Whenever Middle East peace talks hiccup, there are calls for a more active U.S. role. This is usually a euphemism for pressuring Israel to make concessions.
The United States can never be indifferent to a diplomatic stalemate in the Middle East. But before staking its position on new initiatives, it needs to define goals. The most useful U.S. role concerns not the current, largely symbolic disputes but rather encouraging a new framework for the whole enterprise.
The Palestinians and Israelis came together in 1993 as a result of exhaustion from efforts to defeat each other; theirs was not a commitment to peace in the abstract but a recognition of no other practical alternative. Nevertheless, the two sides managed to distill from their frustrations a process that seemed capable of codifying their enforced coexistence and even elevating cooperation to a symbolic level.
A soldier by profession, Yitzhak Rabin came to understand, albeit reluctantly, that a state of 5 million Jews living in a sea of several hundred million Muslims needed international acceptance as part of its quest for security. Rabin was aiming less for an eschatological culmination in some grand peace agreement than to define, step by painful step, a grammar of coexistence. Without such a settlement, the pressures of a hostile environment would, over time, leave the Jewish state totally isolated and weaken even its ties with the United States.
For his part, Yasser Arafat tied his political and perhaps physical survival to coexistence with Israel because he saw no other way. Their tacit bargain was sustained by an avoidance of all the long-range issues: the legal status and borders of the emerging Palestinian entity, as well as the future of Jerusalem.
Two sets of illusions grew out of these evasions. The Palestinians gambled on their ability to generate international pressures to achieve their maximum aims, or, seduced by the rhetoric of Israeli doves, that Israel might gradually yield to their demands.
The Israelis' illusions were the precise reverse: The doves contended that some nirvana would emerge from the peace talks leading to a reconciliation, in Shimon Peres' words, as spontaneous as that existing among the Benelux countries, making the issue of borders irrelevant. The hawks maintained that Israel would retain its capacity to determine the political outcome on the West Bank unilaterally if it could not do so by negotiation.
These evasions must now be faced. The dividing lines on the West Bank will not disappear without either party noticing it, as it were. Israel must face the implications of its own policies of the last 20 years; the Palestinians must accept that they need to make tangible, not simply verbal, contributions to Israel's security.
In recent months, four developments have ensured that these issues could no longer remain dormant: 1) The assassination of Rabin; 2) the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; 3) the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, and 4) the behavior of the Palestinian police in the riots following the opening of the tunnel beneath the Temple Mount.
The murder of Rabin removed the leader best able to convince the Israeli public of the need for a balance between security and legitimacy. Peres, his successor, did not possess the same credibility. His prospects for election as Rabin's heir were dealt a mortal blow when terrorists blew up buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, killing scores of Israelis.
It is thus unfair to criticize the new Israeli prime minister for not precisely following in the footsteps of his predecessor. Netanyahu was, after all, elected to shift the balance between security and legitimacy in the direction of greater security. His difficulties were caused less by his change of emphasis than by his failure to recognize the narrow margin at his disposal for that shift. With little experience at the highest level, he foreshortened the time available for learning by some of his rhetoric, which, more than his policies, seemed to challenge the peace talks.
If for Israel the intangible element of the bargain is legitimacy, for Palestinians it is dignity. Treating the Palestine Liberation Organization as if it were defeated and raising again the issue of settlements made it easy for Palestinians to resurrect their confrontational attitudes in the guise of being the injured party.
The United States should recognize that Arafat, too, bears responsibility for the current state of affairs. It was he who called for the general strike that invited riots even before the opening of the tunnel. He needs to be reminded that the actions of the Israeli-armed Palestinian police during the riots did nothing to allay Israel's security concerns. If Arafat cannot or will not control his police, the Israeli question as to whether a deal is worth making takes on new weight.
The United States must not let itself get embroiled in an endless guerrilla war over second-order problems. The gradualist approach, heretofore pursued, has run its course. It needs to be replaced by some comprehensive statement of objectives. This is the only way U.S. opinion can be mobilized on behalf of a rational program and keep the conflict from rallying fundamentalists all over the Islamic world.
Furthermore, two of the three great unmentionables of the peace process must be addressed: statehood for the Palestinians, and Israel's frontiers. Autonomy will lead inevitably to a Palestinian state, de facto, even if not formalized. The longer this reality is avoided, the less it can be used to enhance Israel's security. It is a card that needs to be played sooner rather than later.
But if Israel is to accept a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to enhance Israel's security in an equally explicit form. Dropping from the PLO charter the mandate to eradicate Israel is symbolically important, the reason why the PLO's delay in carrying out this commitment is so disquieting. But it is not enough. Palestinian statehood must be made absolutely conditional on an agreement regarding its frontiers, which cannot be those of 1967. Israel cannot leave, as no country could, all its major cities within mortar range of the enemy and connected by tenuous corridors, with the one between Haifa and Tel Aviv being only nine miles wide. The two issues should therefore be linked: statehood for the Palestinians within, to use the phraseology of UN Resolution 242, "secure and recognized borders."
Defining these borders will require some careful prior understanding between the United States and Israel. Only by raising the sights of the process itself does it become possible to avoid the ever-growing risk that one of the parties will resort to force--Israel to end the pressures upon it, its adversaries in order to generate them.
If all parties recognize these realities, the tragedies of the past year may yet be perceived as the catharsis of a major step toward a Middle East peace.