Three sources of change are converging--and offering an opportunity to end this decades-long conflict.
The impact of the war in Iraq on the prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been mixed. True, Israel's strategic environment has improved as the immediate long-range threat from Iraq has been eliminated and more international attention has been focused on the potential non-conventional danger emanating from Iran. But in assuming that the road to Jerusalem had to go via Baghdad, the US made a terrible mistake, which may explain why, before the Iraqi invasion, Washington made virtually no attempt to deal--let alone resolve--the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, the much-heralded Roadmap published in April 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein was never vigorously pursued, resulting in greater violence and suffering on both sides.
The path to stability in the Middle East actually runs the other way--from Jerusalem to Baghdad--because Islamic militants exploit the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to justify their attacks on the United States and the West. A permanent settlement of the century-old Israeli-Arab conflict would remove one of the key rallying cries of militant Islam. Achievement of this objective, however, may be hindered by American unwillingness, in the wake of its sorry Iraqi experience, to commit its power and resources (both human and financial) to actively engage in the challenges of conflict resolution.
This would be an error of historic proportions. At the outset of 2005, three sources of change are converging to offer an opportunity which, if not seized, will surely not recur in the foreseeable future.
The first is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's initiative to effect a withdrawal from some territories occupied in 1967 and, in the process, to evacuate settlements that have proven to be an ongoing obstacle to the realization of a viable two-state solution. The proposed pullback from Gaza and small portions of the northern West Bank, albeit partial, nevertheless represents a significant change in Israeli policy. Even during the Oslo process, Israel did not vacate territories or dismantle settlements, but the new Sharon Likud-Labor government is dedicated to pursuing a policy of "disengagement."
Second, with the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the new president of the Palestinian Authority, a pragmatic Palestinian leadership with a vested interest in achieving a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is assuming the reins of power in this post-Arafat era. Although Abu Mazen has yet to secure the cooperation of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, he has been welcomed by Jerusalem, by Washington, and by the international community. He also has the backing of Egypt and Jordan, moderate Arab states that have more to fear from Islamic fundamentalism than from Israel. This broad support network bodes well for the reduction of violence and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. It may also prompt a revival of the Saudi plan, adopted by the Arab League, which views with favor the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the vehicle for achieving Israel's most avid wish--a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. A resumption of negotiations, preferably on all final status issues, is necessary to capitalize on the present moment and to avert a deterioration which may close the door firmly on the two-state option.
The third source of change, perhaps surprising given this analysis, is the reelection of George W. Bush, who needs to mend fences with Europe and therefore is more likely to seriously weigh the counsel of Tony Blair and other European leaders on the urgency of addressing the Palestinian-Israeli situation. Moreover, the US cannot hope to rectify its shattered standing in the region as long as the Arab-Israel conflict continues to fester and constitute a magnet for anti-American sentiment.
If the US hopes to maintain its leadership in the international community, Washington will have to formulate a more consistent Middle East policy, including, at the very least, diplomatic overtures toward the new Palestinian leadership (already set in motion with the invitation of Abu Mazen to the White House), tangible economic incentives to address widespread Palestinian economic distress, and concrete steps toward the reconvening of peace talks.
Three new governments with strong roots in the immediate past have been ushered into office in the first month of 2005: in Israel, in Palestine, and in the United States. Each, in its own way, offers a hint of hope. If handled properly by responsible leaders, this glimmer of hope can lead to the end of this decades-long conflict. It is up to us to make it happen.
Naomi Chazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University and a former member and deputy speaker of the Knesset, is a founder of the Israel Women's Network, former director of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and vice president of the International Political Science Association.