Gone is the guarded optimism after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the summit in Aqaba where President Bush promised to "ride herd" on both Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations from the roadmap for peace backed by the quartet, the group that includes United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
There is no cease-fire by Palestinian militant groups. Hamas is the principal one, and Israel has declared all out war against it. The Palestinian Authority has not acted against "terrorist infrastructure " as the roadmap requires and Israel has not withdrawn from much of the West Bank nor begun an earnest dismantling of settlements.
A combination of factors crushed the peace process.
Harvard educated Michael Terazi is legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority. He says the cease-fire collapsed because former Prime Minister Abbas failed to win concessions that would improve the daily life of Palestinians:
“There is no way that the Palestinians are going to support a prime minister unless they see tangible change on the ground, such as settlement freeze, improvement in their daily lives and other indications that Israel is in fact planning on ending the occupation. It is impossible to expect that Palestinian extremist groups are simply going to sit on their hands and live under occupation peacefully. There has never been a peaceful occupation in the history of man and this won't be the first.”
Akiva Eldar, senior commentator of a leading Israeli daily Haaretz and author of an upcoming book on Jewish settlements, says the negotiating process failed because on the one side the Palestinian militants were not suppressed, and on the other side there was no reduction of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank and Gaza: “I am not talking about a complete symmetry between terrorism on the one hand and occupation and settlements on the other hand. But, there has to be some light at the end of the tunnel that leads to the end of the occupation, and at least a beginning of the dismantling of settlements. We have to see a simultaneous process of removal of what is called terrorism infrastructure and settlement infrastructure.”
For "symmetry" to prevail, the United States must be involved, says Ian Lustick, political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says other peace initiatives have failed because Washington backed away as soon as Israelis and Palestinians balked at making tough decisions. To complicate matters further, the U.S. administration is itself divided over how to pursue peace in the Middle East:
“This administration is deeply divided on the Middle East and that's why it has behaved more like a ball in a pinball machine than a government with a coherent vision of what it wants to pursue,” says Mr. Lustick. “On the one hand, coming out of the State Department and the intelligence agencies and sometimes voiced by the President is a rather advanced idea that there really needs to be a two-state solution. However, the real power of determining policy in this administration seem to lie elsewhere in the upper civilian echelons of the Department of Defense and in the office of the Vice President. They are very skeptical of the idea of getting Israel out of the Bank and Gaza and setting the stage for a Palestinian state.”
According to this viewpoint, the root cause of the Middle East crisis is the anti-American and anti-Israeli character of Arab regimes that are holding down their own people. And, that as these regimes should change their ways so should the Palestinian Authority. In that context Israel's safety and not the lifting of the occupation comes first.
The Iraq war was a key ingredient in the plan to bring about a new more secure order in the Middle East. It was to set off a chain reaction of democracy similar to what occurred in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Analyst David Makovsky of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that bringing a new order to the Middle East requires the replacement of old rulers with a new pro-reform leadership. In the Palestinian context it means replacing Yasser Arafat: “There are Palestinian leaders who want a two-state solution with Israel. But the problem is that Arafat refuses to give the reformers the authority to implement this approach. And even after the horrific bus attack where a lot of Israeli children were killed they never de-legitimized Hamas for conducting such attacks. Therefore the reformist idea has a lot of promise but reformers if they don't have the authority to act will be unable to do so."
With each round of armed clashes, radicalism intensifies on both sides, say analysts. Some Israelis talk of expelling Palestinians from the West Bank. Some Palestinians want to drop the two-state solution in favor of the status quo, a solution in which Israel could soon be confronted by Palestinians demanding equal rights. Ian Lustick again expresses doubt: “This kind of back and forth discussion has been going on for twenty years. But no one so far has suggested that there is a peaceful route between the present situation of occupation to a single state solution. The only diplomatic, negotiated solution that appears to be possible is one of the two-state solution.”
Although most analysts agree there is no alternative to the roadmap, some believe it is time for a fresh approach that would bypass further negotiations and go directly to a final settlement between the two sides, backed by a U.S.-led international mandate. Such an agreement would then be submitted to Israelis and Palestinians for referendum approval.
Henry Siegman, Director of the Project for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York, says all previous peace initiatives have faltered because they were based on confidence building measures designed to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the point of securing final settlement. The end, he argues, should come first:
“What is absolutely essential is complete clarity about what the end goal of the process is. Namely, a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, just as there is total clarity about what the end goal for Israel is - a state that has secure borders, a demilitarized Palestinian state. The Palestinians will not do the tough things they need to do to reach an agreement with Israel if they have no assurance up front that if they do these they can achieve their most essential aspirations. Even the roadmap that spoke of the Palestinian state for the first time refused to define what is meant by that term. The quartet members were urged to do it, but they didn't.”
Meanwhile the quartet announces it will soon meet in New York to discuss the next steps aimed to stem the violence. United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan suggests bolder steps may be considered. And the newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, has won praise from some Israeli quarters as a reliable pro-reform Palestinian leader. Analysts agree time is of the essence for the roadmap in peril.