UNITED NATIONS — Events in Washington and the Middle East have conspired to create a “window of opportunity” to put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track for the first time in two-and-half years, the United Nations special Middle East envoy told the Forward.
Three factors make the current moment ripe for progress, said the envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, a veteran Norwegian diplomat. The first is the appointment of an empowered Palestinian prime minister. The second is President Bush’s reaffirmation of American commitment to implement the “road map” to peace. And the third is a new Israeli willingness to get back to the negotiating table.
“At the backdrop to the frontlines of war in Iraq, I see emerging frontlines of peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Larsen told the Forward in an interview last week in New York, where he had come to brief the Security Council.
Larsen is a controversial figure in Israel because of his close identification with the largely discredited Oslo peace process, of which he was a key architect. He has also come under attack because of his criticisms of Israeli incursions into the West Bank last March and April.
More recently, however, Larsen has gained new credibility because of his criticisms of the Palestinian leadership. He has repeatedly warned in recent months that the possibility of a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was dying because of the unabated violence and the dire humanitarian situation in the territories. In public comments he has stressed that while diplomats talked of peace, the reality on the ground was leading toward catastrophic escalation.
Now, however, he believes three crucial “decisions” open the path to a new era.
The Palestinian appointment of a “credible and empowered” prime minister, Larsen said, is “an extraordinary process” because the Palestinian legislative council approved it in the face of Arafat’s vigorous efforts to undermine it and retain the reins of power. Moreover, Larsen noted, Arafat acquiesced in the decision to appoint Abu Mazen once it was taken.
“This means Israel and the international community again have a partner, because everybody agrees Abu Mazen is a credible partner,” he said.
The second decision was made in Washington. In his March 14 Rose Garden address, Bush said he intended to move forward with the road map once a Palestinian prime minister “with real authority” is confirmed. The road map was formulated several months ago by the so-called Madrid Quartet, consisting of the United States, European Union, U.N. and Russia. The plan envisions three main stages leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2005.
“So on the table, there is an American-backed and quartet-formulated detailed plan, based on a two-state solution leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said.
Larsen is the U.N. representative to the quartet. His position as U.N. special negotiator is mandated by Security Resolution 242, adopted in November 1967, and was originally filled by the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring.
Asked about frequently voiced charges of Bush administration indifference to the peace process, Larsen expressed confidence that the administration intended to follow through with its current plan. He pointed to recent statements reaffirming the commitment by senior officials including the American ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The third factor behind Larsen’s new optimism — Israeli willingness to reopen negotiations — has not been officially declared. But Larsen noted that Prime Minister Sharon has publicly and repeatedly endorsed a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Larsen said he had been in touch with top Israeli officials “continuously” during the last few weeks. “My impression is very clearly that there is a strong will to go back to the table,” he said, acknowledging that he was speaking of Sharon.
All those developments, Larsen said, should lead to the public release of the road map immediately after the new Palestinian government is sworn in.
A State Department official said that the release might take place after the war in Iraq in order to give it the best exposure. “It’s certainly the best opportunity in a long time, so why bury it?” the official said.
After Bush said in his speech that contributions from both parties to the road map would be welcome, European and Arab countries expressed concern that this could lead to endless discussions. Israel has already made clear it has many objections to the text.
Both Larsen and the State Department official insisted Bush had not meant to open the door to amendments to the text, which was transmitted to the parties in December. Larsen acknowledged, however, that the road map was only an eight-page starting point and that the parties would be welcome to discuss its implementation.
While praising Arafat for allowing the naming of a prime minister, Larsen offered a blunt, scathing analysis of his sidelining. Since Israel claims Arafat is not a credible partner, he said, “there was a deep problem” and the issue needed to be addressed.
Larsen explained that while Arafat’s legitimacy as the elected leader of the Palestinian people could not be challenged, his performance could be assessed. “If the P.A. is not able to exercise its right and duty based on its monopoly on the use of force, then it is a failed leadership,” he said. “This has been the key problem — legitimate but failed.”
This, he added, is why “the first and foremost challenge for the Palestinian prime minister is to address the issue of terrorism and mass murder.
“No prime minister anywhere would be able to maintain credibility if there are forces in his society which deliberately carry out mass murder,” he said. “There should be zero tolerance for groups to use force against anybody, anywhere.”
He stressed that if the new Palestinian administration could not achieve this through peaceful and diplomatic means, it would have to confront the terrorist groups by force. “This is a strong view of mine and this is a key issue,” he added.
Larsen insisted that a Palestinian security overhaul would demand Israeli reciprocal actions, including a halt to extra-judicial killings, destruction of terrorists’ homes and an eventual withdrawal of troops to their pre-intifada positions.
While he lamented the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the territories, he admitted that if Israel dismantled its curfews and checkpoints, more successful attacks would probably ensue.
“This is why the only solution is a political one,” he said.
Looking back at his three years in office — he said he was considering staying on the job for a few more years — Larsen noted the “strange current situation.”
“You have a depressing situation on the ground with violence and poverty,” he said. “But we also have a remarkable improvement in the political and diplomatic arenas… If you look back at past years, we actually have a leap forward. If you look at Bush’s statement last June and Sharon’s Herzliya speech [endorsing a two-state solution], these are much more radical and far-reaching political positions than the Oslo agreements.”
The Oslo accords, he said, “didn’t mention a Palestinian state. Rabin never went further than talking about a Palestinian entity. The word ‘two-state solution’ doesn’t occur in any Oslo document. That’s why these two statements and the road map go far beyond Oslo.”
“So there is a paradox and our challenge now is to bridge the gap,” he added, holding out hope that both sides, as well as the quartet members and key Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would act vigorously to implement the road map.