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By Yossi Beilin

Yossi Beilin served as a minister in the Israeli governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and was the initiator of the Oslo peace process. A sidebar discusses the return of Anthony Zinni to the Middle East on March 14.)

-- The Middle East is no different from other regions in the world, and there is no reason why it should be sentenced to an eternity of bloodshed. It is possible to make peace in the Middle East. It is possible to make peace within a short period of time, and to prevent any more unnecessary deaths, such as those victims who are being killed day after day, by Palestinian fire and by Israeli fire.

The early '90s imbued us with new hopes, which were realized: the Madrid Conference, in late October 1991, gave rise to the direct talks between Israel and the Syrian delegation, the Lebanese delegation and the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
The Oslo agreement in 1993 gave rise to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and enabled cooperation on security matters between the Palestinians and Israelis, which prevented a great deal of violence between these two peoples. The Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement, signed following the Oslo agreement, changed the map of the region. In the multilateral talks that dealt with the future of the refugees, the question of water, the issue of arms control, the problem of the environment, and economic cooperation among the countries of the region, most of the members of the Arab League took part alongside Israel and America, Europe, Japan and many other countries around the world. Diplomatic relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf states, North Africa and Mauritania developed at a rapid pace. At that time, it appeared the Middle East was on the verge of peace.

In 1995, the massacre conducted by Baruch Goldstein on Palestinians praying at the Cave of Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) and the terrorist attacks by Palestinians against Israelis opened up a new era.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the Oslo process, as prime minister of Israel; the expiration of the five-year interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, without any progress toward a permanent status agreement; the disappointment that even Ehud Barak, as prime minister, was unable to achieve a permanent status agreement; the provocative and unnecessary visit of Ariel Sharon, as the head of the opposition, to the Temple Mount; the Palestinian intifada that broke out the day after his visit, not curbed by Yasser Arafat; the election of Sharon as prime minister of Israel and the joining of the Labor party to this right-wing government -- all of the above have created the feeling in the region and around the world that the peace process is dead.

What has taken place in the past year is, basically, an attempt to move from "conflict resolution'' to "conflict management.'' We have witnessed efforts to reach a cease-fire and to implement confidence-building measures, out of a pessimistic view that it is no longer realistic to reach a permanent solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is the most severe mistake made by the American administration this year.

We are not at the outset of the journey. We were very close to a permanent agreement, both with Syria and the Palestinians. In all likelihood, it was precisely because of the acute tension entailed in reaching the moment of truth that this severe wave of violence erupted. Israelis cannot understand why at this point in time, when we were so close to peace, the Palestinians have chosen to use violence, justifying it by their desire to terminate the Israeli occupation. After all, if there has ever been a more illogical moment to protest the Israeli occupation in the past 35 years, it is now, at the time that we were about to bring an end to the occupation by means of an agreement.

The Palestinians cannot understand why Israel is reacting with so much force, why Israel is restricting the movements of Arafat and humiliating the Palestinian Authority, when, ostensibly, it would be in the Israelis' best interests to strengthen the position of their Palestinian partner in order to return to a situation of cooperation on security matters and to move forward toward peace. The anger on both sides is extensive. The desire to avenge the death of innocent people, who are being killed day after day, on both sides, is enormous, but then so is the desire to put an end to this madness and the embrace of death between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

It is a fact that the Saudi initiative, to establish normal relations with Israel as soon as it signs a peace agreement with the Palestinians, has received support among both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. The ground is ready, on both sides, for extreme violence, on the one hand, and for peace, on the other, provided that there is an end to this ongoing war of attrition. This is the moment for those people who believe in peace to put forward their proposals, and they will be surprised by the amount of support they will receive.

The main effort should focus on finding a solution to the conflict, rather than persisting with the current situation of conflict management. Instead of placing emphasis on the proposals of George Tenet for a cease-fire and the report of George Mitchell, we should return to discussions on the permanent solution, according to the Clinton plan.

