Ziad Asali
Cornell University
November 4, 2004 - 1:00am

Last year, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Ithaca and enjoyed the hospitality of Watermargin. The idyllic surroundings, which I assume most of you take for granted, and the kind and inquisitive reception by your students as I addressed them, has created in my mind an association of Cornell with pleasant and soothing memories. So when Professor Michelle Campos asked me to come to Cornell, all we needed to discuss was when, because I could not resist visiting these gorges again. I am truly glad to be here and to have the opportunity to talk to you, and to listen to your views, about a subject that is of great interest to me.

As we agreed on the timing, right after our national elections, we could hardly have anticipated the confluence of factors that makes this historical moment one of singular uncertainty. One of these is the political turmoil in Israel over the Gaza Disengagement plan, which has not been resolved by the vote in Knesset in its favor, and the other is the acute deterioration of the health of Yasser Arafat, and his departure from Palestine, with seismic implications for Palestinian policy and politics. All prognostications at this time are fraught with danger, and are better called guesswork. I will take a stab at this later on in my speech.

Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, was asked by Peter Jennings in a televised interview on the evening news on September, 20, 2004, if he thought that the United States could lose the war on terror, Musharraf answered, "Well, if you don’t go addressing political disputes, yes. That is a possibility.” When pressed as to what he thought the principal political dispute that must be addressed was, Musharraf’s answer was, “First of all, Palestine. Because I think that has the maximum negative perspective all around the Muslim World, whether they are concerned or not. There is unanimous sympathy for the Palestinians against the Israelis. And the United States is seen or perceived as an Israeli supporter and totally against Muslims. So I think this is the one which needs to be resolved immediately.”

Now, President Musharraf is arguably one of America’s most, if not the most, important allies in the war against terror, a man who has survived several assassination attempts and plots, who lives in the Bin Laden neighborhood of Afghanistan and Waziristan, is the leader burdened with dealing with the intractable problem of Kashmir that pits his country against a nuclear adversary in India, and is at the vortex of the fight against poverty, fanaticism and terror in his own country. He is a survivor and a seasoned leader who earned the respect of friend and foe. His capital, Karachi, is separated from Jerusalem by five countries and nearly two thousand miles. For this man to unhesitatingly name the Palestinian conflict as the primary dispute that needs to be resolved immediately is a most telling statement.

The most significant weapons in the hands of terrorists are the issues they use to recruit and behind which they take cover. The Palestine question could not be more appealing for the terror masters to appropriate. It touches the core forces that shape all of us before we develop the ability to reason and reflect – forces like our history, faith, race, ethnicity, civilization, culture, country and geography. Add to this the incendiary mix of a sense of victimization, economic deprivation, land expropriation and images of death, destruction and humiliation flashing daily on satellite TV screens and you can get a sense of the value of this issue to adopt and to mobilize.

The majority of world powers, as well as majority of the people surveyed globally, have arrived at an international consensus, which has been defined but not implemented, and is known as the Historic Compromise. It is outlined in President Clinton’s letter to the parties in the waning days of his presidency in 2001. This compromise is summed up as follows:

- Two States, living side by side, in peace with an end to the conflict.
- Borders are based on those before 1967, with mutually agreed upon modifications.
- A shared Jerusalem, with Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. And Jewish Jerusalem as capital of Israel.
- A solution of the 1948 refugee problems that redresses their grievances without compromising the characters of both states based on international legality. These include compensation, mutually agreed upon repatriation and relocation as well as an acknowledgement of the rights the Palestinians have for losses sustained in the catastrophe that befell them in 1948.
- End of occupation and evacuation of settlements.
- A Marshall Plan to build the foundations of Palestine, and the foundations of peace.

This formulation preserves the core needs of both people. Israel will have a state with secure and defined borders at peace and the Palestinians will have their own secure and guaranteed state serving as a home for all Palestinians who wish to live in it.

The price for the Israelis in this compromise is to give up on the concept of Eretz Israel, or Greater Israel, with its expansive territorial ambitions and to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. For the Palestinians the price is to accept the loss of 78% of their land by abandoning claims of the areas defined by the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Claims to the whole land, mostly articulated with passion by religious advocates based on interpretations of Holy Texts on all sides, are a recipe for an endless bloody conflict and have to be disowned by the majority of both peoples. This is the crux of the substance of peace.

