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U.S. Ideas Can Give Life to Israeli Peace Initiative : Guidance Needed on Rules of the Game

<i> Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist, is associated with the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. </i>

Washington can breathe easier now that Israel’s Cabinet has reaffirmed the government’s peace plan first adopted on May 14. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir deftly maneuvered his way out of the crisis that his own Likud Party had created at its recent convention. While it was a dramatic demonstration of how party politics operate in Israel, the Likud action proved to be a temporary setback rather than a fatal blow to the fragile peace process.

Israel’s government still is committed to a peace process based on the assumption that there is a national consensus supporting basic principles as outlined by the Camp David accords and U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Now, the United States will have to introduce its own ideas. The Likud action still means that Israel is not going to suggest more specific proposals on how to conduct elections until Palestinians agree to Jerusalem’s plan.

At this stage, Israel is politically unable to deal with the questions of territory and final status for the Palestinians. There is no consensus in Israel’s unity government even on the priniciple of exchanging territory for peace. Israel’s leaders correctly plead for West Bank/Gaza elections as a way to begin a process that will lead to final-status talks with the Palestinians.

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In contrast, Palestinians say everything is negotiable if final-status negotiations will ensure an end to the occupation and permit self-determination. Palestinians say that they accept elections in principle, but fear that Israel’s plan is a device to end the intifada without firm assurances about their final status.

Israelis and Palestinians need to know Washington’s view before taking the necessary risks. U.S. officials say that “elections should be free and fair, open to the media and outside observers and entail as broad participation as possible.” Washington must define electoral possibilities further to find common ground on the most difficult issues. For example, East Jerusalem Arabs should be able to stand for election and to vote. To ease Likud objections, this perhaps could be accomplished in regional elections, as suggested by Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Some provision also will be needed to accommodate Palestinians who are voluntarily away from their homes in the West Bank and Gaza. The status of those detained and deported will have to be considered.

Freedom of expression and assembly, with access to the media, must be guaranteed. Israel’s tolerance will surely be tested during the political campaign by inevitable expressions of Palestinian nationalism--including the call for a state and support for the Palestine Liberation Organization. In deed, the Palestinian flag, so prominent during the intifada , will undoubtedly be a primary symbol of elections in the occupied territories. To make campaigning possible, Israeli troops can be redeployed from cities and towns. Outside observers who are acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians are likely to be Americans.

Finally, the United States should stress that both sides will be expected to abide by the results of the elections and move, on a predetermined schedule, into negotiations for a transition period. Such a period, Rabin says, will give Palestinians control over all aspects of their daily lives except foreign affairs and security.

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After an agreed-upon period of transition, final-status negotiations must be assured. A mechanism to keep this vital aspect of the process on a timetable will be the key to success.

How then can Washington actually engage Israelis and Palestinians in this complex process? Washington has urged the PLO to give a “green light” to West Bankers and Gazans to begin a dialogue with the Israelis. This may be a workable idea, but first Washington needs to determine the time, the place and the rules of the game with the parties. U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian talks could begin soon in Cairo, an obvious venue for such a dialogue. Palestinians from the occupied territories can meet with Israelis and consult with others freely in Egypt. From the beginning, there must be an understanding that American and perhaps Egyptian negotiators will be present and active every step of the way. Only mediation, a vital component of Middle East diplomacy, has in the past produced positive results and enough common ground for the parties to move forward.

Ultimately, elections may help to begin a process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but events in the region cannot be viewed strictly through this narrow prism. The conflict between Israel and Arab states must be addressed. Syria’s concerns cannot be ignored. Lebanon’s crisis cannot be resolved without Syrian-Israeli understanding. Damascus needs to know that the Golan Heights are a subject for negotiations based on Resolutions 242 and 338.

The American-Soviet talks on the Middle East held last month in Washington were a step in the right direction. Moscow has a role to play with Syria, the PLO and, once diplomatic relations are re-established, with Israel itself. Washington and Moscow should work cooperatively for peace in the Middle East. There is no other option.

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