Though I have been to the region many times, my most recent trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan confirmed the alarming new obstacles facing the quest for peace in the Middle East, and the urgency with which they need to be addressed by all parties.
Tackling these issues now is crucial because, even though it is obvious that there will not be a conflict-ending agreement by the end of the year as President Bush and others have hoped, momentum must be maintained. The negotiations, dormant for seven years but restarted in Annapolis, require forward movement, no matter how modest, in order to avoid total collapse.
Progress on the ground is required in coming months not only to encourage both parties to take full advantage of an engaged administration looking for a legacy, but to ensure that the next president of the United States comes into office with some forward momentum. Without improvements on the ground, the temptation for the next president to avoid the issue altogether will be difficult to resist. He is unlikely to throw much political capital into a stagnant diplomatic quagmire in which progress appears impossible. We have often witnessed the severe political damage such neglect has caused in the past.
Improvements on the ground are most important in the Palestinian territories, as the Palestinian public is increasingly skeptical of the prospects of peace through negotiations because of the steady and ongoing deterioration in their quality of life, and the relentless building of Israeli settlements. Palestinians require immediate improvements in the most fundamental aspects of their life: economic conditions, and personal safety and security.
The Palestinian economy is in shambles, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) the largest employer by far, maintaining barely enough in its treasury to meet salaries and obligations for a month or two. The resulting strikes and resentments have further weakened the moderate PA government.
Commitments made by international donors in Paris for more than $7 billion have made little difference in people s lives. Most of these funds are dedicated to projects that have not moved beyond the planning stage. The Palestinian Authority is in desperate need of aid that can be used to pay salaries and other daily expenses and to formulate meaningful plans for the economy.
Beyond this, investment in Palestine is an essential element to building the prosperity necessary for peace. An investment conference to be held in Bethlehem on May 21-23 is planned to attract global and regional investors and convey the message that Palestine is open for business. This is strongly supported by the Bush administration and the US-Palestinian Public-Private Partnership established by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to help develop the Palestinian economy.
The cooperation of Israel is crucial in developing an atmosphere of order and normalcy required for investment. So, too, is the development of improved security by the Palestinian Authority, which is demanded not only by international investors and Israel, but above all by ordinary Palestinians.
The training of Palestinian security forces by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton in Jordan, funded by the Congress, is crucial in the process of handing over increased security responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority. It is vital to successfully implement plans to expand Palestinian police powers starting in the north of the West Bank, including important towns such as Nablus, Tulkaram and Jenin. This expansion of local authority, planned to eventually cover all Palestinian territories, would not only strengthen the Palestinian Authority s security credentials and expertise, but enhance mobility, safety, trade and tourism for the Palestinian people.
Above all, without personal safety and security, and the rule of law, Palestinian civil society could degenerate into anarchy. Only trained, disciplined and competent Palestinian security forces can provide safety and law and order to the Palestinian people.
Israel, too, has an important role to play, by following through on and expanding its commitments to remove and ease checkpoints and other restrictions on Palestinian mobility in the occupied territories as it enters into meaningful negotiations about a political settlement.
In addition, turning over the Gaza-Egypt border crossings to the Palestinian Authority and returning European monitors in order to end the ongoing siege of Gaza is essential to creating a sense of confidence in the Palestinian Authority and restoring the belief of Palestinians in their ability to achieve their goals through negotiations with Israel. No potential developments inside Gaza, no matter how dramatic or how imminent, should prevent this transfer of border crossing authority and the lifting of the siege.
Progress toward peace in the long term requires progress on Palestinian economic and security concerns in the short term. The measures outlined are necessary for a two-state solution to be salvaged. The alternative is a demographic nightmare for Israel, continued occupation and suffering for the Palestinians, an ongoing conflict with no end in sight, and a boon to forces of radicalism and violence throughout the Middle East.
Ziad Asali is the president of the American Task Force on Palestine. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.