Only Public Support Can Sustain a Window of Opportunity

by Jason Erb
Amman - News from the Middle East is again stirring hope that the time is ripe for peace in Israel and Palestine. The Middle East is awash in peace initiatives. Is there anything different this time that may indicate a truly historic opportunity to achieve this elusive dream is at hand?

Neither Arafat's death nor the Gaza withdrawal change realities that have blocked previous hopeful episodes. Settlements expand, the separation wall continues to be built, Palestinian refugees remain stateless, Hamas builds rockets and Palestinian security forces remain unregulated and undisciplined. Still, hope springs eternal and again there is the flurry of diplomatic action that accompanies all such heady moments.

Windows of opportunity in Israel and Palestine are slippery, based more on people's perceptions than on concrete changes. It is often the politicians and analysts who see these opportunities, while large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians do not. Instead they see deterioration in the face of optimistic headlines, summits and eloquent statements.

The Oslo agreement was the mother of all such hopeful spells, but quickly disintegrated under the weight of accelerated Israeli settlement of occupied territories and the proliferation of unaccountable security forces and arms under the Palestinian Authority. While the international community hailed the historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn, those most affected by the agreement looked at their lives for true indicators of the future of the conflict.

The main failure of Oslo and other recent agreements rests on the slow, staged approach to establishing a Palestinian state, which left the most crucial issues of borders, refugees and the final status of Jerusalem till later. Delaying such fundamental issues to the very end of any peace process has not served the spoken intent of building mutual confidence; it instead allowed rejectionists to derail progress at the smallest provocation.

On the other hand, the failure of Camp David in the twilight of the Clinton presidency showed the danger of leaders moving too quickly beyond what is acceptable to their populations. Political leaders can make all the painful compromises they want. If their populations are not prepared to make these same compromises the agreements will mean nothing.

Yet clearly many people think there is now a unique window of opportunity. The Arab League has revived the 2002 Beirut declaration, offering recognition and full relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state in the lands Israel occupied in 1967. Arab and western states have pledged significant financial support to the PA, recognizing that there can be no peace when there is near total economic, social and political collapse in the Occupied Territories. Both Sharon and Palestinian factions have pledged to stop military activities. These are important steps to secure an environment conducive to peace talks.

There are also important developments occurring in both Israel and Palestine. The impending Gaza withdrawal has sparked a wide debate about settlements and military responses to the Intifada. A new Likud-Labour coalition indicates a higher-than-average degree of Israeli political consensus. In Palestine, the different factions are not just abiding by a temporary 'calm,' but may even join the Palestine Liberation Organization. Such a move would mark a greater commitment to compromise both within the Palestinian national political framework and with Israel. There is also growing public disgust about the 'chaos of arms.'

Many political stars are aligning that improve chances to end one of the world's longest running conflicts. Other steps would help, such as a return to commitments in the roadmap, but this is a good start. What is still missing, however, are efforts to build popular domestic consensus and support among Israeli and Palestinian populations for the painful choices that a final settlement will entail.

Vibrant civil societies in both Israel and Palestine can help to capitalize on these political developments by initiating regular public discussions on the future of this contested land. There are thousands of human rights activists in both Israel and Palestine that speak a common language and share values and language of rights-based peaceful political action. While they are a minority in both communities, they are the best bases from which to start more structured and purposeful national dialogues in their respective countries.

Small structured dialogues can help build confidence in talking publicly about compromise and peace. Such discussions can then be widened to include larger numbers of people to build more consensual national visions for any final agreement. Such meetings can also strengthen the two communities' will to withstand provocative acts on both sides.

The momentum to talk must come from within these communities themselves, when they see such efforts are worth both the risk and the reward. Broad public support for compromise is the necessary prop to keep this current initiative alive, and would make this window of opportunity markedly different from the others.

* Jason Erb is International Affairs Representative for Quaker Service-AFSC and is based in Amman, Jordan. Quaker Service-AFSC is an international peacebuilding and development organization.

Source: Common Ground News Service, April 22, 2005.

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Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality
A Simple Plan
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem
Religion Must be Part of the Solution
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality by Nizar Abdel-Kader
A Simple Plan by Hady Amr
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity by Dr. Ziad Asali
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution by Naomi Chazan
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon by Mohammad Daraghmeh
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Khaled Duzdar
Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves by Shira Herzog
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements by Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes by Daoud Kuttab
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem by Jonathan Kuttab
Religion Must be Part of the Solution by Rabbi David Rosen
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges by Hazem Saghiyeh
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement by Michael Young
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East by Dov S. Zakheim