26 July 2007 - Plan B, on a roll
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert unveiled a new peace proposal yesterday, one that would create a Palestinian state within 90 percent of the West Bank, with Israel withdrawing to the security barrier (its “Plan B”), and difficult issues like Jerusalem and refugees left to later negotiations. A tunnel beneath Israeli territory, rather than an elevated bridge, would connect the West Bank and Gaza.
Olmert made the announcement on the same day that the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers visited Israel as official delegates of the Arab League to present the Arab peace proposal—normalization in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries—to the Israeli government. The two peace plans don’t match, but at least the region’s leaders are finally moving together in the right direction.
Tony Blair is also in the region, meeting leaders in his new role as the Mideast Quartet’s peace envoy, and is being told by countries such as the United Arab Emirates that the time for peace is at hand. There is even talk of a meeting between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which initiated the Arab peace initiative and is arguably the most important state in the Sunni world, the one that can deliver recognition.
Many, however, are skeptical of the chances for peace—and for good reason. I attended a lecture yesterday by former Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, who argues in his book The Case for Democracy that “fear societies” cannot make peace because the creation and preservation of an external enemy is what allows the leadership to maintain tight control over the people.
In contrast to the Israeli government, which believes it must strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now that Hamas has taken over Gaza, Sharansky says doing so will only encourage corruption and autocratc behavior, which will eventually encourage Hamas. Agreements are OK, he says, but should be based on autocrats’ fear of democrats’ force, and not the other way around.
Sharansky continues to believe that democracy is the key to peace and security in the region. He has refined his thesis somewhat. Democracy means more than elections, he says: it requires a free society first. And the Iraq case—supposedly the test of Bush’s neo-Wilsonian idealism—is not about whether Iraqis wish to live in freedom (they do), but about whether they want to live together (they may not).
The worst thing Israel can do, he says, is give millions of dollars and new weapons to Abbas and his Fatah proto-government—which is exactly what the Israeli government has done in recent days. Instead, Israel and the world should make assistance conditional on democratic reforms. Until the Palestinian Authority is willing and able to prevent terror against Israelis, Israeli concessions should be few.
Sharansky believes that the alliance of “moderate” Arab states occasioned by the Iranian threat is real but that its importance should not be overstated. There is nothing “moderate,” he says, about regimes like Saudi Arabia. The west has convinced itself that it needs the Saudis, but in fact the opposite is true. And just as the US did in the 1980s regarding the USSR, trade should be conditional on reform.
An answer to this might be that the Sunni Arab states have, in fact, reached the point where they are ready to deal with Israel and the western democracies on their own terms—first, because the strength of Israeli defence and the threat of American regime change remain potent; and second, because without the power of the U.S. and Israel on their side, the Sunni regimes will have to face Iran on their own.
I was interested in asking Sharansky about his views on human rights. In his book, Sari Nusseibeh accuses Sharansky of being inconsistent in his support for human rights because he built settlements as housing minister in the Israeli government. I asked Sharansky how he reconciled Israel’s settlement policy with the country’s commitment to human rights—and his own.
I found his answer quite interesting. First, he said, we must look at the peace process as a whole. It was a mistake, he argued, for the world to link the concept of a Palestinian state with principles of human rights. The right to self-determination is not inherent: you have to stake a claim to it by organizing your own institutions. As it happened, the world, not the Palestinians, created the Palestinian Authority.
Second, he said, settlements are not an obstacle to Palestinian statehood, nor are they a violation of human rights. No settlement—with the exception of Hebron, he allowed—interferes directly in the life of any Palestinian community. Settlements are also a major source of jobs and investment in the Palestinian territories. Terror, and not settlement, has created the need for checkpoints and roadblocks.
I persisted. What about the obstacle that Israeli settlements pose to Palestinian-initiated economic development? and reports that settlements are infringing on Palestinian private property? Sharansky answered that as minister, he had found that Palestinian leaders were uninterested in investment projects unless they could use them to line their pockets, claim strategic territory and circumvent agreements.
On the issue of property rights, he noted that Israeli courts had been extremely diligent in investigating Palestinian claims, as well as quite lenient, lowering the standard of proof substantially to favor claimants. In some cases, he said, the courts had ordered the government to pay compensation to Palestinian property owners. Calls for the total pullout of all settlers, he said, were not based on human rights concerns but on the implicitly antisemitic idea that Jews cannot live in the area.
Sharansky also attacked international human rights organizations for their bias against Israel—a call echoed this week by U.S. Senator Norm Coleman—saying they ignored differences between the types of governments in different countries. By all means, he said publish 1,000 pages of criticism of Israel and 1 page of criticism of the Palestinian Authority—but put the reports in different sections, because free societies and fear societies cannot be equated. Relativism destroys of human rights.
Sharansky also suggested that the U.S. forget UN reforms, and create a new international organization outside of the UN, an alliance of democracy where no country would have a vote whose government had not been voted into office itself.
I found his answers quite satisfactory. Sharansky’s words are also a timely warning against misguided pledges by U.S. presidential canditates to offer legitimacy and diplomatic concessions to the world’s worst dictators. But I’m also willing to trust Olmert’s leadership in a new peace process. This may, in fact, be a unique opportunity to begin resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s plan B—but let it roll.