This was a bad week for pessimists who believe that there is no chance to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the foreseeable future. The UK’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, made his first study visit to the region as he begins his new role as envoy of the Quartet (composed of the US, the EU, the UN and Russia). He was followed by an unprecedented visit by Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian foreign minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, who met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to promote the Arab peace initiative. And finally, in preparation for her visit to the region next week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a briefing that President George W Bush “was the first to call for a two-state solution … stating very clearly that Israel’s future will rest in Israel, in places like Galilee and in the Negev, and that the occupation of the West Bank will have to end and a Palestinian state will need to be established”.
Thus, despite the tragic events in the Gaza Strip, the weaknesses of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the mess in Iraq and the problems with Iran, several factors in the current configuration suggest a possible window of opportunity for forward movement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
• In Israel, Ehud Barak’s election as leader of a revived Labor party and appointment as defence minister, the dovish, politically experienced Haim Ramon’s appointment as vice premier and Shimon Peres’ election as a peace-oriented activist president create an opportunity for Olmert to carry out a peace-oriented policy which could encompass significant steps forward, without which his political career is doomed.
• The internal Palestinian tragedy creates a possibility for Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to demand of Israel and the international community significant measures to improve the situation in the West Bank, to serve as a model for a future solution which would include the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, based on the 1967 borders with mutual land swaps.
• The Arab peace initiative, which offers Israel recognition by and normalization with the 22 Arab League states in exchange for withdrawal to the Green Line, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem, reflects the interest of Israel’s Sunni neighbours in a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provides a regional framework for progress.
• While Tony Blair may be compromised in the eyes of many because of his role in Iraq, he will want to leverage his position as a high-profile Quartet envoy to try to promote genuine progress, and not only remain within the limited mandate given to his predecessor James Wolfensohn.
• The recent speech by President Bush calling for an international conference this autumn creates a framework for progress, provided that Ms Rice can gain the upper hand against the neocons within the administration. Bush should be concerned with ensuring that the Iraqi quagmire will not be the only Middle Eastern factor attached to his legacy, and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly an American interest.
All of these factors require courage and decisiveness on the part of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and active facilitation on the part of the relevant representatives of the international community.
In the longer run, it should be clear that the fate of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem cannot remain divided. And the Hamas Islamic movement apparently is and will remain an inherent part of the Palestinian body politic. However, Hamas will lose influence if it doesn’t adjust to the fact that it is in the clear interest of the majority of the Palestinian people to lead a normal life in an independent sovereign state, which by necessity will need constructive, productive relations with Israel – provided the Israeli leadership, with the help of the international community, has the foresight to use this window of opportunity to build a model for such a future relationship with at least part of the Palestinian people.
As one of our Talmudic sages once said: If not now, when?