otherwise they will not have the confidence to move on.

In the first phase, for example, Israelis should see a marked improvement in their security, as the Palestinians "undertake visible efforts ... to arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere".

But at the same time the Palestinians should see the restrictions on their movements eased, the new settlement outposts dismantled, and other settlement activity frozen. And both sides should gain confidence from the participation of U.S. security officials in the security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli forces.

The second phase includes the option of creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders -- possibly by the end of this year -- while Palestinians must persist in fighting terror. And by the third phase, in 2004-2005, enough trust should have been built for the parties, actively supported by the Quartet, to reach a final settlement on all the outstanding issues -- borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem -- and for a comprehensive peace to be concluded between Israel and all its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon.

I am convinced that we now have a historic window of opportunity. A key part of the first phase -- Palestinian institutional reform -- has already begun, with some remarkable achievements, including this week's confirmation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's cabinet: A landmark in the development of Palestinian democracy.

No previous peace plan has enjoyed such broad support from such important actors as this one does: The U.S. -- fully engaged in the region, after its victory in Iraq -- Europe, Russia, and key Arab states.

But let's be clear: the Map may come from the Quartet, but it is Israelis and Palestinians who must travel the Road. And sadly, the path has already been stained with more bloodshed. The night before the plan's release, a suicide bomber killed three people in Tel Aviv. And the morning after, Israel launched a major incursion into Gaza City, sparking a fierce gun battle that tragically left at least 15 Palestinians dead, including a two- year child.

This violence shows that both sides have tough decisions to take, as rejectionists try to drive them off the road with new terror attacks. Both must hold firm to their commitments, and not allow extremists to dictate the future. Abbas's government must track down those behind these murders and bring them to justice, while Israel must avoid excessive use of force that make his task even harder.

The road will be stony, but the choice should not be difficult, between continued violence and despair, on the one hand, and the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and recognized Israel, on the other. It is now up to Israelis and Palestinians to make that choice.