Mideast talks need not wait for cease-fire

April 12, 2002|By Abraham D. Sofaer

STANFORD, Calif. - "Stop the violence" has been the overriding objective of U.S. policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since September 2000, when the latest intifada began.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has now been enlisted in the elusive quest to establish a cease-fire. He has properly downplayed his chances of success. Israel will continue to withdraw from Palestinian areas, but only after rounding up militants and doing the damage President Bush sought to prevent. Palestinians are continuing their terrorist activities.

Ending the violence should be attainable. Political concessions while violence continues can be viewed as rewarding terrorism. But the issue is complicated because the intifada is intended to end Israeli control over Palestinians living in territories Israel occupied in 1967.

It is only because Palestinians are using violence to bring about this legitimate objective that the United States has supported political talks only after the violence ends.

But the Palestinians have no confidence that talks will bring about Israeli withdrawal since they are dealing with a government that supports preserving all Jewish settlements.

This stalemate must be broken. Mr. Powell should abandon the single-minded pursuit of a cease-fire and insist on simultaneous negotiations. This can be accomplished without compromising Israel's security, consistent with U.S. counter-terrorism policy.

Israel justifiably demands an end to Palestinian violence. The Palestinian Authority (PA) repeatedly has violated its commitment to seek its objectives through negotiations by releasing terrorist killers, spreading hatred for Jews and supporting suicide bombers.

Calling on Israel to refrain from protecting its people undermines U.S. credibility and encourages Palestinians to think they have the right to kill Israelis with impunity. Israeli compliance with such calls would do nothing, moreover, to satisfy the legitimate Palestinian demands that underlie the problem.

Instead of criticizing Israel's acts of self-defense, the United States should actively assist Israel in ending Palestinian violence. Mr. Powell should press Arab states to stop supporting terrorists, stop paying the families of suicide bombers and stop funding the PA until it ends terrorist attacks. And the United States should veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that would unfairly limit Israel's security rights.

Robust support for Israel's security must be matched by an equally firm commitment to securing justice for Palestinians. Envisioning an undefined Palestinian state means little without changes in Israeli policies regarding settlements. Freezing all settlement activity is essential, but insufficient. Mr. Powell must persuade Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to demonstrate that he is willing to provide Palestinians contiguous territory to govern without interference and to adopt other measures to improve their quality of life.

Negotiations to achieve justice for Palestinians can be pursued consistent with U.S. policy so long as it includes complete support for Israel's security. The present Israeli sweep into Arab areas provides a political context in which Mr. Sharon can credibly dismiss any claim that he will be rewarding terrorism by agreeing to some of the "painful" steps he says he is prepared to take for peace.

He will insist that such negotiations must not be the "one-way street" that the Oslo process became, in which Israel made significant concessions in exchange for empty promises. PA concessions that benefit Israel tangibly will be necessary to provide an exchange that further rebuts any claim that violence is being rewarded.

Mr. Powell should lay the groundwork for negotiations by drawing on the ideas of all interested parties and developing specific proposals to use in subsequent discussions conducted in as private a setting as possible. Here are some guidelines:

Comprehensive plans that attempt to settle issues the parties cannot now resolve should be avoided. The all-or-nothing approach of Camp David II was an ill-considered departure from the 25-year policy of incremental progress in Middle East peace negotiations. The Saudi plan is constructive in that it signals the willingness of Arab states to accept Israel. But it is not a viable formula for final agreement.

Interim steps should be sought that meaningfully contribute to the objectives of both parties. The United States should stop letting the parties pretend they trust each other and work to devise tangible protections.

No consideration should be given to imposing a solution. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians will accept terms imposed against their will, and international intervention for that purpose would be counterproductive.

Undertake measures proposed by Mr. Sharon to work on vital projects that could benefit both Palestinians and Israelis, such as water desalination and exploration for oil and gas reserves.

Ending the violence between Israelis and Palestinians is properly the highest priority. But that objective can be achieved only through unqualified support for Israel's security with negotiations that secure tangible commitments to self-government and justice for Palestinians. As President Bush recently said, America stands both for fighting evil and seeking justice.

Abraham D. Sofaer is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. As the State Department's legal adviser from 1985 to 1990, he was principal negotiator of the Taba accord between Israel and Egypt. As a federal district judge, he presided over the libel suit Ariel Sharon brought against Time.

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