The absence of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is not due to the lack of a plan. “Solutions” to the conflict have been proposed for more than 60 years. Each foundered because of the failure of Arab leaders to accept the State of Israel.
Many observers have urged the United States to be more active in the peace process, and to put forth its own peace plan. Virtually every U.S. administration has authored a plan and not one has ever succeeded.
The two successful cases where Israel reached agreements with Arab nations were not the result of peace plans; rather, they were the product of the vision of courageous Arab leaders — Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan — who demonstrated by word and deed they were committed to peace and thereby convinced the Israeli people they could take risks for peace.
Ariel Sharon followed in the footsteps of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and offered to make painful concessions. The government gave away part of the Jewish people’s ancestral home so the Palestinians can have a state, but no Palestinian leader has yet shown the courage to follow the path of Sadat and Hussein and grant Israel peace in exchange for any amount of land. Sharon implemented the disengagement plan in August 2005, and completely withdrew all Israeli troops and settlers in the Gaza Strip. All settlements in the area were dismantled, including four settlements in northen Samaria. Between August 16 and August 30, 2005, Israel safely evacuated more than 8,500 Israeli settlers and, on September 11, 2005, Israeli soldiers left Gaza, ending Israel's 38-year presence in the area. The United States had little to do with this latest step toward a two-state solution, and actually discouraged Israel from acting unilaterally in the naive hope that the Palestinians would be prepared to negotiate over the withdrawal.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has now also joined his predecessors and offered to make concessions for peace. Olmert has proposed a “realignment plan” whereby Israel would unilaterally withdraw from most settlements while holding onto five settlement blocs if no agreement can be negotiated with the Palestinians. By implementing this proposed plan, Olmert is attempting to define Israel’s permanent borders with a future Palestinian state and ensure a Jewish demographic majority inside Israel. Once again, Israel is the principal instigator of the move to end control over area claimed by the Palestinians and the United States has been willing to only endorse the idea as a step in the right direction while continuing to insist that Israel negotiate a final settlement with the Palestinian Authority.
Outsiders, whether they are opposition politicians, academics, or international organizations, have often floated ideas for how to bring about Middle East peace. It is easy to reach agreements in the abstract when the parties are not accountable for their decisions and have neither the power nor the obligation to implement them.
It is often said that the “devil is in the details,” and this has proven true in all past Israeli-Arab negotiations. Grand designs are not substitutes for difficult decisions that must be hashed out in direct talks.
Elements of third-party proposals can be incorporated in peace talks, but the only people who can reach meaningful agreements are the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel and the appointed Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
The end game of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been clear for some time: A two-state solution that involves the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders with modifications sufficient to incorporate the overwhelming majority of settlers, and to substantially increase the security of Israel, and a Palestinian agreement to end the conflict. Numerous plans, including Oslo and the road map, outline how this can be achieved, but a plan is meaningless if one signatory ignores its commitments.
The Palestinians are now facing their Lincoln moment when they must choose between a more perfect Palestinian union living in peace beside Israel or some fractured people condemned to statelessness by the terrorists in their midst. If the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist network, as they promised to do both at Oslo and in the road map, then Israel will have to make tough decisions regarding the settlements. Israelis will have to decide if their democracy can be preserved without dismantling some Jewish towns and villages. Israel already made its choice in evacuating Gaza and it appears that most Israelis, including the Prime Minister, are prepared to make that Lincolnesque choice again in the West Bank.
Still, Israelis would much prefer to negotiate. The election of Hamas — a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel — to lead the Palestinian Authority in 2006, however, greatly reduced the prospects of peace in the near future. The current fratricidal fighting between Palestinians factions may be the Lincoln moment they require to decide whether to move in the direction of coexistence with Israel or perpetual conflict.