It is the total and absolute nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has made it into such a protracted dispute. For it is not just a collision over territory, or a banal border dispute; it is a clash of rights and memory. The longing for the same landscapes, the mutually exclusive claims of ownership of land and religious sites and symbols, and the ethos of dispossession for which the two parties claim a monopoly make their national narratives practically irreconcilable with each other. Yet it is also a war of images, contrasted and demonized images, a struggle between two nationalist mythologies, both of them claiming the monopoly of justice and martyrdom. The history of Jewish disasters and the way Zionism has instrumentalized them was a lesson the Palestinians were quick to absorb. "Expulsion," "exile," "diaspora," "holocaust," "return," and "genocide" are Israeli-Jewish constituent watchwords that also became an inextricable part of the Palestinian national ethos.
This should help explain one key difference: Peacemaking with such Arab states as Egypt and Syria is a strictly political undertaking based on the restitution of territory, while peacemaking with the Palestinians is an attempt to break the genetic code of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and perhaps even of the Jewish-Muslim dispute, by touching religious and historical certificates of ownership. Yasir Arafat's failure to bring peace to his people had much to do with his intrinsic resistance to being the first and only Arab leader to recognize the unique historical and religious roots of the bond of the Jews to their millenarian homeland and to their holy shrines. The Palestinian constituent ethos of the right of return and Islamic values beyond land and real estate were the insurmountable obstacles that prevented an agreement at Camp David and later at Taba.
Political breakthroughs in such protracted conflicts require a stage of ripeness in both societies that can occur only when all other alternatives have been exhausted and the parties have learned the need for compromise the hard way -- through trial and error. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, this ripeness reflected the disintegrating and corrupting effects of occupation on the one hand, and on the other, the incapacity of the occupied to bring about the unconditional capitulation of its enemy through a popular rebellion and international pressure.
Yitzhak Rabin was convinced that a narrow window of opportunity existed for an Israeli-Palestinian peace before Hamas becomes the hegemonic power among the Palestinians and an Iranian-inspired wave of Islamic fundamentalism brings down the moderate regimes of the region. This conviction led him to strike a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo. But his determination to break taboos that were deeply embedded in the Israeli mind unleashed hopes for peace that would tragically be dashed by a most fundamental flaw in the Oslo process: the divergent expectations of the parties.
For his part, Arafat deserves credit for initiating the political process by his endorsement, in 1988, of the two-state solution. Alas, he also established nonnegotiable conditions for a settlement with Israel from which he never deviated. To him, the "peace process" was not meant to be an open-ended track of give and take. Through his historic compromise of 1988, Arafat had already "given"; now, he had only to "take" -- a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, the right of return for the refugees, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Israelis -- including Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat -- by no means concurred with his interpretation of the peace process.
However creative and even epoch-making the Oslo Accords might have been, they also contained the seeds of their own destruction. Ambiguous, cumbersome, full of lacunae -- an Israeli politician defined them as a Swiss cheese with more holes than cheese -- and essentially built on the unequal relations between the occupied and the occupier, Oslo unleashed expectations that were too high, and were consequently bound to crash into the rock of conflicting national dreams. The failure was compounded by the inconsistencies and the dysfunction of Israel's political system on the one hand, and on the other, the Palestinians' incapacity to move away from revolutionary politics and develop the tools of modern governance.
The divergent assumptions of the Oslo peace process bequeathed additional fallacies to the teams that were later to negotiate the final settlement at Camp David and Taba. The incremental nature of the process left the shape of the final agreement wide open, certainly in the perception of the Israelis, and hence encouraged their governments to persist in their policies of fait accomplis in the territories. By creating a dense map of settlements throughout the territories that narrowed the living space of the Palestinian people, Israel destroyed beyond repair the faith of its Palestinian partners in the peace process. Loyal to the archaic Zionist philosophy, according to which the last kindergarten also defines the political border, the Israelis tried to influence the nature of the final agreement by a hectic policy of settlement expansion. This strategy was, and continues to be, the most absurd march of folly that the State of Israel has ever embarked on. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians responded with terrorism. It was this fatal symmetry between settlements and terrorism that became the hallmark of the Oslo years.
So the negotiating process for a final settlement fell victim to the conflicting interpretations of what exactly were the premises upon which it was built. The Israelis came to the negotiations embracing the letter of the Oslo Accords, the premise of an open-ended process without preconceived solutions. For the Palestinians, this was a simple, clear-cut process of decolonization based on "international legitimacy" and "UN relevant resolutions." But neither Rabin nor Shimon Peres thought that Oslo had unleashed a process that was subject to such concepts. Nor did they think that the process should usher in a full-fledged Palestinian state.
Constructive ambiguity facilitated an agreement in Oslo at the price of creating potential irreconcilable misconceptions about the final settlement. The Israeli negotiators of a final status agreement at Camp David and Taba came to solve the problems created by the 1967 War, and were surprised to stumble on the Palestinians' assertion of the intractable issues of 1948, first and foremost the refugees' right of return.
