TCS Daily

Godot Won't Show

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 20, 2004 12:00 AM

In the past, our approach to bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians resembled the play Waiting for Godot. But now, new thinking is being attempted in the pursuit of peace. Although American policy itself has not changed, policymakers may move towards publicly recognizing what many already knew -- that peace in the Middle East may not depend solely on a negotiated accord, but may also involve unilateral decisions aimed at reducing the amount of interaction that is going on between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. This reduction of interaction may consequently reduce tensions, and do more than any negotiated settlement to bring about peace.

In a press conference this past week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush fundamentally changed the public face of American policy regarding the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The President endorsed an Israeli withdrawal plan that would allow Israel to keep some of the occupied West Bank, and would deny Palestinians the right of return -- allowing them instead to settle in a Palestinian state. In return, Israel would unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip, and would accept a more proactive American stance in determining the final status of any peace settlement.

Perhaps predictably, the Palestinians have reacted negatively to this new policy, and have raised strenuous objections. As the New York Times reports:

Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, issued a powerful denunciation, saying, according to Reuters, "Bush is the first U.S. president to give legitimacy to Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. We reject this."

Earlier today, anticipating the administration's action, Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said in a statement that such an accord "means clearly the complete end of the peace process."

Blogger David Adesnik moved to set the record straight:

That's funny. I thought that the "complete end of the peace process" was when Arafat walked away from the negotiations at Taba in December 2000 and ordered a merciless assault on Israeli civilians that continues to this day. Now, given that both the NYT and WaPo describe Bush's new position on the peace process as a major innovation, you'd think that they would at least have the decency to compare his position with the one that Clinton endorsed at Taba. After all, how else can you figure out what has changed?

Well, FYI, Arafat walked away from Taba because neither Clinton nor Barak considered the Palestinians' Right of Return to be legitimate. The bottom line is that letting millions of Palestinians settle inside the Green Line is an invitation to civil war. Clinton and Barak also negotiated some marginal territorial concessions in order to bring as many Israeli settlers as possible inside the boundaries of Israel proper. Nonetheless, Clinton and Barak offered Arafat more than 90% of the occupied territories as a Palestinian state.

Remarking on the Times's own observation that the Bush-Sharon plan shifts from traditional American positions on various issues concerning the peace process, Adesnik then goes on to make the most important point regarding the embrace of the Sharon plan:

In other words, what's changed isn't the substance of the American position but the articulation of it. But when it comes to diplomacy, articulation matters. That's why today's announcement really is a big story. By staking out a clear position in advance of final-status talks, Bush is essentially saying that important aspects of Israel's demands are simply non-negotiable. If the Palestinians negotiators accept those demands, they will now come across as giving in to American pressure rather than compromising in the name of peace. Thus, if you think that only a negotiated accord can end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then Bush and Sharon really have thrown a wrench in the works. Clearly, that is the premise on which the NYT and WaPo correspondents are operating.

But there is another premise out there which also deserves a fair hearing: that a negotiated settlement is no longer possible and that Israel simply has to find the best way to let go of the occupied territories. That is why Sharon wants to pull out of Gaza. That is why he is building a massive wall to separate Israel from the West Bank. While one can argue that good fences don't make good neighbors, a strong majority of Israeli voters have taken Sharon's side on this one.

Adesnik is concerned that the Bush Administration might allow Israel to simply pressure the Palestinians to accept any settlement -- perhaps by using the temporary security wall Israel is building to define borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. This concern is valid, and certainly, any long-term deal will hinge in part on both sides being able to claim that at least some of their most important policy objectives were met.

But the virtue of the new plan is not that it seeks to change the realities on the ground, but that it explicitly acknowledges those realities. And because of those pre-existing realities, we have to face the possibility that a negotiated settlement may be impossible, and a new approach towards ending the conflict will have to be tried instead.

There is much that remains to be done in forging a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- even assuming that the Bush-Sharon approach is ultimately the right one to take. But acknowledging that peace need not be brought about by negotiated accord alone may bring about new momentum in resolving the conflict. Because both sides remain dug into their negotiating positions, and because violence and terrorism continues to inflame the situation, a negotiated solution looks to be unlikely anytime soon. The Bush-Sharon plan creates a new mechanism through which peace may be achieved -- one that is not dependent solely on the existence of a negotiated accord.

It may be that a miracle occurs, and a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally crafted. But after so many years of fruitlessly waiting for all the right pieces to fall into place, we may finally have reached the point where we should acknowledge that such an accord is the geopolitical Godot. It has not shown, and we may have to stop waiting for it and try something new instead.


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