A demilitarized Palestinian state will be established next to the state of Israel, and the border between them will be based on the borders in existence prior to the Six Day War, with mutual adjustments. Within the municipal borders of Jerusalem, and even beyond, there will be the capitals of the two states. Most of the settlers will live under Israeli sovereignty, and those settlements situated in Palestinian territory will be vacated. A fair solution will be found for the problem of the refugees in the form of compensation and their absorption in the new Palestinian state, and in other ways, as shall be agreed by the two sides. The border between Israel and Syria will also be based on the 1967 lines, and the area in dispute in the North East of the Sea of Galilee will have a special status, similar to that of the Taba region on the border between Israel and Egypt.

If the United States were to return to working on a permanent status agreement, it would be easier to convince the two sides to reach a cease-fire and to implement confidence-building measures. The permanent status agreement is not an illusion of naive people in the Middle East. It is a practical step, close to realization, and the best way to return to the more peaceful relations of the years that preceded the recent intifada. While it is true that today there is no trust between the two sides, it must be remembered that peace agreements around the world are signed, as a rule, in the wake of difficult conflicts, when the lack of mutual trust is extreme and the hatred is deep.

A peaceful Middle East is in the interests of the entire world, and not only of its residents. Unlike many other conflicts around the world, whose solution is unknown, the solution to the Middle East conflict is patently clear. Some people want to adopt it; others oppose it. However, there is no serious entity offering an alternative solution. Many, many years passed until we reached, in the year 2000, an agreement, in principle, with respect to this solution, when the official state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to the Clinton plan (even though their consent was subject to various reservations), and on this basis, we went to the Taba talks in early 2001. Had it not been for the elections in Israel, it is most probable that we would have reached a peace agreement at the Taba talks, which both sides would have supported by conducting a referendum.

Let us not go back to square one! Let us take large strides forward, let us think in terms of the larger picture, and let us succeed in wiping off the face of the Earth the longest international conflict, which has existed since the end World War II.


By Yossi Beilin

The Bush administration has changed its mind and decided to send back Anthony C. Zinni as its envoy to the Middle East for the third time, in spite of the fact that the violence has increased considerably and that the administration said Zinni would be sent back only if it subsided.

There is reason to hope that Zinni's mission, which begins Thursday (March 14), could help stem the violence and find a way for both sides to begin to fashion peace. But to do that, Zinni must demand an immediate cessation of violence by both Israelis and Palestinians.

If he plans to come for two days just to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, let him not make the effort. If he intends to promote prerequisites for negotiations, it will be nothing more than a waste of his time.

In short, Zinni must come to the region and stay. He must establish his own headquarters, engage in shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians and demand that Yasser Arafat move freely about the region. Zinni must convey messages. He must straighten things out. He must extinguish fires and offer strategies, not tactics.

If he fails to do this and if the flames of violence increase, the fire might ignite the more moderate Arab countries. Then there will be no alternative, and Zinni, or a more senior official, will be summoned to this area in order to extinguish the fire. Let us pray it is not too late.

One thing in President Bush's favor regarding Zinni's role is that whatever happens during this visit will be tantamount to a pleasant surprise. If, in the past, the administration had tried to lower expectations, this time it did not have to bother. No one expects anything.

Just as it was a mistake to prevent Zinni from returning to the Middle East until now, so was it a grave mistake, on the part of the Bush administration, to adopt Sharon's prerequisite of "seven days of quiet before returning to the negotiating table,'' with him as the sole judge as to whether quiet was, in fact, maintained.

Although, off the record, most of the Bush administration officials who authorized the seven-day requirement now admit they were wrong, they have not retracted that policy. Even now, after Sharon himself called off the prerequisite, he is still talking about his readiness to negotiate a cease fire, under fire, rather than any other form of political settlement. Zinni's main task must be to annul this veto power and to insist on returning to the political negotiating table.

Harsh events have been occurring in the region since the retired general's last visit. The phenomenon of Palestinian suicide bombers has become appallingly prevalent, and the young men who were ready to sacrifice their lives to kill Israelis were joined by older men and even by women.

The A areas (which according to the agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1995 were handed over to the Palestinians for their full control) have turned into areas that the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) enters and exits at its will, as if they were its permanent firing zones. The Palestinian Authority, with its leader being kept prisoner in Ramallah, has become weaker. It now contains local Palestinians who do not abide by its rules and who have become prominent figures in the intifada. Many more people, on the Israeli side, understand that Sharon's policy is leading toward no strategic goal, while claiming more and more victims.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 3/13/02)