REVIEW: Article

From the Woodrow Wilson Center

In mid-June, as news reports from the Middle East spread gloom about the prospects for the “road map” to peace, a very different perspective was offered by speakers at a Wilson Center conference on the post-Iraq Middle East. While some struck a pessimistic note, several of the speakers—government officials and others from the Arab world and the United States—were hopeful, noting among other things that many ordinary Palestinians want peace with Israel.

Indeed, both sides may be ripe for peace. After a visit to Israel last year, I came away from conversations with Israeli and Palestinian friends convinced that people on both sides are fatigued by the conflict and desperate to stop the killing and pursue peace. Hamas and other terrorist groups are determined to derail any such efforts, of course, but as our Wilson Center conference showed, the forces for peace are gathering.

Much of the fresh impetus is a result of the United States (US) effort in Iraq, which has fundamentally altered the political dynamics of the Middle East and other regions. Even as we met at the Wilson Center, young people were filling the streets of Iran’s cities, demanding change. Syria, long a hostile presence, has cooperated in rounding up fleeing members of the Iraqi Baath Party. Even North Korea has retreated from its policy of threat and bluster over its nuclear program.

In the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have taken the first steps along the road map to peace, a possibility that was virtually unimaginable a year ago. Over the longer term, the issue of utmost concern to Israelis is the character of any state created by the Palestinians. Will it be a moderate, quasi-democratic entity living side by side in peace with Israel, or will it turn out to be an adversarial state and a haven for future terrorists? For Palestinians, key issues include the shape of their future state and the status of Israeli settlements in the lands under discussion.

One of the great tragedies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the outlines of any likely agreement were present in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal, which Yasir Arafat rejected three years ago. Although the plan needed refinement, its key elements were sound. They include: (i) the partition of Jerusalem to give the Palestinians some stake in that city; (ii) a “law of return” allowing some Palestinians to return to land controlled by Israel, and entitling others to compensation; (iii) Israeli agreement to start closing down some settlements; (iv) the return of approximately 95 percent of the land on the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians; and (v) Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state if all conditions were met.

Before there can be further progress toward these larger goals, the violence on both sides must cease. Achieving this and longer-term goals will take strong leadership, and it must come not only from President George W. Bush and his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts but from moderate leaders in the Arab world. By failing to pressure Arafat three years ago, moderate Arab leaders contributed to the collapse of the Camp David accord. Let Anwar Sadat be their inspiration. A strong stand against terrorism and firm support for the efforts of Palestinian Authority Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas to steer the Palestinians away from violence could tip the balance.

Real peace will not come overnight. The language of peace in the Middle East is a language of “road maps” and “steps,” of dialogue and steady, measured progress. At the Wilson Center, we spread the language of peace by bringing scholars, policymakers and others from around the world to study, to debate, and to reflect—and to return home with fresh understandings and perspectives. These are the seeds of peace everywhere.*

* Editor’s Note: Reprinted with permission from The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2003, published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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Chairman, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
United States Ambassador to Switzerland, 1989-1993