A Durable Middle East Peace

Had they survived, the Oslo accords would have turned 10 this year. Instead, a disheartening record of on-again, off-again negotiations has been followed by three years of deadly conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Year after year, the Oslo approach and variants thereof have been tried, always with the same dispiriting results: agreements not reached or not implemented, accompanied by a gradual erosion in mutual trust. The price of failure has risen with each effort -- for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, first and foremost, but for the United States and its national interests as well.

With each successive turn, there are renewed calls to try better, try harder but basically try more of the same: interim agreements designed to boost confidence and gradually pave the way for negotiations over a final deal. True, one can always attribute failure to the shortcomings of the various parties. In the latest iteration of the diplomatic effort, the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian "road map," some lament that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas did too little on the security front, that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did too much on the military one, that the United States stood on the sidelines and that Yasir Arafat stood in the way. But that this has become a 10-year-old refrain ought to tell us something about the process itself -- namely that the setbacks, skirted obligations, clear-cut violations and violence are not deviations from the current process but its natural and inevitable outgrowth. And that there is no reason to believe that what has failed before will suddenly work now, that what the parties have stubbornly resisted doing in the past they can -- with a little additional pressure or persuasion -- be brought to do in the present.

Much time has been spent assessing who or what derailed the so-called road map, but in truth it derailed itself. Ill-adapted to the conflict it purports to settle, the road map may vanish, or it may survive under a different guise. But even under the best of circumstances, its success would mean managing the conflict, not resolving it, and deferring the next crisis rather than preventing it.

Three interrelated reasons explain why the process inaugurated in Oslo and reincarnated in the road map has failed. First, it was premised on an incremental approach in which the parties lacked a well-defined vision of the ultimate goal. As a result, both Israelis and Palestinians treated the interim period as a time to shape the final deal through unilateral steps rather than through joint effort. Both sides were determined to hold on to their assets (territory in Israel's case, the threat of violence in the Palestinians') as bargaining chips to be deployed in the endgame. Because the objective remained vague, neither side had a sufficient incentive to carry out its obligations, the goal always being appeasement of the United States rather than pursuit of desired purpose. And so each interim step became an opportunity for a misstep, and the logic behind the Oslo process -- that interim measures would gradually boost mutual confidence -- was turned on its head as each incremental violation further deepened the existing mistrust.

Second, the process lacked a credible means of implementation. As the parties refrained from carrying out their obligations, the rest of the world refrained from stepping in. There was no genuine incentive for compliance or disincentive for breach. The second reason is related to the first: Failure to implement a series of piecemeal, incremental agreements is hardly enough to mobilize the heavy hand of the international community.

Third, Oslo and its offspring were predicated on the notion that an agreement would flow from direct negotiations between leaders of the two sides. But, as constituted, the process required leaders to make difficult decisions in a political environment that was stacked against them. Clamping down on militant Palestinian groups is politically feasible in return for the end of occupation; it is far less so when those groups are seen as resisting the occupation and where little certain can be said about the final destination. Withdrawing from territory and freezing settlement construction are realistic in return for an end to violence; these actions are less plausible if Israel remains unsure whether Palestinians will accept its existence. In both instances, and even assuming the best of intentions, concessions carry well-known costs and ill-defined gains.

These shortcomings have been evident most recently as Sharon and Arafat tried to deal with the Bush-sponsored road map. Though both leaders said "yes" to the road map, neither believed in it. Though they pay lip service to its incremental steps, both view these as minor distractions in which the goal must be to mollify the United States, placate the international community and, to the extent possible, avoid being blamed. For both, the road map is a rather inconsequential diversion in their longer-term existential struggle.

For Sharon, the goal is to protect Israel's moral and territorial security, which he sees threatened by the existence of a unified Palestinian national movement. In this endeavor, the road map is a nuisance, but little more. He will do just what he must to satisfy Washington without deviating from his central objective: ensuring that the Palestinians will not, by dint of demographic growth, violent confrontation or political consolidation, menace Israel's longer-term safety. To that end, he has accumulated a long list of assets -- prisoners detained, land reoccupied, threats yet to be carried out -- that he can hold on to or give up, thereby creating the impression of forward movement in a game that remains desperately still.

For Arafat, the goal is to maximize the strength of the Palestinian people, which he equates with the strength of the nationalist cause, and with his own. It is a matter of being there and staying there, demonstrating political determination and not giving up. At this stage, interim steps are not about their implementation, and this moment is not about the peace process. It is all about assessing and asserting power. And so Arafat measures the road map's usefulness not by its content but by whether and how he can emerge from it if not stronger, at least intact.

There may be much that separates them, but in this respect at least Sharon and Arafat are very much alike: Both are convinced that, road map or no road map, the battle goes on. Both are sure that time is on their side. Both believe that they have more to lose by desperately seeking to end the chaos than by simply withstanding it. And both are convinced that the other feels absolutely and precisely the same way.

There is an alternative process that better matches the nature of the conflict. It is a process that bypasses leaders' proclivities and weaknesses, provides the finality that has so sorely been lacking, ensures implementation and places decision making in an arena far more supportive of a final deal than the current one. It is at once the most ambitious and the most pragmatic process available.