With the failure of the peace process, the two peoples returned to the bloodiest confrontation since 1948. Israelis and Palestinians reverted to the fundamentalist roots of the conflict, to a primordial struggle, to believing that the salvation of one could be founded only on the destruction of the other. For the Palestinians, the Second Intifada has developed into a struggle to end the occupation by shaping a constituent myth of national and Islamic independence. Exposed to indiscriminate waves of suicide terrorism, the Israelis lost any hope of a negotiated settlement, and in their despair succumbed to a new self-defeating political religion -- that of unilateral disengagement. Humiliated by Israeli retribution, with the backbone of their society broken, and in response to the sad vicissitudes of deficient governance, the Palestinians embraced the Hamas option. The ascendancy of Hamas was greatly enhanced by Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, for it proved the argument that armed resistance succeeded where the PLO philosophy of negotiations had failed. There were lessons there for the Israelis as well.
For against the ominous predictions of civil war looming over Israel if a massive dismantling of settlements were carried out, the mostly peaceful Gaza disengagement proved to be an anticlimax. Especially shocking to the settlers' community was the overwhelming support throughout the nation for the uprooting of the Gush Katif settlements. The lords of the land for so many years, these settlers developed a hubris that was increasingly out of tune with Israel's longing for a normalcy that could only be brought about by disengagement from Palestinian lands. The notion finally reached Israelis that this Jewish republic of settlers on the golden sands of Gaza and the hilltops of Judea and Samaria had become an unbearable burden that has drained the resources of the nation and doomed it to a suicidal confrontation with the Palestinians. Once considered a patriotic vanguard, the settlements now became an obstacle that needed to be removed, an entanglement that needed to be untied, if Israel were to maintain its Jewish and democratic character. In the summer of 2005, Israel looked like a society mature enough to face the formidable challenge of defining its final borders without cataclysmic upheaval. The precedent was established, and for the first time since 1967, the "State of Israel" challenged "Eretz Israel" -- and survived.
But then came the summer of 2006, and the fierce and humiliating war with Hezbollah. Israel thus found itself fighting on two fronts -- against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- a situation that dealt a mortal blow to the pursuit of unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had planned to do. The sad lessons of the Gaza disengagement meant that Qassam missiles being launched from a new front line in the West Bank against Israel's major urban centers in the greater Tel Aviv area could no longer be seen as a far-fetched scenario. If Olmert still wanted to save his "convergence plan" (the idea of withdrawing unilaterally from large areas in the West Bank), he could have tried to coordinate it in exchange for a long-term truce (hudna) with a Palestinian partner. That partner could be only the Hamas government or a Fatah-Hamas national unity cabinet. Though Israel and Hamas are still united by a profound skepticism with regard to the peace process, both have reasons to support an extended truce.
An extended truce would certainly have allowed Hamas to reconcile its ideological rejection of Israel with a major step toward "the end of occupation," while gaining the vital breathing space necessary to address a domestic agenda that was, after all, the main reason people voted for them. For its part, an Israeli government ready to depart from the inertia of incursions and targeted killings could have drawn strength from a poll published just before the 2006 summer war indicating that no less than 45 percent of Israelis were ready to support direct negotiations with Hamas. In practical terms, this meant allowing Hamas to exercise the mandate it received from the Palestinian people to govern. But rather than engaging Hamas, both the United States and Israel precipitated its return to the battlefield after a long absence, precisely by doing all they could to topple Ismail Hanyeh's government. The negation of Hamas' right to govern, not the organization's ideological rejection of Israel, is what drove Hamas back to the battlefield.
But, notwithstanding some confusing contradictions in its current discourse, Hamas is definitely on its way to assuming the culture of political compromise. A diminishing commitment to the organization's core goals -- and a scaling down of its expectations regarding, for example, the creation of an Islamist state -- can definitely be detected. The Mecca agreement of February 8 for the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government was not a full and unequivocal endorsement of the requirements of Israel and the international community (explicit recognition of Israel and of past agreements, and an end to terrorism), but it certainly meant the endorsement of a new political language on the basis of which Hamas can be incorporated into a peace deal based on a two-state solution.
What of the U.S. role? until recently, the Bush administration has taken a line diametrically opposed to that of President Clinton, who devoted his entire presidency to persistent efforts to reach a peaceful settlement between the parties. Condoleezza Rice's recent peace missions to the Middle East are a long-overdue attempt to offer a political horizon to Israelis and Palestinians. It took President Bush six long years of failed policies in the Middle East to assume that the alliance of the moderates in the region can be forged only through an Arab-Israeli peace, and that only by effectively addressing the Israeli-Arab dispute might he still be able to salvage America's standing in the region. The current effort at peacemaking by Secretary Rice, however, comes too late in the political life of a president who, defeated at home and abroad, is practically a lame duck; it is also ill-conceived, and hardly convincing.
