`Land for Peace' Requires the U.S. to Act as an Honest Broker

By Daoud Kuttab

Sunday, August 17, 1997;

Page C01 The Washington Post

EAST JERUSALEM:After all the statements, accusations and consultations in the Middle East last week, the two major problems blocking a breakthrough remain: Israel needs security, and Palestinians need land on which to establish their state. As President George Bush put it simply in his speech preceding the Madrid peace conference in 1991: Land for peace. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, scheduled to come to the Middle East in the next few weeks, should remember these three simple words when she arrives.

Today, Israelis facing an ugly act of terrorism cannot support a solution that fails to guarantee their personal security. And Palestinians yearning for a peaceful future cannot see any hope while bulldozers tear up Palestinian land to build housing for Israelis. Preventing such terrorism and restoring hope calls for two interdependent policies: high-level security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian intelligence agencies and a marked improvement in the political atmosphere that prevails in the Middle East. But one cannot happen without the other. Political trust needs to be re-established for the security cooperation to work.

Consultation and information sharing between the two security forces worked during the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres because they were accompanied by political progress based on mutual trust. Yes, there were suicide bombings. But afterwards, Rabin would wait till the end of the mourning period and then immediately relaunch peace talks, knowing full well that one of the aims of the terrorists was breaking up the talks. As a result, cooperation was accelerated and produced some impressive results in detaining would-be suicide bombers and the discovery of weapons caches.

Rabin's attitude also left a different impression on Palestinians in the streets. After some of the bombings, there were public demonstrations throughout the Palestinian territories where marchers carried the message "No to Violence and Yes to Peace." After a double-suicide bombing rocked a west Jerusalem market earlier this month and killed 16 people, however, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately blamed Palestinian leaders and imposed acts of collective punishment on the Palestinian people. Not surprisingly, few Palestinians feel the urge to protest the bombing, despite the fact that most are opposed to such acts of violence against Israeli civilians.

Since Netanyahu became prime minister, he has assumed he can gain security by imposing an Israeli version of peace. He made the building of settlements a priority and scrapped the practice of consulting with the Palestinians before carrying out actions that affect them. Unilateral actions in defiance of the peace process became the norm for the Israeli government: Opening the tourist tunnel in Jerusalem, building new settlements and announcing a minuscule redeployment of Israeli soldiers from occupied territories in violation of the letter and spirit of the Oslo accords. Unable to prevent such measures and unable to deliver any political or economic gains to their people, Palestinian leaders are in a bind.

When Israel defied the entire international community by sending bulldozers to break ground for a settlement on a hillside in Arab East Jerusalem called Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic, the pride and dignity of the Palestinian Authority was challenged. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians announced that security cooperation had been buried by those bulldozers. To continue cooperation while Israel was building Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands would reduce the Palestinian Authority to a Vichy-type regime carrying out Israel's dirty work.

After the latest bombing, many in the U.S. Congress and media uncritically accepted Netanyahu's assertion that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was responsible, without bothering to investigate whether the terrorists had come from Palestinian territories or whether they had been aided by Palestinians living in areas under Israeli control. Two weeks later the identity of the bombers is still unknown. Netanyahu's own responsibility for abrogating the agreements that made security cooperation possible in the first place also escaped scrutiny.

Now, by blocking movement of people, goods, medicines and the transfer of Palestinian money, Netanyahu is effectively holding more than 2 million Palestinians hostages. He is trying to blackmail the Palestinian leadership into accommodating Israeli security needs, but without any the promise of political reciprocation. This cannot succeed. In the same way that a cease-fire agreement without a parallel political understanding cannot hold, so it is with security cooperation in Israel and Palestine.

As trust has dissolved, the United States has backtracked on its commitment to peace in the Middle East. Since Netanyahu's election in 1996, the United States has gone from being an active catalyst for the peace process to merely an observer, at times even publicly shielding the Israelis from the criticism of the rest of the world.

First supporters of the peace process were told that the Clinton administration was busy with the U.S. presidential election, then that the new secretary of state wanted to familiarize herself with her job and the region in general. Now, eight months later, Albright, after visiting practically every other trouble spot in the world, is on her way.

Only the active and fair involvement of the United States can save the failing peace process. To be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the U.S. government need only act on what was once its own policy. "Land for peace" requires a war on terrorism and a halt to expansionist settlement building. This is the only way that the people of the region can satisfy their decades-long dreams of a secure Israel and an independent and democratic Palestine.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist living in Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University and co-director of Internews Middle East.