The politicians in the Middle East have failed, so let's turn to the people

A strong mandate from both peoples would oblige Sharon to take on the settlers and the Palestinians to take on the terrorists
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The Independent Online

War in Iraq was meant to be the prelude to peace in the Middle East. The deal was that if we helped President Bush topple Saddam, he would let us publish the road-map and throw his weight behind it. It always appeared an implausible bargain. The Washington neo-conservatives who had lobbied for regime change in Baghdad were the same people most committed as a matter of faith to the right of Israel to occupy its Biblical land. The standing jest after the Republican gains in the mid-term elections was that the second largest party within the beltway was now Likud.

With his friends in occupation of Iraq, Ariel Sharon was going to feel bolder rather than more pressured. Instead of fulfilling the requirements of the road-map to withdraw from settlements on Palestinian land, he has constructed an extended Berlin Wall that changes the facts on the ground by annexing more Arab territory into the state of Israel. His calculation that the Bush administration would let him get away with playing tough has been amply born out. He announces that he will "remove" Yasser Arafat, the elected president of the Palestinian national authority, and Bush protects him from censure in the UN with a veto. He bombs Syrian territory for the first time in 20 years and Bush accepts it as the right of self-defence.

The suicide bombers do not come from Syria, which makes attacking it difficult to justify as an act of self defence. It was carried out not because of any military logic that would solve the security problem, but because of a political imperative. Sharon had to convince his domestic audience that he had taken tough action in response to the latest terrorist murders in Haifa. The Israeli public are traumatised by life in the constant shadow of terrorism; and in a small nation, there are few communities which do not know someone who has endured the grief and the bitterness of the murder of a relative. But are there any Israelis who seriously believe that bombing a half-disused camp in Syria will stop the next suicide bomber from the West Bank?

It is a classic Sharon gambit, to still internal unrest by escalating external confrontation. The alarming question is, how does he cap this latest escalation after the next suicide bomber?

The truth which Sharon dare not tell his people is that his own policies have made Israel more insecure. The latest suicide bomber came from Jenin, which has already been given the full Sharon treatment of military invasion, flattened homes and targeted assassinations to remove the terrorist threat. The utterly predictable consequence was to increase rather than diminish recruits to the terrorist ranks.

It is an understandable emotional reaction to a fresh terrorist outrage, to halt peace negotiations. There is, though, no logic to it. Hamas and the other terrorist sects do not want the peace process to succeed. Calling off the peace process is to reward, not to punish, their sabotage of it. We need to return to the wise strategy of Yitzak Rabin, that we must pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism and pursue terrorists as if there is no peace process. Instead Sharon has handed the bombers a veto on progress which they will exercise every time in their eyes there is a danger of a breakthrough.

President Bush promised after the Aqaba summit that he would "ride hard" on the road-map, but his image advisors are desperate that he ride in the opposite direction from such a disaster area in the countdown to the presidential election. With his public standing already badly damaged by the débâcle in Iraq, he is not going to open a second front at home against the Likud lobby. Yet the US has the power, if it has the determination, to enforce compliance with the road-map. Last week's congressional report set out the dramatic extent of US support for the Israeli economy and military. Israel has received more US aid since the Second World War than any other country, however much larger or however much poorer. Despite this colossal financial dependency, the Israeli Prime Minister appears to have more political clout on Capital Hill than the US President in Jerusalem.

The Israeli people desperately need a future free from terrorism. But terrorism will not be defeated with helicopter gunships that unite the Palestinian people against their occupiers. It will only be defeated if the terrorists are isolated from their own people by a political solution. The true tragedy of the Middle East is that we all know the solution. It would be two separate states providing self-determination to the Palestinian people and guaranteeing security within recognised borders to the Israeli people.

The problem is not where should we be going, but how do we get there? The road-map has spectacularly failed to provide the answer. Indeed the present impasse is routed in the nature of the road-map, which expects the leaders on both sides to take incremental steps in parallel with each other. But while the goal may be desirable, the steps along the way are painful, as they require both leaders to make unpopular concessions. The road-map sets out a long list of requirements, each of which can be turned into a roadblock when it is not met.

This leaves the Quartet in an unenviable position. Three of the most powerful international players- the US, the EU and Russia - with half the world's GDP and three quarters of its firepower, even in combination with the UN, cannot make progress on a road-map to which they are all agreed. This is not only dreadful news for the Middle East but seriously damaging to the authority of the world community the next time it attempts to impose a peace settlement. Nor is their dilemma helped by the fact that deadlock in the Middle East will be reinforced by paralysis in Washington until next year's presidential election is over. In the meantime the EU and the UN have to consider whether there is any strategy that they can promote themselves while being realistic about the low influence of both of them over the present Israeli cabinet.

Parallels with Northern Ireland need to be handled with caution, as the cultural and historic context is so different, but there is one lesson from Northern Ireland that could help. The bold stroke of Tony Blair was to appeal over the heads of politicians, who did not want to compromise, to the public who yearned for peace. The result was a mandate that pushed through agreements that would otherwise have been politically impossible. The International Crisis Group has just proposed a similar device for the Middle East - parallel referendums in both Israel and the occupied territories on a two-state solution supported by international guarantees.

A strong mandate from both peoples would oblige Sharon to take on the settlers and strengthen the hand of the Palestinian leadership in taking on the terrorists. There would be an element of risk, as there always is with any democratic vote, but it may be easier to persuade the people to back the peace plan than their politicians, and it is hard to see another way of breaking the present deadlock.