First, the United States should lead a coalition including the European Union, Russia, and Arab and Muslim countries, and should sponsor a new United Nations Security Council resolution spelling out the shape of a final, comprehensive deal. It is clear by now, based on the parties' negotiations from Oslo onward, that a plan that protects the two sides' vital interests can be put together. The plan would not require either party to forsake what it considers its fundamental rights or aspirations. Rather, it would propose a practical solution to the problems they confront so that they can live in peace and security. Its core elements would be as follows:

• A two-state solution through which Israel would preserve its Jewish character and Palestine would enjoy freedom and sovereignty.

• The borders between Israel and the new state of Palestine would be based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor modifications through a land swap that would take into account demography, security, and the viability and contiguity of the two entities. Israel would annex enough West Bank land to enable most settlers to live within Israel proper, and the Palestinians would recover the equivalent of 100 percent of their land.

• Jewish areas of Jerusalem -- West Jerusalem and the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem -- would become the capital of Israel, and Arab areas of the city would become the capital of Palestine. Each religion would have control over its own holy sites.

• Palestinian refugees would be given the choice to live in Palestine, resettle in areas of Israel that would be relinquished to Palestine by virtue of the land swap, relocate to some third country or be absorbed in their current country of refuge -- the latter two options being dependent on those countries' sovereign decisions. All refugees would be offered financial compensation for harm incurred and property lost, as well as resettlement assistance. Israel would reinstate its policy of family reunification and humanitarian return.

Second, and as part of this plan, the international community would propose a U.S.-led international mandate to administer the territory that would make up the Palestinian state, verify compliance, help provide security and take control of land turned over by Israel. The mandatory powers would be the ultimate arbiters, transferring land and full sovereignty to the Palestinians when appropriate. Israel would be offered a U.S. defense treaty and membership in NATO, and U.S. and European security guarantees would be extended to the Palestinian state.

Third, the United States and its allies would ask Israeli and Palestinian leaders something very straightforward and politically difficult to refuse: not to agree to the plan but to submit it to their people for approval or rejection. While the leaders may balk, a vigorous campaign in which the United States and the Europeans, but also Arab and Muslim countries, would play a significant part would build tremendous pressure and affect political dynamics, producing a change of heart -- or a change of leaders. And, if opinion polls are to be trusted, there is every reason to believe that the referendums would yield the desired outcomes.

Some have urged the imposition of a solution by the international community. But that is highly unlikely to work. It would trigger an immediate nationalistic backlash on both sides, and, from Israel, cries of unfair treatment at the hands of a trusted ally. Others have called for the establishment of a mandate or trusteeship as a prelude to a final deal, exercised over less than 100 percent of the future Palestinian state. But that is a recipe for continued violence. Palestinians would view it as an extension of the occupation under a new guise, and Israelis would be reluctant to give up their principal strategic asset (territory) in return for an uncertain outcome.

Still others believe that the parties ought to return to final status negotiations and seek to resolve their outstanding differences at the bargaining table. But negotiations have exhausted their usefulness. The differences that persist may not be significant, but neither side will put forward or accept ideas that risk inviting domestic challenge and weakening their bargaining position absent the certainty of reaching a final deal. At this point, given the extraordinary stakes involved, negotiations will not bridge the remaining gaps but highlight them.

Putting forward a comprehensive deal would provide the clarity that has so far been missing, creating genuine incentives for Israelis (security) and Palestinians (the end of the occupation) to confront extremists within their ranks and deprive them of their legitimacy. Proposing a U.S.-led mandate would make up for the lack of trust. Submitting the plan to a referendum would endow it with popular legitimacy while shifting the locus of decision making to an arena where the balance of power is far more favorable to proponents of an agreement.

Of all the arguments raised against such a proposal, the most salient is the lack of political willpower in Washington. Domestic constraints, the risk of political backlash and the United States' longtime strategic alliance with Israel make it difficult to imagine this administration -- or any other -- taking on such a risk in the absence of the most exigent of circumstances. The administration, it is said, has been unwilling to put its full muscle behind the far less ambitious road map. How could it possibly be expected to do significantly more?

The point, of course, lies precisely there: The United States has, year after year, expended precious energy, as well as political and economic capital, on behalf of a process that has promised little and yielded even less. Any type of engagement involves risks and costs. These only ought to be borne for the sake of an enterprise that merits them. Here, the cost-benefit calculus is clear: A successful U.S.-led effort along these lines would dramatically change America's posture in the region, isolate militant forces, mute the anti-Americanism that has become so widespread and reassert the United States' position as defenders of Israel's vital interests without being oblivious to Arab concerns. Nor would the international forces deployed to the region face significant risks. In Iraq, the United States is seen to have initiated an occupation. In Palestine, it would be seen to have ended one.

This solution would likely be embraced by those from whom the hardest concessions are being asked (the Israeli and Palestinian people) and would serve U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East perhaps more dramatically than any other step the United States could take. The irony is that such a solution is unlikely to occur at this point precisely because of resistance from within the United States itself.

For now the public debate should narrow down to two simple questions: Is the current process working, and would the one suggested stand a fair chance to succeed? The answer to the former is a definite "no" and to the latter a possible "yes." Given that, broad pressure should begin to build in the United States as elsewhere to lay the groundwork for the pursuit of this realistic approach rather than of the costly illusions for which Americans and others have paid so dearly over the years.

This is ultimately an argument that will be won either by the power of logic or by events on the ground. Not a day goes by without the possibility of some calamitous event that could set the Middle East on fire and put U.S. national interests at risk. It took the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to get the United States to dislodge the Taliban. Will the United States have to await the Middle East's September 11 to come to its senses in this instance as well?