Olmerts unilateral proposals are a recipe for disaster in the volatile Middle East

A comprehensive political realignment has been completed in Israel and the Palestinian territories over the past 18 months: Mahmoud Abbas’ election as president of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ election to a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, and now Ehud Olmert’s election as probable Israeli prime minister (pending coalition negotiations).

Although the opening may be small, these events have created the best window of opportunity to resolve the conflict in at least five years. However, let’s not ignore the realities on the ground that could lead the conflict to spiral into oblivion.

On the bright side, Olmert recently reversed months of campaign rhetoric and declared his willingness to negotiate directly with Abbas about final borders. Israeli and Palestinian top leaders have not held official negotiations on “final status” issues since early 2001. Sharon ignored Abbas’ calls for direct negotiations, so if Olmert follows through, it would be a major step toward conciliation, a real chance to resolve the conflict and a much more moderate attitude than his predecessor.

Similarly, President Abbas may be the best peace partner the Israelis have ever gotten or ever will get. He’s called for Palestinians to use nonviolent resistance to the occupation, and he supports a two-state solution.

Even the newly elected Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas offers a much more moderate position on the conflict than is assumed by most. In a recent op-ed (“A Just Peace or No Peace”) in the Guardian Unlimited, Haniyeh declared, “We in Hamas are for peace and want to put an end to bloodshed. … This is a good time for peace-making — if the world wants peace.”

Haniyeh’s stated requirements for an end to the conflict are close to internationally-accepted norms: “Total Israeli withdrawal from all the land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; the release of all our prisoners; the removal of all settlers from all settlements; and recognition of the right of all refugees to return.”

Notice he says recognition. When Search for Common Ground polled Palestinian refugees, only 10 percent said they actually wanted to return when they were presented with other options such as resettlement in a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, or rehabilitation in their current place of residence.

Hamas’ rise to power has in fact created an opportunity for Israel. In its official role in the Palestinian parliament, Hamas has provided a clear, stated blessing to Abbas to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. Hamas seems ready to end the conflict if the outcome is an equitable two-state solution.

So, what’s in the way? A lot.

For starters, Olmert has stated that if negotiations fail, he will “unilaterally” determine Israel’s final borders along the line of the “wall,” which, according to Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, will annex 15 to 50 percent of the Palestinian West Bank. Olmert’s plan is to evacuate the smallest West Bank settlements, and keep the biggest ones intact (actually, make them even bigger). Israel may also complete its ongoing confiscation of the Jordan Valley.

As Haniyeh states in his op-ed, such a “solution” will exponentially exacerbate the conflict. Already, Gaza is the world’s largest open-air prison: Israel controls its sea and air space, and Gazans cannot travel into the West Bank. If Olmert implements his current plan to use the wall to confiscate Palestinian land (along with many of their water aquifers and best farmland), and splits the West Bank into little disconnected pieces by building up settlements, there will be no viable Palestinian state — and no end to the conflict.

This outcome would be a catastrophe for the Palestinians (the third in 60 years), but it would also (in the long run) be a disaster for Israelis. World public opinion already disdains Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, and even if AIPAC convinces the U.S. government to support this “solution,” the rest of the world would turn its back. Israel would end up as a pariah state like South Africa was.

There is a way out. When official negotiations broke down during the second intifada, the negotiators continued their dialogue — unofficially — and ultimately signed (in a symbolic ceremony) a “final status agreement” known as the Geneva Accord. It’s a resolution to the conflict that would not require Israel to abandon all the settlements, but it would require any modifications to the pre-1967 borders to be on an equitable, one-to-one basis.

Both President Abbas and Prime Minister Haniyeh’s statements make it clear that the Geneva Accord could be the resolution to the conflict. Other proposals might be considered, such as Johan Galtung’s six-state Middle East Community, in which Israel’s five neighbors would join a regional community along the lines of the EU. After all, Jews and Arabs are both Semitic. The answer is not more division, but healing and a family of peoples. To be pro-Semitic is to be pro-peace.

The clock is ticking. Middle East politics are highly unstable, and it’s hard to imagine that more moderate politicians will be in power any time soon. (Why would the Palestinians become more moderate if Israel confiscates more of the West Bank?) Those of us in the Jewish community who want peace with justice can encourage the Israelis to negotiate in good faith — actually negotiate, not just dictate terms.

Let’s support a just outcome that addresses the interests and well-being of all parties. This includes dislocated settlers, who need to be compassionately welcomed into pre-1967 Israel, or even (if they want to be good neighbors) given the option of remaining citizens of a future Palestinian state. We will all pay the price if Israel builds a wall and calls it a day.

Matthew Taylor is a fourth-year peace and conflict studies major at U.C. Berkeley, and co-editor of PeacePower magazine (www.calpeacepower.org).