Highlights of remarks made at Madrid +15

by former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Shlomo Ben-Ami
As the launching of the Arab-Israeli peace process in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference has shown, the prospects of peace in the Middle East have always waited for a concerted international effort to exploit windows of opportunity. Wars in the Middle East, especially those that did not end in conclusive results, have almost invariably created the conditions for major political breakthroughs, for they have taught us all the limits of what power can achieve.

Fifteen years after we first met in Madrid we have still not reached the promised land [of an Arab-Israeli peace]. Fifteen years ago we convened on a platform of "land for peace". But the Israelis never believed they would have to give back all the land, while the Arabs perhaps did not think they might have to offer "all the peace". Now, everyone knows what we mean by "land" and everyone knows what we mean by "peace".

Alas, the Middle East is a cemetery of promising peace plans. As an Israeli negotiator, marked by the sorrow of having touched with the tips of his fingers the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace without reaching it, I can understand the frustration and the rage affecting us all. The war that ensued set on fire all the mechanisms of peacemaking and brought us back in a time machine to the most fundamental roots of the conflict.

Exposed to indiscriminate waves of suicide terrorism the Israelis lost any hope of a negotiated settlement and in their despair succumbed to a new self-defeating political religion: that of unilateral disengagement. Humiliated by Israeli retribution, with the backbone of their society broken in the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian war since 1948, and in response to the sad vicissitudes of deficient governance, the Palestinians embraced the Hamas option. Yet, Hamas's victory notwithstanding, a most fundamental achievement of the peace process has survived the ordeal, for the overwhelming majority of Palestinians realize only too well that the idea, that in order for the Palestinians to have a state the Jewish one has to disappear, can only mean unmitigated disaster for their cause. The two state solution is still definitely on the table, but the peacemakers need to be advised that this is not for too long, and time is running out.

There is no chance that any of us can build a future on the denial of the other's fundamental rights. Jewish statehood is a genuine reality, a powerful conviction, a historic necessity. The legitimate rights of the Palestinians in all their aspects, a formula endorsed by Menachem Begin at Camp David, can only mean one thing: Palestinian statehood is not only a vital component of a stable regional order, it is also a moral imperative.

The concept of interim agreements has now become utterly obsolete. What is called for is a dramatic leap forward, a sweeping solution to all the core issues of the dispute. We stand, then, at the end of the peace process as we have known it to date. From now on, our options will be between a violent and unilateral separation or disengagement, such as the one that ushered in the current war in Gaza, and a comprehensive peace plan that will be annexed to the Quartet's road map and will lead to its endorsement by the parties. Only reverse engineering, starting at the end and working backward, might still save this process from irreversible ruin.

Any reformed peace process is doomed to failure if it is guided by a road map on whose parameters for solving the core issues the parties have diametrically opposed views. We do not need to re-invent the wheel though, for the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict lies in an outline that is embodied in the main peace plans that are on the table: the Road Map, the Clinton Peace Parameters and the all-Arab peace initiative. Constructive ambiguity might have been necessary at the beginning of the process, but at this late stage, what is called for is precision and concreteness.

The role of the international community as it is embodied in the Madrid Quartet and in the constructive involvement of key Arab states is crucial. The loss of mutual trust between the parties and their total incapacity to take even the smallest step towards each other, let alone to observe their commitments without being nursed by third parties, make the creation of an international framework for peace the last and only way out of the dangerous impasse. Peace will be possible only if it is understood as a quest for stability where each of the parties obtains its most vital objectives without breaking the neck of the other in a way that can wreck the entire peace enterprise altogether.

This is also true on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts where the parameters of peace are known only too well. Not marginal at all are those voices in Israel that would like to see the Olmert government, as President Mubarak of Egypt has wisely advised, putting to the test the sincerity of Syria's peace offensive by responding to its president's call for negotiations. Many of us believe that it would be wrong and unwise for Israel to depart from the pattern established by all Israeli governments after 1992 that negotiated with Syria in recognition of its regional role. As to Lebanon, we all watch its struggle for democracy and independence with keen interest, even admiration. There is no problem between our two countries that is not susceptible to a diplomatic solution. For too long the playground of alien forces, Lebanon's prosperity and its effective control over its sovereign territory are vital Israeli interests.

Our collective challenge today, Israelis and Arabs, is to supersede our traditional tendency to take, or to avoid, decisions only on the basis of worst case scenarios. The Israelis of today would pay the highest possible price for peace if convinced, as they were by Sadat's overture, that this is about finality, that this is about "no more war, no more bloodshed".

No one in this conflict has the monopoly on suffering and martyrdom. In this tragic tribal dispute, both Jews and Arabs have committed acts of unpardonable violence. The time has finally arrived for the creative energies of the parties to this most protracted of conflicts to be put, at long last, to work in the service of a durable peace.


* Shlomo Ben-Ami is Vice President of CITpax; former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel (2000-01); leader of the Israeli delegation at the Taba summit (2001); member of the Israeli team of the Camp David summit (2000); Minister of Public Security (1999); head of the Israeli delegation at the multilateral talks on refugees (1994); member of the Israeli delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference (1991); and Ambassador to Spain (1987-91). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 18 January 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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