Murder and mayhem in Gaza; Israelis and Palestinians -- all too often innocents -- die daily. Reformers and warlords challenge Yasser Arafat as chaos and anarchy envelop the Palestinian Authority.
What's an American president to do? Let the fire spread until it burns out? Or find a way to end the bloodletting?
On last season's finale of TV's "The West Wing," these vexing choices faced fictional President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet. They also happen to face the man who inhabits the real West Wing, President Bush. More importantly, they face the man who will occupy the White House come January.
While the campaign season has sidelined any new U.S. Arab-Israeli initiatives, no president can long defer decisions over a volatile region that profoundly impact U.S. national security.
Can Bartlet teach Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) something about the Middle East?
On TV, White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry pressed Bartlet to authorize F-18 missile strikes on Palestinian terrorists in a dense urban area, collateral damage notwithstanding. But fictional deputy national security adviser Kate Harper had a different idea: Try smart diplomacy instead of smart bombs.
You can't negotiate with those Palestinians, scoffed McGarry, hawking the hard-line Bush-Ariel Sharon catechism. Farad (a fictional Arafat) must be removed and terror roundly defeated before peace talks can resume. Until then, Israel must determine interim borders on its own.
But this dogmatic position -- on TV and in reality -- blinds us to opportunities for a breakthrough.
The popular slogan that Israel tried land for peace and got only war and terror is doubly misleading. After failing to stem their violent assaults in Oslo's early years, Arafat's forces effectively reined in the terrorists and cooperated on security with Israel for the three years leading up to Camp David. Israel suffered only a single casualty from Palestinian suicide bombings from October 1997 until October 2000, when these attacks resumed in the months following Camp David's collapse (according to the Israel Foreign Ministry's website list of "Suicide and Other Bombing Attacks in Israel Since the Declaration of Principles, Sept. 1993").
On the other hand, Israel never stood up to the radical Jewish Greater Land of Israel movement, continuing to build settlements and to strengthen its hold in areas where millions of Palestinians live and seek an independent state. And far from having granted Palestinians real mastery over their own lives, Israel allowed them full control over only 18 percent of the West Bank during the Oslo decade.
Back at the "West Wing," national security adviser Kate Harper countered McGarry: Could the United States devise a strategy with Israel to strengthen Palestinian moderates and democratic reformers, offering political incentives to boost their popularity and Israel's security?
Harper inspires a blockbuster script for the real West Wing:\n
• United States-allied Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, along with the European Union and the U.N. secretary general, should ratchet up the pressure on Arafat to yield more authority over Palestinian security bodies to the democratic reformers and doves who have been challenging Arafat's near-monopoly on power, in the wake of continuing unrest in the territories.\n
• Palestinian reformers must demonstrate that they can be partners by further challenging Arafat to relinquish control over security.\n
• The administration should insist on a timeline and a mechanism for monitoring and enforcing Sharon's fulfillment of his written promises to Bush to immediately remove settlement outposts, enact a comprehensive settlement freeze and remove those checkpoints that have no real defense value for Israel.\n
• The United States, Egypt and Jordan should train and equip a new Palestinian force, as now proposed, while U.S. monitors oversee a renewed Palestinian effort at security cooperation with Israel.\n
• Instead of releasing Palestinian detainees to Islamic extremists like Hezbollah, Israel should free a sizable contingent of high-value Palestinian political prisoners to the moderates.\n
• The United States should work to convert Sharon's unilateral plan to encompass a redeployment of Israeli forces away from Palestinian cities back to their September 2000 positions.
This strategy would pave the way for Palestinian elections, enabling the moderates to gain fresh legitimacy and new powers -- especially increasing control over a consolidated Palestinian security body -- through the ballot box.
In exchange for an effective truce and a sustained Palestinian anti-terror campaign, Israel should withdraw progressively from all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, removing both settlers and armed forces, genuine de-occupation steps it neither proposed nor took before. It should coordinate a withdrawal from areas of the West Bank and Gaza with Palestinian leaders who are willing and able to take security responsibility for areas Israel evacuates.
Helping to empower Palestinian pragmatists would mean co-opting Arafat, who still controls most Palestinian security groups and without whose consent no progress is possible. The reformers' summer rebellion, triggered in anticipation of Sharon's disengagement initiative, has challenged Arafat's lock on power, without seriously weakening his stranglehold on the pace of domestic reform, as well as on peace and security issues with Israel.
Paradoxically, by working with a newly elected Palestinian government under Arafat, who would also likely be re-elected as P.A. president, the United States would invigorate democratic reformers who will be better positioned to erode Arafat's authority and curb violence.
Harper's more realistic strategy for peace sounds remarkably like the Bush administration's "road map" peace plan. But Bush willingly sabotaged his own plan by acceding to Sharon's unfaithful reading of its terms. Under the guise of the war on terror, Bush acquiesced in Sharon's resumption of targeted killings during last summer's Palestinian cease-fire, and raised little protest when Sharon failed to dismantle the 51 settlement outposts built since his election, as the plan requires.
Under the Harper plan, Israeli actions would no longer be conditioned on Palestinian fulfillment of unattainable demands but performed in tandem with Palestinian moves that are both necessary and feasible.
In TV land, the moderate Palestinian prime minister reached out to the White House through a secret back channel, floating a new initiative based on U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and dialogue, much as the current Palestinian premier, Ahmed Qureia, has overtly done with the Bush administration.
In exchange for his political rehabilitation and a U.S.-Israeli promise to free him from confinement in his West Bank compound, Arafat would deploy his still-hefty prestige among Palestinians to coax the security services to enforce the truce and stop the terror. As recent events have revealed, despite mounting internal challenges, Arafat retains a tight grip on the reins of power. But a U.S. policy freed of tunnel vision could help loosen those reins.
If the Palestinian pragmatists' way of nonviolence and negotiations can make tangible gains for their people, the moderates may grow stronger, while the influence of Arafat and the extremists is likely to wane.
Pundits who shed crocodile tears over the impotence of Palestinian doves overlook a fundamental truth: The removal of Israeli settlers, troops and checkpoints from the West Bank and Gaza; improvements in Palestinian humanitarian and economic conditions, and an authentic Israeli commitment to resuming final status talks are the stuff from which empowered Palestinian moderates are made.
The next president should follow Bartlet's lead: smart diplomacy could leverage Israel's disengagement move into a peace deal and save U.S. influence in the region.
Once the electoral dust settles in November, a new American push to rescue Israelis and Palestinians from four years of carnage will play not only in Peoria, but everywhere in the United States and the world where citizens want to see the United States defeat extremism and take a giant step toward stability and peace in the Middle East.
Mark Rosenblum is founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now and co-editor with Gidon D. Remba of a forthcoming book, "From Baghdad to Jerusalem: A New Road to Middle East Peace?" Remba, president of Chicago Peace Now, served as senior foreign press translator in the Israel prime minister's office from 1977-1978 during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.
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