June 9, 2002

The Way Forward in the Middle East


JERUSALEM Thirty-five years ago, on June 5, 1967, the start of the Six Day War, Israel faced a threat to its very existence as a coalition of Arab armies massed their troops along the fragile armistice lines that had separated Arab and Israeli forces since 1949. Along the hills of the West Bank, which had been occupied by the Jordanians, armored and infantry units were deployed, ready to cut Israel's narrow coastal plain, which was only eight miles wide at Netanya. A third of the Iraqi army was crossing Jordanian territory, ready to join the coalition against Israel. The declared goal of the attack was Israel's elimination.

Israel entered the West Bank only after its cities and airports had come under heavy fire. Israeli actions were legal resulting from a clear-cut war of self-defense. For that reason, the United Nations Security Council determined in a historic decision, Resolution 242, that Israel was entitled to "secure and recognized boundaries" and was not expected to withdraw from all the territories that its forces had entered and from which it was attacked in the Six Day War. In effect, the resolution established that these were disputed territories where Israel had legitimate rights to defensible borders, besides the claims of the Arab parties to the conflict.

Under Resolution 242, which became the cornerstone of peacemaking, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in accordance with the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. It was under the principles of Resolution 242 that Israel attended the 1991 Madrid peace conference where President George H. W. Bush spoke about a "territorial compromise" between the parties. And again in line with Resolution 242, Israel, operating under the 1993 Oslo agreement, withdrew its military government over the Palestinian population so that by 1999, 98 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were under Palestinian rule.

Nonetheless, the Palestinian leadership decided to initiate the current war against Israel after the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000. Rather than resolve Israeli-Palestinian differences peacefully, it deliberately promoted a wave of terrorist attacks against the people of Israel. It failed to implement its written obligations to dismantle international terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Instead it provided them with sanctuary in the area under its jurisdiction. It also unleashed some of its most loyal forces, like the Tanzim militia of the Fatah movement and the presidential guard, Force 17, against Israeli civilians. Finally, Yasir Arafat's personal financial adviser, Fuad Shubaki, not only paid for many of these attacks, but also organized a consortium of Middle Eastern terrorism built on the Palestinian Authority, Iraq and Iran.

Despite this situation, there is a way forward. First, Israel must defeat terrorism; it cannot negotiate under fire. Israel has made painful concessions for peace before and will demonstrate diplomatic flexibility to make peace again, but it requires first and foremost a reliable partner for peace. In 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat came to Jerusalem, he told the people of Israel, "No more wars." From that point onward, the threat of violence was removed from the Egyptian-Israeli relationship as both negotiated their 1979 Treaty of Peace. King Hussein of Jordan followed the same pattern in 1994. This elementary commitment to permanently renouncing violence in the resolution of political differences has unfortunately not been kept by the present Palestinian leadership.

Second, when Israel and the Palestinians eventually re-engage in negotiations, diplomacy must be based on realism. The race to a permanent-status agreement at Camp David and in talks at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 failed because the gaps between the parties were too wide. The only serious option for a successful negotiated settlement is one based on a long-term interim agreement that sets aside for the future issues that cannot be bridged at present.

In the nearly two years of the Palestinian intifada, the people of Israel have seen Israel's vulnerabilities exploited, its holy sites desecrated and massive weaponry smuggled and used against Israel's cities. For this reason, Israel will not return to the vulnerable 1967 armistice lines, redivide Jerusalem or concede its right to defensible borders under Resolution 242. Movement from a long-term interim agreement to a permanent settlement can only be guided by changes in the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations on the ground and not by a rigid timetable.

Finally, in order to reach a stable peace there has to be regional scope to diplomacy. In the Six Day War, Israel faced a coalition of Arab states. It is logical that Israel cannot reach a permanent peace with the Palestinians in isolation. Israel needs peace with the entire Arab world. For this reason, Israel has proposed a regional peace conference of like-minded Middle Eastern states that reject terrorism and seek to enhance regional stability. The idea of the conference is based on the principle that eradicating terrorism will set the stage for peacemaking, and not the reverse.

A little over a decade ago, the American victory in the Persian Gulf war established the necessary conditions for convening the Madrid peace conference. It was proved then that security is the prerequisite of peace. Similarly, a victory in the war on terrorism today will provide a new diplomatic basis for a stable Middle East peace.

Ariel Sharon is the prime minister of Israel.

© New York Times 2002


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