The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is surely the most protracted international dispute since the end of the Second World War. Today, however, it is easy to forget that over the past 25 years, various important and encouraging advances have occurred in the political process between Israel and its neighbors: peace with Egypt; peace with Jordan; the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon; the stability of the interim agreement with Syria; and the Oslo Accords. Indeed, only yesterday many people felt that the Middle East -- one of the world's most troubled areas, long plagued by a lack of stability and saddled with continuing violence -- was moving toward a solution that would make the region attractive for development and investment and profoundly change its character. The intensive dialogue between Israel and both Syria and the Palestinians that took place during Ehud Barak's short term as Israel's prime minister and the last two years of Bill Clinton's presidency created extremely high expectations.
But these hopes were shattered by the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in late September 2000, by Barak's overwhelming defeat in the early elections a few months later, and by Ariel Sharon's victory. As violence mounted, world opinion underwent a surprisingly rapid metamorphosis from a state of optimism about the prospects for an immediate agreement to a state of pessimism about the feasibility of any solution at all. Various experts now explain that there will be no solution for many years -- because Yasir Arafat has not made the necessary strategic decisions, because Sharon has never believed in the possibility of peace with the Arabs, and because George W. Bush heads an extreme-right administration that believes that "managing" the conflict is preferable to attempting to solve it with no guarantee of success.
This new consensus seems to have taken hold in Washington and Jerusalem; similar voices can be heard in Europe, too, and in the Palestinian camp as well. The worst thing about this outlook is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If many learned people believe that there is no point in making great efforts to reach a resolution of the conflict -- that it is enough simply to manage it -- then concerted efforts will not be made to resolve it. Indeed, even if such efforts are made, so long as this mind-set prevails, the problem will not be resolved.
This new consensus is particularly frustrating in light of the fact that there is no international conflict whose solution is clearer, whose final outlines are already more apparent -- not the conflicts in Kashmir or Cyprus or anywhere else. A technical approach for achieving a full cease-Þre was agreed upon during CIA Director George Tenet's last visit to the region. The way from there back to the negotiating table was also agreed upon, when both sides accepted the recommendations of the fact-finding commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. This international commission, which was formed in the late stages of President Clinton's second term and submitted its conclusions to President Bush, laid out confidence-building measures that both sides should take in order to return to the path they had embarked on -- but which became soaked in the blood of the Palestinian intifada and the Israeli retaliatory measures.
The permanent-status agreement cannot be described as a puzzle, either. All who acknowledge the need for a historic compromise between Israel and the Palestinians and even those who do not believe that such a compromise should exist will admit that the only logical way forward is the one proposed in the Clinton plan of December 2000, which covers all the concerns due to have been resolved in the permanent-status agreement. The Clinton plan, in turn, is based on the understandings reached in 1994 and 1995 between Arafat's number two in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen), and me. It was a tragedy for both sides that they did not make a supreme effort in 1996 to implement those understandings in a permanent-status agreement. It will be an additional tragedy, if, after having agreed over a year ago to accept the Clinton plan (with various reservations), they both renounce their agreement, claiming that it was made at a different time, in a different context, under a different U.S. president.
The territorial question was, and remains, the most important one in the dispute between the two sides. What the Clinton plan determined, in effect, was that the basis for the boundary between the new Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the border preceding the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel may annex between 4 and 6 percent of the area of the West Bank, so as to include within the State of Israel those areas where the majority of the settlers live. In return, however, Israel will pay in the form of relinquished territory -- even if not identical in size -- from areas that have been under Israeli sovereignty since 1948. All the settlements in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank in those areas not annexed to Israel will be evacuated.
The Clinton plan also addresses security arrangements: The Palestinian state will not have offensive weapons; an international force will be situated on the border between Jordan and the Palestinian state; and Israel will have early-warning stations in the area. The Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem will become part of the Palestinian state and home to the Palestinian capital. The Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will all be part of Israel. As for the tough question of the so-called Holy Basin (an area smaller than three-quarters of a square mile): The Western Wall, the adjacent sacred area, and the Jewish Quarter will be part of Israel; the rest of the Temple Mount and the non-Jewish areas will be part of the Palestinian state. I believe that full internationalization of the Old City could serve as an additional option both sides could accept.
As a solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, the Clinton plan makes five different proposals: rehabilitation of the places where they live; absorption into the Palestinian state; absorption into other countries around the world; absorption into areas that Israel will transfer to the Palestinian state; and absorption of a limited and agreed-upon number of refugees into Israel. There will also be various types of compensation.
Although it was extremely difficult for either side to agree to the Clinton plan, Israel accepted it by a government decision on December 28, 2000, and Arafat gave it a positive response in his meeting with President Clinton on January 2, 2001. Ostensibly, the decision of the Israeli government remains in full force: It has not been revoked, not even by the Sharon government. Arafat's response has not been revoked either, though President Clinton did announce that with the end of his term of office the United States was no longer bound by the proposal.
Yet in the current political reality, it is convenient for Israel and the Palestinians to disregard their consent to the Clinton plan, despite the fact that this was the only time since 1967 that both sides agreed to the same plan for peace. It is particularly convenient for Israel, given the difficulty inherent in giving up sovereignty on the Temple Mount, and it is particularly convenient for the Palestinians, considering their difficulty in publicly relinquishing the "right of return."
But both these concessions are symbolic rather than real. Israel's unilateral sovereignty over the Temple Mount has no practical meaning. The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Mount, even after its occupation in 1967, and Jews have been prohibited from praying there. Since Sharon's provocative visit on September 28, 2000, no Jew has set foot on the site. And concerning the "right of return," once the Palestinians made a decision to support the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, it was clear to the pragmatic Palestinian leadership that the "right of return" would refer to the Palestinian state to be set up as part of the overall settlement. To demand that millions of Palestinians exercise their "right" to return to sovereign Israel would mean that they quickly would become the majority there. Thus, this demand is tantamount to demanding the establishment of a second Palestinian state.
Recent pronouncements of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority's newly appointed political commissioner for Jerusalem, introduce a degree of sanity in this regard. Nusseibeh makes it clear that expecting the Palestinian "right of return" to apply in the State of Israel is unrealistic and will prevent us from reaching any solution at all. Professor Nusseibah should be commended for making such courageous comments in the face of the widespread opposition within the Palestinian camp.
The solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict already has been spelled out in all its stages and details. The Middle East does not need new solutions. It needs a kindergarten teacher to separate the two children, splash some cold water on their faces, calm them down, and send them back to the fine place where they left their sanity.
This kindergarten teacher could be the United States; if not, it could be Europe. But the biggest mistake the world could make would be to say of the Israelis and Palestinians, "Let them bleed." The orphaned negotiating table still is waiting for the two sides to come back -- and it is still not too late.