The will of the majority, expressed in this compromise, has been thwarted by that of a minority on both sides. The minority on either side has had the political clout, and has not hesitated to act decisively, to derail all political initiatives for peace.

Violence, mostly against civilians, has been used by these forces as an effective veto, as well as an educational tool, about the futility of compromise. Hardening of the position of the public, and weakening of the peace camp on both sides are direct results of the calculated use of violence that diminishes hope. There is a paradoxical congruity of purposes of people opposed to a compromise – both sides think that time is on their side. The Israeli opposition thinks that if they hang tough and hold on to the West Bank, the Palestinians will give up and the world will forget about them and move on. The Palestinian opposition thinks of Israel as a Crusader outpost that will in time, perhaps a century or two, meet the fate of the last Crusade of a thousand years ago, at the hands of an Islamic power. In short, both views write the same prescription for a bloody century.

This conflict has generated the longest lasting occupation in modern times. The role that ethnic and religious zealots on all sides have played in its continuation is a testament to the power of mixing religion with politics. This power, if it goes unchecked and unconfronted by the Rule of Law and reason, can be as destructive as all weapons known to man.

The United States, as the only standing superpower, with its established constitutional and historical tradition of the Rule of Law, and the separation of Church and State, is uniquely qualified to act as an intermediary in bringing this conflict to a close. It is however, not merely a neutral and disinterested party that is called upon to lend its good offices for the task. It is a country with global interests, with its own moral and economic imperatives and with a dynamic and contested political system that yields to pressures and counter pressures. It is fair to say, that all these ingredients have been at play in shaping the United States policy on the Palestinian Israeli conflict. The role of the honest broker, articulated for sometime, has yielded to that of a patron and protector of Israel. The creation of a Palestinian State, and all the attendant benefits that may accrue to the Palestinians, are predicated on the security and assured existence of Israel with its unique mix of a Jewish and democratic character as defined by Israel. It is clear that the historic compromise outlined earlier does provide for this stipulation. The questions that need to be answered now are: Are the parties themselves capable of working out the mechanisms of the desired deal? Is the United States convinced of the need for a lasting peace? And lastly, is it willing and able to exert itself to bring the whole conflict to an end?

The Israelis and Palestinians have been involved in a poisonous feud, with an escalating thirst for revenge fueled by blood and sorrow, inflicted by emboldened extremists in ascendance on both sides.

The Palestinian body politic has been dysfunctional. It is fragmented and plagued by erosion of hope and encroaching lawlessness. Occupation, with its severe and destructive measures that adopted collective humiliation as a policy, has delivered withering blows to the Palestinian society and its institutions. Incompetence, coupled with corruption, loss of control over violence, and the rise of lawlessness and extremism, have all contributed to the loss of moral authority of its historic leadership. These factors combined can make it very difficult to negotiate and deliver an acceptable compromise. Recent developments, with possible changes in leadership, may present an opportunity, but that, by itself, is insufficient.

The Israelis on the other hand, have witnessed an emerging and widening clout of extremist, xenophobic and militant forces coalescing around the settler movement and committed to thwart compromise. The murder of Prime Minister Rabin for his serious commitment to a compromise led eventually to the ascendance of Mr. Sharon, one of the most militant Israeli Prime Ministers and a historic opponent of compromise. The passionate resistance to Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza, with loud public calls for his murder, is an indication of the difficulties that Israel faces in making the serious compromises needed for peace. Significant political realignments, which may very well be under way, are needed for Israel to be ready for the kind of negotiations required for attaining peace.

The recent trends, in both sides may open up the door for serious political developments, however, it is reasonable to conclude, that these two parties, left on their own devices, will not be able to achieve peace. This conflict has become more central, less comfortable to talk about, and more defined in terms of the disparity of power between the occupied and occupier since September 11th. Paradoxically, there is a genuine fear in Israel and in the United States for the long-term security of Israel precisely at the time that Israel has achieved military superiority over all the combined forces of the Arab States. The sources for the perceived long-term threat are Islamic powers motivated by the newly infused call for Jihad unleashed by the Iranian Revolution and by the ingathering of Islamic militants in Afghanistan who fought successfully against the Soviet Union. The goal of the new Islamist militant movement is to unite over a billion people under the banner of Islam and to confront the West and its surrogates.

