The Middle East, with its vital resources and strategic location, is at a boiling point, and the course of events in the region has a direct impact on international stability. From there, a world war could break out. Conversely, it is also the place from where global peace could emerge. It is widely understood, except in the United States and Israel that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the center of regional tension, in the sense that reaching agreement on the conflict is key to defusing the regional situation. But because the US and Israel have not accepted this opinion, instead relying on the use of overwhelming force, the situation has been complicated by greater and greater resentment of American and Israeli policies and thus further escalation. To address the regional powder-keg regional, efforts must start with resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and any successful conclusion must achieve the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people. But endeavors toward a settlement have been exerted over the past 15 years, and have been characterized by Israeli intransigence and a complete American bias toward Israel in an attempt to impose a settlement on the Palestinians. This has led to the complete failure to reach any positive conclusion from lengthy and open-ended negotiations. The failure did not result from the porous mechanisms of the negotiating process alone – even though this has had significant negative impacts – but also from the lack of any real desire among the Israelis and Americans to reach a satisfactory settlement to the conflict. The success of any future attempts at re-launching the political process will depend on a change of both intentions and mechanisms. Specifically, there must be recognition of not only the principle of the two-state solution, but also the achievement of this solution according to international resolutions regarding borders, based on the status quo of June 4, 1967. Without this initial recognition, all attempts at imposing a settlement on the Palestinian side will fail. There are those who believe that since the process is in such a crisis, the best and most successful way to turn it around is to adopt a gradual step-by-step approach in order to rebuild trust between the two warring sides in an interim period. Proponents of this argument believe that going directly to final-status negotiations on all aspects of the settlement will only lead to another eruption of an already disastrous situation. They underline that a step-by-step settlement will allow both the Palestinian and Israeli sides to reach partial agreements that accumulate over time, increasing trust and leading, inevitably, to a final settlement. Critics of this approach, however, say this has been tried in the past and failed to produce a final settlement. The reason is that the stronger party – that is, Israel, backed by the US, controls the course of the negotiating process and can halt interim steps at any point when this suits its interests. For the weaker party – the Palestinians and the Arabs in general, there is no way of guaranteeing that each step will follow the next, if Israel disagrees. Basically, Israel controls the negotiating process, the extent of the interim period and hence its final outcome. In light of the failure of the Oslo Accord and its interim stage, some now insist that a reactivation of the peace process requires the immediate entry into final-status negotiations. Advocates of this approach point out that reaching a settlement depends on finalizing the most fundamental and thorniest issues immediately so that there is no opportunity for either of the negotiating parties, but especially the stronger party, to reconsider, procrastinate or retreat from prior commitments. We can take it as granted that there can be no imposed settlement. Any imposed settlement will generate neither peace nor stability in the Middle East. But in order to reach agreement, two conditions must obtain. First, the goal of the process must be clearly defined, in other words an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the borders existing prior to June 4, 1967. Secondly, a specific time period should be stipulated that would allow the parties gradually to reach that goal. The Quartet of the US, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union needs to move away from the idea of “constructive ambiguity when it comes to the goal or timeframe of the process. Only then is there hope for a political horizon to alleviate the growing pressures not only on the Palestinian-Israeli front, but in the Middle East as a whole.
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter that publishes contending views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.