The peace summit hosted by King Abdullah II of Jordan in Aqaba may have been a turning point in the conflict between Jews and Arabs.
The ‘road map’ - drawn up by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN - calls for the creation by 2005 of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state, alongside a secure Israel. High-level endorsement of the plan opens the prospect of progress on the political front after two and a half years of violence and bloodshed. That prospect, however, is exceedingly slender.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most bitter and protracted international of modern times, but its basic cause is simple: there are two nations and one small area of land. Since the two nations cannot agree to share that land, the only solution is to partition it. The politics of partition, however, are anything but straightforward, for they cut to the core of each nation’s image of itself and of its historic rights, going back to biblical times.
In 1937, the Peel Commission proposed the partition of Palestine. In 1947 the UN voted for the partition of mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
The logic behind partition remains the only viable solution now. The Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, understands this, which is why he accepted the road map unconditionally.
The attitude of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is more ambivalent. He had persuaded President Bush to delay its publication three times and then submitted 14 amendments aiming to wreck the plan.
At Aqaba, Sharon appeared to reverse his position. Bowing to US pressure, he agreed to the creation not only of a Palestinian state, but of one with contiguous territory rather than a series of enclaves.
But he refused to say this state would be independent. And in a bizarre move, even before he made his speech his office said that when he referred to a Palestinian state he meant one that would be demilitarised, and that by ‘viable’ he meant an interim state.
Sharon’s ideology of Greater Israel is incompatible with the quartet’s plan for a genuine two-state solution. Like the right-wing Likud party, of which he is leader, he regards the West Bank as an integral part of the Land of Israel.
Throughout his long career, the 75-year-old leader has been a committed territorial expansionist and a godfather of the settlement movement. He talks of the need for ‘painful concessions’, but has refused to yield to the Palestinian Authority more than the 70 per cent of Gaza and 42 per cent of the West Bank it controlled under the Oslo accords.
While pretending to accept the quartet’s road to a negotiated settlement, Sharon has been drawing a different map. Two principal means have been used towards this end.
One is the building of new settlement outposts on the West Bank; the other is the building of a ‘security barrier’ along the western length of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is part of the process of creeping annexation that has driven many Palestinians from their land.
As a soldier and politician, Sharon has always championed violent solutions. He has yet to learn you cannot have a winner and a loser in a peace process; that resolution of a conflict requires two winners. Nor does he understand Israel ought to end the occupation, not as a concession to the Palestinians, but as a favour to itself if it wishes to preserve its democratic and Jewish character. As Marx observed, a nation that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.
Sadly, the handshakes in Aqaba that gave rise to so much hope have but a slim chance of leading to a real breakthrough. What Sharon is prepared to concede falls short even of the most minimal Palestinian expectations of independence and statehood. It is the peace of the bully, rather than the peace of the brave. The irony is that Sharon is one of the moderates in an ultra-nationalist government.
With him and his party representing Israel, the quartet’s road map is likely to lead nowhere slowly.
Avi Shlaim is a professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of ‘The Politics of Partition’ and ‘The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arabs’.