Middle East Peace in Light of the Lebanon War and the Iranian Nuclear Program
The Middle East has never been readier for a solution than it is today. The parties to the conflict have matured, and all conditions on the ground point to the necessity of ending the crisis and with it the suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Although some people are still talking about the Road Map as a tool for breaking the deadlock in the political process, it is clear that it has become an outdated document that cannot form an adequate basis for a solution. The Road Map was born with inherent discrepancies, inconsistencies, and rationalizations that hamper its implementation. Those who still propose the Road Map today have either been swayed by the name rather than the substance, or are so desperate that they are grasping at straws, or else they have not read it and have no idea about its contents.

Intricate and Inherently Flawed

It would be futile to expound upon a document that to all practical purposes is defunct. Suffice it to mention that the first stage of the Road Map comprises a number of steps that were supposed to be implemented separately by both Israel and the Palestinians. The squabbling about whether these steps were to be carried out in parallel or in sequence, and the arguments about what was meant by phrases like "dismantling the infrastructure of terror" took up years - during which the occupation continued to tear apart the Palestinian land and the Palestinian people. This first stage was meant to incorporate an Israeli withdrawal to the positions held by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) before September 28, 2000, in order to enable the Palestinians to hold elections and to complete their reform processes, yet Israel did not withdraw. The Palestinians insisted on going ahead with the elections in the shadow of the occupation guns, its repression practices, and its continued settlement activity. The results changed their whole internal political balance. Hamas is now leading the government and holds the majority in Parliament. It is self-evident that this new development has rendered impossible the implementation of certain clauses included in the first stage, such as the dismantlement of Hamas and the collection of its weapons.
Israel's mantra had become its repeated calls upon the Palestinian Authority (PA) to "dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism" and to collect the weapons of "terrorist organizations" ahead of any Israeli undertaking within the framework of the Road Map. This dithering provided Israel with an opportunity to carry on with its policy of extra-judicial execution of Palestinian activists, to build the separation wall, to expand the Jewish settlements, to tighten its siege on the Palestinians, and to destroy all aspects of Palestinian life. In short, Israel seized this pretext to kill the Road Map and to block the execution of the steps pertaining to the first stage. Had these been accomplished, they would have, in all likelihood, contributed to improving the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians and, perhaps, led to the resumption of the political process.
The Road Map consists of a collection of intricate measures and stages that are interrelated to the extent that if one is halted or delayed, the entire Road Map comes to a standstill. Furthermore, absent in the Road Map are any interconnectedness between the second and third stages and, more importantly, a guarantee securing the final outcome, which is supposed to be two states alongside each other.
Today, when some international leaders or diplomats and some Palestinian leaders scurry to talk about the Road Map, one cannot help but wonder where it will all lead. These people are fully aware that the Road Map has lost its validity, and that reverting to some of its clauses simply means spending many more years in a maze of deliberations about the dismantlement of the terrorist infrastructure or about a provisional state - i.e., a state without defined borders! - a situation that does not exist in any context of international law.

