Close to a century has elapsed since the start of the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine, now known as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The years have failed to end it. On the contrary, it has increased in fierceness and violence. One of the parties to the conflict has already realized its goal: a sovereign and independent state. The other is still struggling to achieve this aim. What is becoming increasingly obvious is that the conflict is spilling over beyond the region, inspiring radicals and extremists who are using it as justification for their actions. This conflict which - so far - is national in nature threatens to turn into a conflict between Muslims and Jews.
The international community that played an active role after the Second World War in helping the creation of the Jewish state of Israel has, for many decades, turned a deaf ear to the demands of the Palestinian people for freedom and justice. It was wrongly assumed that the Palestinian refugees would give up their demands for a national homeland and would be absorbed into their countries of exile. This did not happen. The 1967 war between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries enhanced and revived Palestinian national identity and boosted the Palestinian struggle for liberation and independence.
Israel failed to capitalize on the opportunity to make peace right after the war. Its sweeping victory was an inducement for the acquisition of more land and expansion at the expense of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This policy has since been fueling the ongoing conflict. The outcome is more bloodshed and more victims on both sides.
Europe proved unable to play an independent political role in the search for a solution to the conflict, deterred and hampered as it is by an American policy whose underlying principle is the prevention of any international involvement in Middle East politics. Any such involvement would be blamed for undermining the so-called peace process sponsored by the U.S., which has always been known for its unflagging bias towards Israel. The only time the American administration made a genuine effort to solve the conflict was in the Camp David Summit (2000), hosted by then-President Bill Clinton. The summit failed, and no further steady attempts were made by the U.S. to bridge the gap between the two parties and to push for a political settlement to the conflict. The outcome was the escalation of the al-Aqsa intifada, including suicide attacks against Israeli targets that were met with intensified Israeli military action against the Palestinians, causing hundreds of casualties and the destruction of Palestinian life on all levels and in all its aspects. This Israeli policy resulted in the marginalization and isolation of the forces of moderation within Palestinian society, and instead strengthened the forces of radicalism and fundamentalism.
The appearance of the Islamic movement in Palestine represented by Hamas has received mixed reactions from the international community. However, whatever pragmatic signals that have come from the leaders of Hamas in recent days must not lead to the assumption that the role of the moderate national movement, headed by Fateh, is to be discounted. The role of the national movement is crucial for the consolidation of any settlement to the conflict.
An international conference for peace in the Middle East, based on the Arab Peace Initiative of the Beirut Arab Summit of 2002, should be explored and implemented. But two main prerequisites are imperative for the success of such a conference:
First, Israel must restrain its policy of acquiring more Palestinian and Arab land by putting an immediate freeze on all of its settlement activity. It will also have to make at least a declaration of intent that it will withdraw from all territories that it occupied in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, and to abide by the relevant UN resolutions. This will open the door to a comprehensive settlement that will include Syria and Lebanon.
Second, the Bush Administration has neglected the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and became obsessed with the so-called war on terror. It got mired in Iraq, turning the country into a breeding ground for terror. Now, it must reconsider its policy in the Middle East and adopt an even-handed approach, discarding such unworkable plans as the "provisional state" or "provisional borders" in a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Road Map in its current form is outdated. It has to be either revised or updated to meet the developments that have occurred in the region during the last five years. Past experience has shown that long-term interim arrangements can only complicate the situation. The aim of the international conference should be to achieve a clear-cut final settlement, with implementation mechanisms, timetables, international guarantees and monitoring arrangements. Such a settlement can bring peace and stability, not only to the Middle East, but to the world at large.