Condoleezza Rice's first trip to Europe and the Middle East as secretary of state this month creates a perfect opportunity for the Bush administration to accelerate the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The stalled road map for peace envisages a final and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2005. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, envisages not a peace treaty but a ''disengagement" of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza by the end of 2005. Disengagement will reduce the tension created by the 21 Israeli settlements and the Israeli military deployed to protect them. But it does not address the need for a final peace agreement and it does nothing to remove the Israeli stranglehold over the Palestinian economy by control over Gaza's borders, port and airport.
At a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to fulfill the road map's preconditions for negotiating peace and recent polls show a majority of Palestinians and Israelis favor a two-state solution for the conflict, it would be a mistake to allow the unilateral disengagement to frustrate negotiated peace efforts.
Why accelerate the peace process?
The United States and its European allies are locked in a global struggle against jihadi Islamic-inspired terrorism that feeds off Muslim frustration, one source of which is perceived support for the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Ending the occupation through a negotiated peace will help win the war against terror. Cooperating with Europe within NATO to further the peace process will also help the United States heal its rift with Germany and France over Iraq. The United States has expended substantial resources without the aid of most of Europe in trying to defeat terrorism and build democracy in Iraq. It will take far fewer resources with European assistance for the United States to help Abbas control terrorism and build democracy in Palestine.
Sharon wants to slow down the peace process. He believes that Israel will achieve more security from unilateral moves such as disengaging from Gaza or building a ''security fence," than from negotiating a peace treaty. This is illusory. Palestinian violence will spiral from increased frustration with economic deprivation and the indignities of personal humiliation from the Israeli occupation with no end in sight. Real security for Israel will be found in real peace.
The United States can use the disengagement from Gaza to reduce the prospect of spiraling violence and increase Israel's long-term security with a three-part plan. First, a US-led NATO force can help the Palestinians achieve security within Gaza. With Israeli and Egyptian cooperation, the NATO force can provide security training for the Palestinian Authority and patrol Gaza's borders, port, and airport.
Second, the United States, Europe, wealthier Arab states, and other members of the international community can coordinate economic development efforts to improve the daily lives of Palestinians.
Third, the United States should propose a comprehensive peace plan and help the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate and implement it in order to resolve the critical issues of Jerusalem, borders, Palestinian refugees, and Israeli settlements.
Using NATO to coordinate security in Gaza is not far-fetched. There have already been discussions of Israel upgrading its relationship with NATO and using NATO in Gaza. To overcome Israel's historically based distrust of international peace-keeping forces, the United States should command the NATO force. An immediate benefit of a US-led NATO force in Gaza would be to ease the import and export of Palestinian goods and services. This will enable a donor-dependent Palestine to develop a more self-sustaining economy.
However, only by expediting the process of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement will the United States and its allies help to strengthen security and promote economic development in Palestine, important preconditions for a sustained democracy.
Abbas needs the strong support of the United States and the international community in order to combat Islamic extremists and violence in Gaza and the West Bank. He will gain the political legitimacy he needs with a fair resolution of the conflict. There is no lack of model agreements that propose such resolution, including the Clinton Plan, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Plan, and the Geneva Initiative. Let the secretary of state and the administration propose their own Bush Plan and create a lasting legacy for this president by getting the parties to implement it now while the opportunity exists.