The Bush administration's "road map" assumed incremental progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state. It did not, however, offer a clear outline of the final peace deal in crucial matters such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. The parties were never convinced that the road map could lead to a comprehensive peace settlement, and so they never really collaborated in good faith to promote the plan. Too susceptible to procrastination and evasion by the two sides, the road map was stillborn. Almost four years after it was first drawn, neither party has been able to gather the political will necessary for the implementation of its most primary provisions -- those calling for Israel to dismantle its illegal outposts in the occupied territories and for the Palestinians to fight terrorism.
Nor can the bizarre idea reserved for the second stage of the road map, of a Palestinian state with "temporary borders," be seen as especially enticing by the Palestinians. And, even if the Palestinians would be ready to contemplate the possibility of "temporary borders," the fragility of the dysfunctional political systems in both Israel and Palestine is such that it would wreck the entire enterprise. For a central lesson of the failed Oslo process is that the entire concept of a piecemeal progress to peace requires the parties to pay such a prohibitive political price that they might better opt for the final settlement at once.
True, we tried a final-settlement strategy at Camp David and Taba, and we failed. But over time, a gradual process of trial and error has made clear the imperatives of peace. Fifteen years after the Madrid conference began a formal peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, the parties are wiser as to what is inevitable if this tortuous process is to lead to a permanent settlement. In 1991, they concurred on a platform of "land for peace." But the Israelis never believed they would have to give back all the land, while the Arabs did not think they might have to offer "all the peace." Today, at long last, everyone knows what is meant by "land," and everyone knows what is meant by "peace": Land can only mean a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and peace means the end of conflict and the finality of claims.
Two central lessons need to be drawn from the failure of the peace process so far. The first is that in bilateral negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians have shown themselves utterly incapable of reconciling themselves to each other's fundamental requirements for peace. The second is that interim agreements did not serve to establish trust; they became only a trigger for further conflict.
This Gordian knot can no longer be untied; it needs to be cut. The concept of interim agreements has now become utterly obsolete. What is called for is a second partition of Palestine under international supervision. Only a reverse engineering, starting at the end and working backward, might still save this process from irreversible ruin.
A tragedy of this conflict is that the only man, Yasir Arafat, whose signature on an agreement of compromise and reconciliation -- which would include giving up unattainable dreams -- could have been legitimate in the eyes of his people was incapable of bringing himself to sign. Arafat took this legitimacy with him to the grave, and he left his heirs with the same positions and the same ethos on which compromise will be beyond their capacity to reach. That is his terrible legacy. If the all-powerful Arafat attributed such great importance to having an international umbrella escort him to the altar of an agreement, does it seem probable that lesser figures, saddled with such difficult terms of inheritance, would be able on their own to cast off the ethos of the right of return and the Temple Mount without a tight-fitting envelope of support from the international community, especially from the neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians' allies in Europe? Arabs and Israelis would simply not be able to independently accommodate themselves to each other's minimal requirements for peace.
The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in an outline that is embodied in the main peace plans on the table: the Clinton peace parameters and the all-Arab peace initiative of 2002, recently reconfirmed by the Arab League in its Riyadh summit March 28–29. The inadequacy of a strictly bilateral approach was well understood by the initiators of the all-Arab peace initiative. That initiative is, most importantly, a call to regionalize the solution to the conflict after the bilateral approach ended in failure. The loss of mutual trust between the parties and their total incapacity to take even the smallest step toward each other, let alone to observe their commitments without being nursed by third parties, make the creation of an international framework for peace the last and only way out of this dangerous impasse.
The end of bilateralism stems also from the deficiencies of what are desperately dysfunctional political systems, both in Palestine and in Israel. Rather than serving as the vehicle for the solution of the conflict, they have been major obstacles to peace. Gasping for political oxygen under the pressure of Hamas, and unable to have his national unity government accepted as an interlocutor by Israel and the United Sates, Mahmoud Abbas has less chance than ever to lead his nation to statehood and peace.
As for Israel, on a recent trip to Jerusalem, Rice had to listen to four different peace plans from Olmert's ministers. Achieving internal peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike might still prove to be as formidable a task as achieving peace between them. The Israelis, never the friends of an international solution, might draw consolation from the simple truth that unilateralism has failed in both Iraq and in Gaza, and that none of the major problems of the Middle East are susceptible to bilateral solutions. They all call for a multilateral effort.
As the launching of the Arab-Israeli peace process in Madrid has shown, the prospects for peace in the Middle East have always waited for a concerted international effort to exploit windows of opportunity. Wars in the Middle East -- especially those that did not end conclusively, like Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and against Hamas in Gaza -- have almost invariably created the conditions for major political breakthroughs, for they taught us the limits of what power can achieve.
Thrown into one of its most dangerous crises in recent times, and immersed in a momentous struggle between the forces of peaceful change and those committed to doomsday politics, the Middle East calls once again for a major international effort at peacemaking before we all drug ourselves into collective perdition.