By Saeb Erekat
International Herald Tribune (Friday, November 25, 2005)
Third parties, don't leave us now
JERICHO, West Bank Friday's opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt represents a small but important step on the path to Palestinian-Israeli peace - a step forward only made possible through the work of active third-party mediators. Without the continued active involvement of strong third parties, this process is likely to grind to a halt.
Israel is a nuclear power boasting the fifth-largest military in the world and an annual gross domestic product of $129 billion. The Palestinian GDP stands at about $2.6 billion, and about half the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza live below the poverty line. Power asymmetry, without doubt, characterizes - and plagues - Palestinian-Israeli relations. It creates problems only a third party can help redress.
James Wolfensohn, the special envoy for the so-called "quartet" working for Middle East peace, has worked tirelessly to achieve an agreement that would make the Israeli pullout from Gaza meaningful for the 1.2 million Palestinians sealed within its borders. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, personally oversaw the last-minute, round-the-clock negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that resulted in the actual opening of the Rafah crossing, and Gaza's much-needed link to the outside world. The U.S. security coordinator, General William Ward, has worked with Israelis and Palestinians on security issues, building confidence and institutionalizing measures to calm violence and enable a return to negotiations. Without the efforts of each of these parties, there would not have been a Palestinian-Israeli agreement last week.
The Rafah crossing is one step of many that must be made to make Gaza "disengagement" into an opportunity for peace. The next challenge is to address the remaining obstacles to the movement of people and goods, including the creation of a territorial link between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the re-building of Gaza's airport and the removal of the devastating internal closure regime in the West Bank. Moving beyond Gaza, the big political issues still remain: the status of Jerusalem, a solution for over five million Palestinian refugees, water allocation, security, borders, economic issues and settlements.
There is much to be done, and the time to reach a viable peace is now. Conditions on the ground today allow for successful third-party mediation that can move us ahead on the path to Palestinian-Israeli peace. We have a ceasefire agreed to by Palestinian factions and the quietest period for Israelis in the last five years, proof that Israeli settlers can be easily evacuated from the occupied Palestinian territory, and upcoming Palestinian and Israeli elections that will bring peace to the forefront of public debate. The "day after" offers a chance to jump-start the peace process and solve this conflict.
But time is not on our side. By the end of 2006, Israel will have completed its wall deep inside Palestinian territory and expanded its West Bank settlements, rendering a viable two-state solution almost impossible. Third parties can play critical roles in pushing the peace process forward.
First, Wolfensohn, the United States and the EU should ensure that the agreements brokered last week by Rice are fully implemented, and maintain efforts to see that Israeli obstacles to Palestinian movement are removed. The UN and the World Bank both consider the internal closure regime in the West Bank a direct cause of the humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Second, third parties must see that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement are lifted before the Palestinian Legislative Council's elections in January. Free elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, are critical to Palestinian state-building, and will create a democratic institution that will give President Mahmoud Abbas broad support for his calls for an immediate return to talks with Israel. There cannot be a meaningful vote without campaigns, and campaigners can't campaign if they can't move freely.
Finally, third-parties can strengthen the road map by ensuring a real freeze on Israeli settlements, and creating and enforcing a timetable for negotiations. The road map called for permanent status negotiations in 2005, though none were initiated.
Rafah is only a small step. Many more such steps must be taken before we reach peace. But a solution to this conflict can be achieved only through balanced and committed third-party involvement. We must not miss this chance to give future generations the peace my generation was denied.
(Saeb Erekat is chief Palestinian negotiator.)