Troubled Times on Both Sides

To go back to my initial point: The present conditions lead to the assumption that both Israelis and Palestinians have reached a state of exhaustion which makes them amenable to contemplate a solution. At the same time, they're starting to feel the pressure coming out of the region to close the Israel-Palestine file so that attention can be turned to other more pressing issues that impact on other countries in the area, such as the developments in Iraq and their implications on neighboring countries, as well as Iran's nuclear program. For this reason, some countries in the region are inclined to view their interests as lying more in working with Israel than against it. At the same time, they recognize that the continued Israeli occupation and its oppression of the Palestinian people, preventing them from establishing their state and enjoying their right to freedom and independence, will always remain a stumbling block in the face of their forging tighter relations with Israel based on their shared regional interests.
In the Lebanon War, Israel was the loser. For the first time in its history, it came out with wings clipped, licking its wounds, gloating about illusory victories, and looking for a scapegoat upon which to heap all responsibility.
The view in Israel today is that there is a government led by Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz that has abandoned the political and security platforms upon which it was elected. It is now gnawing at itself, groping around trying to get its bearings. Olmert's Kadima Party is "a supermarket" that is made up of leaders from Likud that chose to join Kadima in order to remain beside the "father" Sharon, and defectors from Labor who also joined Kadima. The Labor Party is for the first time led by an Oriental (Sephardi) without any military background, who suddenly found himself in the position of defense minister. It was Peretz who had insisted on the post although it was beyond his capacities; he reckoned it would enhance his qualifications to become the future prime minister. Instead, he emerged from the Lebanon War fighting for his political survival. Both he and Olmert have suffered severe damage to their credibility, and all public polls are showing a decline in their popularity and an increase in the support for the right-wing camp.
The Israeli government is faced with a dilemma. It cannot linger for long without accomplishing some kind of an achievement. At the same time, it is unable to confront the grave danger rearing its head - the growing popularity of the right under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu, and the radical right led by Avigdor Lieberman. Conceivably, the two might form together a future government that will cater to the radical and fascist tendencies in Israel. It will be predicated upon the assurance that Israel will retrieve its deterrent capability and the army its former glory; the Palestinians will be taught "lessons in good behavior," and Israeli hegemony will be extended over the region. Faced with this reality, the Olmert government is left with the logical option of seeking a political success in the form of a breakthrough towards a solution to the conflict. It is the only way it can save face and regain popularity. However, signals coming from the prime minister's office point to a radicalization on the part of Olmert, who is attempting to compete for the right-wing votes. Olmert maintained there was a necessity to expand the support base for his government in the Knesset. He sees a lack of discipline in the Labor Party which is likely to lead some of its members in the Knesset to disregard their leadership position and vote against the government. He has recently succeeded in adding Avigdor Lieberman to his coalition, thus deepening the right-wing support for his government and, by the same token, splitting the Lieberman-Netanyahu camp.
The situation on the Palestinian side is just as bleak. The Hamas-led government is in trouble. It is torn between the movement's ideology, the pressure from its leaders in exile, and its obligations towards the international community. It will have to meet the conditions placed upon it by the international community if its wants to acquire international legitimacy. The only way to help Hamas out of the predicament in which it has maneuvered itself is by convening an international peace conference which will include all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and which will lay down the foundations for a comprehensive peace settlement in the region.

A Climate Conducive to Peace

The climate on the international scene, especially the European one, seems ripe for forging ahead with a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The urgency is being felt especially after the Lebanon War and its devastating effects, and the signs coming from Iran about its intentions of going ahead with its nuclear program. The international community is concerned about seeing that such a probability does not materialize.
At the same time, Syria is sending almost daily signals through its president, Bashar al- Assad, expressing readiness to make peace with Israel if the latter withdraws to its military positions on the eve of the 1967 war. Many observers argue that the U.S. should deal with Syria and take it out of Iran's sphere of influence. The Syrians will try to impede any progress in the political process if they are left behind. This could explain the tough posture of Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al, who is sitting in Damascus and hampering any show of flexibility on the part of the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority. He is doing the job for the Syrians who want to be part of any Middle East peace process, and are playing every possible card to impress upon the international community their strategic importance and influence in the region.
The reality in the region dictates putting to rest the Road Map and seizing instead the precious opportunity presented by French President Jacques Chirac. During the last UN General Assembly in September 2006, Chirac called for an international peace conference in the Middle East with the aim of reaching a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict to be underpinned by international guarantees for its implementation. He reiterated his position a week later in Rumania, during the summit of the French-speaking nations.
The French position can be deemed principled, lucid and cognizant of the intricacies of the conflict. It also shows an awareness that the so-called Road Map is neither viable nor workable for spearheading any political process. The solution lies in the will of the international community to thrash out the problem in an international conference and to come out with a resolution complete with mechanisms, timelines, and international guarantees to enforce its implementation. Such a conference can incorporate the Arab peace initiative or use it as a starting point for the discussions.

An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

Recent declarations emanating from Washington have sounded positive with regard to the Palestinian President and Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is viewed in the international arena as a man of peace. Reference was also made to the suffering of the Palestinian people and the necessity of solving the conflict through the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Past experience has taught that American initiatives are seasonal and lack robustness when it comes to their implementation or to follow-ups. The possibility should not be disregarded that the current American declarations are connected to the congressional primaries in November 2006 and the measures the American administration is contemplating vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear issue. In her recent visit to the area, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not hide the administration's intention to form a coalition of regional countries allied with the U.S. to "confront the growing threat of the Iranian nuclear armament."
It might prove naïve to expect any serious and radical action on the part of this American administration to find a sustainable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially since it is controlled by the Jewish lobby and the Christian Right, and bogged down with its problems in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Latin America, and at home. However, we must not let the opportunity provided by the favorable international climate slip by us, or get sidetracked from Chirac's call for a conference. We should work on merging both American and French moves. An international peace conference in the Middle East, with the participation of all parties to the conflict, seems the only option and must not be delayed any further.