The election of Mahmoud Abbas to succeed the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) coupled with the formation of a new centrist coalition in Israel HAS raised expectations about the revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the United States would have to play the dominant role in the process. American diplomatic engagement would help to forge an Israeli-Palestinian accord and U.S. economic aid and military guarantees would be needed in order to secure it.
Indeed, four years after the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the start of the second Palestinian Intifada, a window of opportunity for ending the vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian might be opening. Among the Palestinians there is a growing recognition that anti-Israeli terrorism has failed to advance their cause. Israelis are realizing that their control of the West Bank and Gaza is unsustainable.
While these developments have created an atmosphere conducive to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, American officials and pundits should lower their expectations for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord this year. The two sides may be exhausted after four years of death and destruction, but they are not ready yet to make painful compromises over core existential issues. The majority of Israelis reject Palestinian demands to allow the refugees of 1948 to return to their vanished homes in Israel proper, while most Palestinians dismiss Israeli insistence on maintaining some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. At this point, it would be close to impossible to come up with a formula that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to share in the control of Jerusalem.
Indeed, one of the major reasons for the breakdown of the negotiations at Camp David was the American confidence that pressure from then President Bill Clinton during a few days of talks in rural Maryland would force both sides to reach compromises over issues that reflect deep national and religious differences. The pressure failed utterly to fix things.
The U.S. role now should be that of a diplomatic facilitator ready to help the two sides to move step-by-step towards arrangements -- end the buildup of Jewish settlements; strengthen the Palestinian security forces so that they can restrain terror bombers; encourage investment in the Palestinian territories -- that would improve the conditions on the ground for reaching a "final status" agreement.
Moreover, President Clinton and his aides made sure that the Israeli-Palestinian talks would be seen as a unilateral U.S. diplomatic project. Major regional players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan were not invited to take part in the talks and were not even consulted by the Americans despite the fact that they have a clear stake in the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These parties could have used their own political and economic power to press the Palestinians to make major concessions.
The Americans also marginalized the Europeans during the U.S.-led talks at Camp David, even though the members of the European Union (EU) regard the Middle East as their strategic and economic backyard. With its geographical proximity, economic resources, and demographic problems, developments in the Middle East, including the continuing unrest in Israel/Palestine, have a direct effect on core European interests. Imagine the reaction if the EU held talks to resolve a civil war in Mexico without inviting the United States to take part.
It was not surprising, therefore, that after being excluded from the process, both the Arabs and the Europeans blamed the United States for failing to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian agreement at Camp David. Arab and European officials are indicating now that they are willing to play a more active role in future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and, in exchange, to help secure a potential agreement through military and economic assistance. As part of an effort to help train Palestinian security forces, Jordan and Egypt could dispatch military forces to the West Bank and Gaza, while the EU should emerge as the leading source of financial assistance to the Palestinians.
The Bush Administration should encourage a more activist Arab and European role in any Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even if that means that Washington would have to accommodate the political views of their governments. That would ensure that if the talks collapse again, the Arabs and the Europeans would have to share the burden of failure. And if the talks end with an agreement, Americans should not object to that peace, even if it is not a "Pax Americana."