WASHINGTON (Apr. 29)
Why is this peace process different from all other peace processes?
There is reserved optimism in the air these days, as many observers see favorable circumstances for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
But as the United States and its allies move forward with their “road map” toward peace, many are questioning whether this approach will garner better results than the Oslo process a decade ago.
On the surface, the circumstances seem similar to those that led to an international peace conference in Madrid in 1991 and the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
Like the previous attempt at peace, this effort comes amid a Palestinian uprising, after an overwhelming U.S.-led military victory in the Middle East and with a president named Bush at the helm in the United States.
But the differences are in the details. Analysts say that there are several significant changes in the political landscape this time around, as well as different tactics being used by negotiators.
In addition, they say that lessons have been learned from the unsuccessful Oslo process, which ended in failed peace talks and a Palestinian intifada that began in September 2000.
The most obvious change is in the Palestinian point man. High hopes are being placed on the shoulders of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who was confirmed Tuesday as Palestinian Authority prime minister.
Analysts say that Abbas, unlike P.A. President Yasser Arafat, shows a real willingness to abandon terrorism and work toward peace.
“I think intellectual honesty requires us to say this is something different out there than what we’ve seen,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Abbas has said “some remarkable things in Arabic” about the Palestinians’ needs to work harder to control their own destiny, Makovsky said.
Dennis Ross, the institute’s director and the former Middle East envoy during the Clinton administration, said Abbas seems more ready to take responsibility for the actions of the Palestinian people.
When Arafat complied with U.S. and Israeli calls to arrest terrorists, he said he was making the arrests because of pressure, not because terrorism was wrong.
“Arafat said he had a zero tolerance policy for terror,” Ross said. “But he never said it publicly. He never said what ‘terror’ was.”
Ross said Abbas’ intentions seem to be clear, but questions remain about his capability. Ross is very skeptical that Arafat will simply hand over the reins of leadership to Abbas, and said Arafat’s continued involvement may again be a major impediment towards peace.
In addition to a new Palestinian leader, a change in attitude on the part of some Arab states could aid the peace process this time around.
Saudi Arabia’s introduction of a plan for Middle East peace last year — though unacceptable to many Israelis — suggested an Arab willingness to formally acknowledge the Jewish state and engage in the peace process. Some have argued, in fact, that Arab pressure on Arafat to accept the peace deal offered to him in 2000 by President Clinton and Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, would have changed the outcome.
“The Arabs need to embrace Abu Mazen and what he’s doing,” Ross said. “They need to put their money where their mouth is.”
The violence of the last two years has been deadlier and more omnipresent than in the past, which could aid the negotiating process, said Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum.
“This is not a beginning out of hope, this is a beginning out of mutual despair,” Cohen said. “We’ve tried the worst ways of getting our way.”
While the Oslo process began in secret, the diplomacy of the past year has been very public, which Cohen sees as a positive.
“There’s no quiet time for reflecting on the part of the top negotiators, where they are operating for long periods of time outside of harsh scrutiny from a multitude of public opinion,” he said.
Another important change, participants say, is that they have been through this before and know what worked and what didn’t.
“These are not diplomatic virgins,” Cohen said. “It’s going to be a much saltier process.”
Not everyone agrees. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was a harsh critic of the Oslo process. He says he is shocked that the current road map rewards the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to end terrorism, after giving its commitment to do so a decade ago.
“This Oslo II is worse than Oslo I,” Klein said. “It promises a state and discriminates against Israelis in the territories” by calling for the uprooting of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Klein says he does not see participants learning from their mistakes of the past 10 years. Abbas, he says, is a “Holocaust denier” — his doctoral thesis minimizes the Holocaust and accuses the Zionists of collaborating with the Nazis — and the road map “asks Israel to give tangible assets for more Palestinian promises, without specific and verifiable steps required by the Palestinians.”
For his part, Abbas says he wrote the thesis at a time when Israel was the PLO’s enemy.
Ross, however, says that the need for accountability is the main lesson learned from Oslo. Many have argued that the Oslo process failed because the timetable was not stopped or slowed when one side or the other failed to keep agreements.
Therefore, Israel is asking that the road map, conceived by the United States and its partners in the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — be based on performance, rather than timetables.
“Any progress will be driven by performance, and we will not move from one process to the next until the core elements have been fulfilled,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told the Anti-Defamation League on Monday.
The State Department seems to have gotten the message as well. William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the ADL on Monday that the road map “underlines the importance of performance as a criteria for moving ahead.”
The Palestinians disagree, however, insisting that the document promises them a state within three years.
Ross says it’s essential that greater efforts be spent to educate the publics on both sides to accept the parameters of a settlement. No “psychology of peace” existed in 2000, he said.
In fact, on the Israeli side, years of intense public debate had created a slim majority in favor of the substantial concessions envisioned in the Clinton plan, according to polls.
Palestinian leaders, however, repeatedly had told their public that their demands would be met in full.
It therefore was nearly impossible for Arafat to bring a settlement back to the Palestinian people that contained any Palestinian compromises, Ross said.
The experience of Oslo also is likely to leave participants more skeptical of progress made on paper.
“I think the Jewish community is more educated in this process,” one Jewish official said. “I think it keeps expectations more realistic, and its approach is eyes wide open.”