The Geneva Initiative group, of which I am a part, should not have made the short journey to the Muqata compound in Ramallah earlier this week and become the first Israeli delegation to meet with the newly elected Palestinian leader. Not because it was the wrong thing to do. Quite the opposite: It was precisely the right thing to do, but it should have been the Israeli government that made the journey.
This is not about favors, gestures or the granting of a grace period. It is about how best to end the violence, ensure security and move toward peace. It is about Palestinian interests and Israeli interests and the search for where these might coincide. This is what we owe the residents of Sderot - not macho cliches or empty promises.
Today, there is a Palestinian leadership committed to nonviolence and to building a democratic Palestine alongside Israel. This should be of more than passing interest to Israelis. With Abu Mazen, as we witnessed first-hand, what you see is what you get. He wants a negotiated end to the conflict, a comprehensive agreement on all issues - not a limited or interim deal - that is based on two viable states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.
His immediate priority is security, an end to all violence with no exceptions, which he aims to achieve via a hudna (cease-fire). He will not use the occupation as a pretext for postponing a parallel domestic agenda of building effective governing institutions and a system based on the rule of law. Abu Mazen believes that the Palestinians' best interests are served by internal reform and a negotiated peace agreement.
Is there someone on the Israeli side who is looking after our best interests? Based on the government's actions over the last few days, apparently not. Can we afford to pass up the opportunity presented by Abu Mazen's election, undermine a real potential partner, reoccupy Gaza and strengthen Hamas?
There are no quick-fix solutions to the security situation. What the invincible Israel Defense Forces could not achieve in four years, the emaciated Palestinian security forces are unlikely to deliver in four days. Public opinion and domestic pressure exist on both sides. The reluctance to dive headfirst into civil war without first exhausting other alternatives is apparently not an exclusively Israeli predilection. When it comes to the settlers, for 37 years it's been a case of the tail wagging the dog, and Ariel Sharon's government has yet to make good on its commitment to remove settler outposts. So Israel's expectations of Abu Mazen should be infused with a modicum of realism. He is pursuing a nonviolent path to a negotiated solution, and Israel can strengthen the prospects of a successful outcome - or fatally weaken them.
Immediate bilateral coordination is needed to halt escalation and stabilize the situation. If Abu Mazen can forge a cease-fire, then Israel should ensure, for example, there are no assassinations and agree to the release of Palestinian security prisoners - moves that would illustrate the ability of moderates, rather than extremists, to deliver the goods.
But, ultimately, Abu Mazen is a partner for peace negotiations; he is unlikely to be a partner for the implementation of a series of unilateral Israeli dictates. When Sharon talks about renewing negotiations, he means coordination. But coordination is not negotiation.
In Abu Mazen, Israel has a partner ready for negotiation - the comprehensive type that deals not only with a Gaza withdrawal and Israeli demands, but also with the issues at the heart of the conflict. The prospect of actually ending this conflict - not just limiting it or managing it - is reemerging. Is this something that can be so cavalierly discarded in an orgy of anger and pain that follows every terror attack - even if these emotions are totally understandable?
Perhaps Sharon feels at home with only two types of Arabs: those who can be demonized as the enemy and those who can be co-opted as collaborators. Yasser Arafat could easily be depicted as the former. Mustafa Dudin, from Dura near Hebron, who was leader of the Village Leagues in the early 1980s - which then-defense minister Sharon created to implement his limited autonomy-without-territory plan - is an example of the "good Arab."
But Abu Mazen is neither Arafat nor Dudin, and cannot be convincingly portrayed as such. This is what makes Sharon distinctly uncomfortable. The Palestinian people elected a leader committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and according to polls published this week in Haaretz, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians still support a two-state solution along the lines of the Geneva Initiative.
Is Sharon's reluctance to politically reengage with Abu Mazen indicative of the fear of being exposed as the naysayer to a reasonable peace in front of his own people and the international community?
A strong Abu Mazen, able to promote a two-state agenda among the Palestinians, should be a primary Israeli interest. Back at the Sycamore Ranch, though, there may be one Israeli who yearns for the days of Mustafa Dudin and Yasser Arafat.
Daniel Levy served as policy adviser to Yossi Beilin, was a member of the Israeli team to the Oslo B and Taba negotiations, and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.firstname.lastname@example.org
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