The trial of the West Bank barrier at the Hague has opened under three shadows: Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, the anti-apartheid phantom, and Sunday's bus-bombing in Jerusalem. The US, Israel and European countries are absent from the Hague, arguing this problem can only be solved politically, not in court. But the right vehicle is nowhere to be seen.
Forty months of violence have shattered any remnants of trust. The two traumatised peoples fear for their existence. The hatred is such that it is hard even to talk about talking. A window of opportunity may be opening for the resolution of this conflict; yet so is the abyss into which it may soon fall.
Grassroots initiatives like the Geneva Accords, the People's Voice petition and the interactive negotiation OneVoice revive the sense that there are peace partners. They illuminate an international and local consensus on the final deal, confirmed by a recent International Crisis Group poll showing Israeli and Palestinian majorities supporting a detailed compromise based on 1967 borders. But without a vehicle to overcome the impasse such hopes fade in a day, like flowers in the desert. The international community's road-map relies too much on the tried and failed model of small trust-building steps.
Stung by criticism of his diplomatic ice age and encircled by corruption scandals, Sharon may soon bring a "disengagement plan" to referendum. Within the year he may redeploy his army to the new maze of fences and relocate settlements; he even talks of pulling out from all Gaza. This plan bears a compelling resemblance to the road-map's second phase: a 'provisional Palestinian state'. But it risks becoming the grave, not the cradle, of a permanent peace.
Sharon's allies want an interim stage based on "maximum land, minimum Palestinians", lasting for a quarter-century. The readiness of right-wing Israelis to dismantle some settlements marks a seismic shift. But progress could end there. For as the fence lunges deep into the territories, the Palestinians see their viable independent state eaten up. A majority is turning away from the two-state solution to the bloody phantasm of an anti-apartheid struggle for civil rights and the end of Jewish Israel. They take hope from the Hague, which judged South Africa, and from the nearing Arab majority in the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, chaos beckons from Gaza to Nablus. Sunday's bus-bombing by the al-Aqsa Martyrs is the latest example. Like most Palestinian groups, Al-Aqsa is fragmented from the Palestinian Authority, which governs increasingly in name alone. Fatah is descending into violent strife, while the Islamists grow in strength.
In the absence of trust and leadership, leaping directly to a negotiated peace seems impractical. The deathly vacuum must be averted. Israelis want to withdraw, but not in Arafat's favour. Calls are growing for decisive international involvement. Our Middle East Policy Initiative Forum, among others, has advocated an international protectorate under which the Palestinian territories would be placed in trust to a third party. Strong US leadership and a Security Council mandate would both be important; the US-EU-Russia-UN Quartet could provide political authority and Nato military backbone.
This transitional protectorate would enforce the peace, reconstruct the police and prevent attacks. It would help build a responsible state and guarantee the political horizon. The third party's involvement would help alter mindsets. It would begin the practical process of ending the occupation that now humiliates and frustrates Israelis as well as Palestinians. It would make elections and parliamentary democracy possible.
It is very hard for Israelis to contemplate entrusting even part of their security to anyone else. Israel today has genuine security concerns. But it may soon face the possibility that international involvement in the territories offers its best prospect of disengagement, long-term security and a responsible neighbour.
Some fear that guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings would be redirected at peace enforcers, as in Iraq. But an authority grounded on consent rather than occupation would fundamentally alter the dynamic. Palestinians themselves want intervention, and think well of the wider international community. Terrorism can never be wholly stopped. But a transitional administration could drain its lifeblood, driving a wedge between an extremist minority and a practical majority. Palestinians could begin again to preserve order in the interest of the national goals of statehood and a genuine end to occupation.
Deep and lasting peace takes generations to build, but it requires recognising what one former Sharon adviser calls "the crack in history". The project of regional renewal cannot ignore this pivotal conflict which, shorn of leadership and drifting into a cul-de-sac, is rapidly and quietly becoming insolvable. Sharon's moves may provide an opening. Decisive international involvement in the first year of the next US presidential term is essential. The price of inaction will be too high - for Israelis and Palestinians, for the Middle East, and for us all.
The writer is convenor of the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum. The article was co-authored with the Forum's senior policy consultant, Paul Hilder
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