Israel is in need of mediators
If indeed the Israeli government wishes to speak with the moderates and not the extremists, an international conference based on such a proposal would provide an opportunity to do so.
It appears that the Israeli aversion to international initiatives for solving the conflict with the Arab world is inherent in us. The world, and in particular Europe, is assumed to be hostile to Israel, and every international conference is conceived of as an ambush in which Israel's enemies will try to force it into an arrangement that is contradictory to its existential interests.
This aversion is particularly difficult to understand in view of the fact that Israel is sunk in a bloody conflict that has no solution, neither diplomatic nor military. The battlefield - in Lebanon against Hezbollah and in the Gaza Strip against Hamas - no longer makes it possible to gain easy victories or a decisive advantage. In both cases, the governments enabled the Israel Defense Forces to push forward to a victory but they were not able to carry out the mission.
What is the government proposing to get out of this quagmire? The foreign minister has suggested speaking with "the moderates" in the Palestinian Authority. It is worrisome to think that she is not aware that the distance between the moderates and the extremists is most minute, and that the moderates will act toward setting up a Palestinian state with its borders on the pre-1967 green line, with Jerusalem as its capital and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. In general terms, the moderates want a solution on the basis of the Saudi initative.
There is no longer a possibility of negotiating with the moderates while neutralizing the extremists, who today constitute the elected government. Any negotiations conducted by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) with Israel will always include a side glance at Hamas to see what it will be prepared to accept. In this respect, there is no difference between Abbas the democrat and Yasser Arafat the dictator. Both of them have always worked toward an agreement that would be based on internal Palestinian consensus, and which would prevent a decline into civil war. In other words, negotiation with the moderates is in effect an indirect dialogue also with the extremists.
It is to be hoped that there is someone among the prime minister's advisers who will make it clear to him that, even though Abbas will no doubt be "surprised at how far" he is prepared to go, this will nevertheless not be enough to meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians.
Israel is returning to the starting point, to an incessant war of Qassam rockets and massive arms smuggling, in anticipation of another war, which also will not provide a victory and also will not change the price of an accommodation, which is known in advance. It is therefore difficult to understand the hasty rejection of the European initative to send an international force to Gaza and following that to convene an international conference for a regional arrangement. This kind of force would provide Israel with an egress from an even worse outcome than that of the second Lebanon war.
The European intiative is an expression of a growing concern that the strategy of unilateralism - of Israel in the territories and of the United States in Iraq - has become bankrupt, and that the road map has lost its relevance. The U.S. is apparently facing a significant change of direction in its regional policy.
There is no greater mistake than adhering to inertia in an era of revolution. If Israel allows the deadlock to continue, others will take the initiative in its stead. The European initiative is not unacceptable, even if it requires reworking. The idea of an international force in Gaza is correct, but only on condition that it will act in the framework of an agreed-upon diplomatic arrangement. Such a framework does not exist today, and foreign countries will not send their soldiers to an anarchic slaughterhouse without a clear mandate.
An international conference is likewise something to be desired, but only on condition that it is convened on the basis of an agreed-on platform. Israel would be right not to participate in an open conference in which every proposal is permitted. But this would not need to happen if the conference were convened on the basis of two peace proposals - as protection against hostile initiatives - President Clinton's plan, which was accepted at the time by Israel, and the all-Arab, Saudi peace plan. Somewhere between these two proposals lies the possibility of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
If indeed the Israeli government wishes to speak with the moderates and not the extremists, an international conference based on such a proposal would provide an opportunity to do so. The conference would exclude Hamas - unless it were to accept the said peace proposals as a basis for negotiations. It would also anchor the legitimacy of a peace agreement, even if Hamas were to object to it. The true significance of the Saudi all-Arab peace initiative lies in that it has expropriated the monopoly about deciding on the end of the conflict from the Palestinians.
The new initiative, however, will not be able to take off unless it is coordinated with the U.S. Only through American-European agreement on a joint strategy in the Middle East, will there be a chance for a serious diplomatic breakthrough. The expected change of direction in American policy is likely to bring about a mending of the trans-Atlantic alliance that was splintered in Baghdad.
And if it is the legacy of President Bush the elder that is to be revived, via the Baker report that is shortly to be published, then it is not unlikely that it will be understood in Washington that Baghdad and Jerusalem are not separate entities. After all, that same coalition that fought in Baghdad in 1991 is the one that came immediately after that to Madrid to push forward the international conference on peace in the Middle East.