Thursday, August 16, 2007

Two Steps in One Go

Published: August 15, 2007


A brief document called "Two Steps in One Go" that attempts to fast-forward Palestinian statehood has landed on the desks that matter in the Middle East and is arousing considerable interest.

Written by Terje Roed-Larsen, a senior United Nations official immersed in the region for decades, the proposal envisages the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders followed by state-to-state negotiations on final-status issues using principles agreed before Palestine's establishment.

Israelis and Palestinians might agree, for example, on the principle that the borders of Palestine would be those of 1967 adjustable by territorial swaps involving 5 percent of the land. These swaps would be the object of subsequent state-to-state talks.

"Palestinians are fed up with gradualism and don't believe it works," Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian who heads the New York-based International Peace Academy, told me. "Israelis are saying they don't trust the Palestinians enough to go to final-status talks. So we need something between the gradual and the total."

His timing is good in a region that looks bad. Iran's rise has not yet led worried Sunni Arab governments to embrace Israel publicly, but it has caused a radical reassessment in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict often looks like an irksome real-estate dispute while Tehran looks like the real threat. Some gulf states and Israel are talking quietly.

Of the four interlocking Middle Eastern issues - the Iraq war, Iran resurgent, the Syrian-Lebanese tangle and Israel-Palestine - Roed-Larsen believes that "right now the latter is the easiest, because the others have no blueprint."

That is a startling view, but I think he is right. This does not mean, of course, that the 59-year conflict has slithered from its self-perpetuating gyre. What it does mean is that this is not the time to focus on ensuring cement moves unimpeded between Hebron and Nablus. It is time to push for the finish line.

Among those who have seen Roed-Larsen's two-page document are Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president; Haim Ramon, an Israeli deputy prime minister; Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister; King Abdullah of Jordan; Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State; and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, with whom Roed-Larsen met this week.

The proposal, presented in a private capacity, suggests that "the United States would play the leading role as the facilitator" and coordinate with "the international quartet and the Arab quartet." The former includes the European Union, Russia and the United Nations as well as the United States; the latter comprises Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

In practice, the idea is that the parties could make significant headway using these ideas before the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference the Bush Administration plans to hold in November.

Saudi Arabia has indicated it might attend the conference, but only on condition that it deals with "the substance of peace." Roed-Larsen's proposal seems to address this concern. To bring Saudis and Israelis to the same public table would be a breakthrough.

Roed-Larsen said, "The Bush administration is incredibly interested in achieving agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state before it leaves office." That would mean some time in 2008.

The possibility seems remote. The Israeli government is weak. The Palestinian movement is divided between the Islamic militants of Hamas in Gaza and Abbas' secular Fatah in the West Bank. Iraqi mayhem and Iranian ascendancy are prodding the region toward radicalism.

Iran and Syria know how much moral ammunition they would lose with any Israeli-Palestinian settlement and may well have the means, through various surrogates, to blast any possible deal out the water.

But the fall of Gaza to Hamas has focused Israeli minds on the urgency of progress. Abbas is furious at the hijacking of the Palestinian national cause by jihadist radicals; he wants answers. Any Middle Eastern victory for President George W. Bush will not occur in Iraq. Tony Blair did not take on the role of peacemaker to sun himself by the Dead Sea.

"All the principles should go as far as possible and then you do the nitty-gritty after statehood," Roed-Larsen said. Such principles could include the notion of Jerusalem as a two-state capital and a just settlement for Palestinian refugees.

In practice, these two sharpest of thorns would have to be blunted together: the Palestinians get their capital in some part of East Jerusalem against a compromise on the right of return. But that gets resolved, simultaneously, state to state.

An opportunity exists; Roed-Larsen's suggested process is valuable. For peace to follow, the political courage in Washington, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Riyadh will have to trump the zealotry in Tehran and Damascus.



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