Even before the first Israeli tanks swept into Ramallah at the start of Operation Protective Wall, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being asked what he intended to do the day after the tanks withdrew. From day one, it was clear that the operation would not in itself put a stop to Palestinian terror. No matter how badly the terrorist infrastructure was hit, it would be only a matter of time until the suicide bombers were back on Israel’s streets.
Unless, that is, there was some political solution to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
But how best to achieve it? During the past few weeks, as more suicide bombings claimed more Israeli lives, and the scale of Israeli retaliation intensified, there has been a flurry of new ideas. Some, despairing of any hope of a negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians, advocate unilateral measures or externally imposed solutions.
There are three basic approaches: incrementalism, unilateralism and international intervention. All three hold out some hope — and all three are deeply flawed.
Both Sharon and the American administration have been inclined to continue along the slow incremental path from violence to cease-fire to graded political re-engagement, outlined in the "Tenet-Mitchell" framework, named for CIA Director George Tenet and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. The idea was to rebuild mutual confidence and trust after the collapse of the attempts to resolve all the issues in one fell swoop at Camp David in July 2000 and Taba in January 2001.
Badly burned by the failure of the permanent-status exercise, the parties lowered their sights and accepted the step-by-step approach.
But it didn’t work. The trouble with Tenet-Mitchell was that it left the endgame open. Sharon was not prepared to spell out his vision of final status until the Palestinians stopped the terror. To do so, he argued, would be to reward violence and encourage more violence.
The Palestinians, however, were not prepared to stop the violence until they knew where the political process was leading. To break the vicious circle, the Americans offered their vision of final status — two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.
But the plan was too vague for the Palestinians. It said nothing about Jerusalem or refugees.
Moreover, as Palestinian terror escalated, and world opinion restricted Israeli retaliation, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat became convinced that violence was paying off and saw no reason to stop it.
Now new ideas to resuscitate the failing incrementalist approach are being put forward.
Ya’acov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet, suggests a carrot for the Palestinians — every month of quiet will be rewarded with the evacuation of an Israeli settlement.
More realistically, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is trying to build a wide international coalition with the Europeans and moderate Arab states to pressure the parties to at least start the incrementalist process.
Operation Protective Wall, besides trying to smash the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, was also ostensibly an attempt to pressure the Palestinians into declaring a cease-fire and starting Tenet-Mitchell.
But will a humiliated and discredited Arafat be in any mood to declare a cease-fire? And if he does, will his badly hit security services be able to maintain it? And why should he want to stop the terror, after the wave of world sympathy, especially European, the latest chapter of violence has gained him?
The assumption that Arafat will not call off the violence and that there is no partner for dialogue on the Palestinian side has led many Israelis on the left and the right to propose unilateralist solutions.
The basic idea is that Israel withdraw unilaterally to a new line from which it can better defend itself and begin talks with the Palestinians, who would create their own state, on a political solution as soon as they are ready.
Sharon’s growing emphasis on buffer zones to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers, reiterated in his early April policy speech to the Knesset, is a version of unilateralist thinking, and is indicative of the prime minister’s conviction that there is no chance of any agreement with the Palestinians as long as Arafat is leader.
The key question for the unilateralists, of course, is where you draw the new line.
Meir Pa’il, a former far-left Knesset member, would pull back to the 1967 borders and put up a sophisticated electronic fence to stop the bombers getting through. The advantage of Pa’il’s line is that it would constitute full withdrawal in accordance with U.N. Resolution 242 and would be seen by the international community as bringing Israeli occupation to an end.
The concomitant disadvantage is that it would mean giving the Palestinians all the land for none of the peace and little incentive to make peace. It would also entail dismantling all the settlements and moving over 200,000 settlers out of their homes without a peace agreement to show for it.
Labor Party leaders, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Knesset member Haim Ramon, therefore, propose withdrawing from 75 percent to 80 percent of the West Bank, leaving most of the settlements intact, and negotiating the remaining 20 percent to 25 percent of the land and other outstanding issues on a state-to-state basis.
The advantage of the plan is that it could trigger a negotiating dynamic. The disadvantage is that the international community would regard Israel as still in occupation of Palestinian territory.
A team under minister-without-portfolio Dan Naveh, who was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, has also been working on a unilateral separation plan. It has Israel moving back to wide buffer zones along the old 1967 borders and in the Jordan Valley, and may prove to be the blueprint for Sharon himself.
The trouble with this scheme is that it would gain no international support and be vigorously resisted by the Palestinians and the Arab world. The lack of international enthusiasm for unilateral solutions and the fact that by definition they do not include an end to the conflict has spawned solutions based on the international community imposing its will on both parties.
Left-wing Meretz leader Yossi Sarid wants to see an American mandate in the Palestinian territories, nursing the Palestinians to statehood and peace with Israel along the lines of the Saudi peace initiative. The new mandate, which is also being backed by former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, would have U.N. sanction and would automatically replace the Israeli occupation.
American or NATO soldiers would be stationed between Israel and the Palestinian territories to protect both sides. This view is gaining momentum in some diplomatic circles, especially in Europe.
Jerome Segal of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies adds a precise set of conditions the Palestinians must meet for statehood, including recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and accepting international weapons inspectors.
The advantage of the imposed solution is that it is final and underwritten in the most emphatic way by the international community.
The question is whether outside countries would be prepared to make the commitment, and even if they did, whether they would be able to impose their will on both sides.
What would they do if the terror persisted and if some of it were aimed at their own forces?
When Powell arrives in Israel later this week, he and Sharon may find themselves out of sync.
Powell will be trying to revive the incremental approach, while Sharon seems to have moved on to a unilateralist mindset.
The result could be an American leap of faith to greater international involvement, first to cool the situation and then, some time down the road, to impose a solution.
One idea being considered is the convening of a 1991 Madrid-style international conference of all major players and all Middle Eastern countries.