Understanding this threat, without designating an order of probability to it, makes it more urgent for Israel to resolve the core issue between it and the Palestinians bilaterally. The Palestinians, chafing under the longest occupation in modern times, weakened and bloodied, can and would settle for a viable state to end this conflict, and with it, their claim to the land they lost in 1948. Israel, at the height of its military power, and perhaps, at the beginning of a political decline in its international standing, has clear incentives to make such a deal with the Palestinians in order to avoid a century of confrontation with over a billion Muslims. The Arabs, and Muslims, can hardly have a claim to settle if the Palestinians accept a final peace settlement.

It is not a forgone conclusion that the United States is indeed convinced of the need and urgency of resolving this issue. Several Presidents have stated their support for the general outline of the compromise, and most recently, President Bush came out publicly in support of a Palestinian state. However, the argument has not been made, nor politically endorsed by any administration, for the great need to resolve this issue because of our own national interest. The rising wave of global terror that erupted dramatically on September 11, originating from the Arab and Muslim world, should indeed be confronted by force and without compromise. However, to leave its causes and consequences unexamined is political malpractice. It is quite unlikely that Bin Laden had Palestine in mind when he launched his attack. However, he has latched on to it since then, and we have seen evidence of that in his most recent TV appearance during this campaign. He fully understands the resonance of this theme with the masses. President Musharraf, arguably the staunchest and the most exposed ally in this global fight against terror, understands this too. He is willing, courageously, to state his position to a worldwide audience. Depriving the Bin Ladens of this world of this issue will deny them their single most effective tool for recruitment and support. There is little doubt that terrorists will persist for a long time after the Palestine question is laid to rest. However, they could no longer count on the support of angry people frustrated by our policy on Palestine. Resolving it is necessary but insufficient in our quest for stability and peace. The global atmospherics and discourse will be dramatically ameliorated. Leaders will be able to make the needed compromises without fear of punishment for “selling out”. It is for this reason, above all, that we need to commit our energy and resources to act to resolve it.

Terror, amongst other things, is a tool by ruthless leadership to manipulate the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised in order to change the status quo. Alleviating poverty and giving a structure and hope to the lives of the people by effective economic measures, will detract from the appeal of its advocates. The Palestine-Israel conflict has been a stumbling block on the road to developing normal trade relations between the 1.2 billion Muslims, three hundred million of which are Arabs, and the West, especially the United States. Normalizing trade relations is a prerequisite for development if done with proper safeguards. Pursuing a serious policy aiming towards improving the life conditions of the people of these countries is an essential safeguard against the nihilistic and destructive tools of terror. The goal should be to create employment opportunities and strengthen the purchasing power of the people rather than their leadership. The prospect of opening up new and vast markets for our goods and products should not escape the attention of our businesspeople.

The commitment to spread freedom, to foster democracy, and to advocate values of individual and societal fulfillment and prosperity, is appropriately articulated. This commitment, made because of our own self-interest, has to be credible and to be perceived as such. The short cuts of the past have led us to the present. It is in this context again that a genuine policy to build a constitutional, democratic, accountable state in Palestine, committed to building institutions based on the rule of law will bear most fruit. The Palestinian society is not encumbered by a history of a state and its intrusive might. Civil society is vibrant and critical, with more active NGOs than most neighboring states. The public is clamoring for elections and participation. Indeed, the events of the past week or two make these elections suddenly attractive, practical and the best legitimizing tool for the new leadership. The Palestinians are some of the most educated people in the Middle East, with a Diaspora that lead them to all four corners of the world, where they learned and participated and prospered. As a result, they are especially qualified to build a vibrant democracy. Nothing is more consistent with our values of freedom and rule of law than assisting the Palestinians to build their own system based on these principles.

Considering the significance of the resolution of this conflict, and the fact that it enjoys the support of the Quartet, the Arab League, the majority of the Palestinians and Israelis as well as their governments, let alone the support of 70% of Americans, American Jews and Arab Americans, it is nothing short of astonishing that it was not even featured as a topic worthy of discussion in the Presidential foreign policy debate. It has hardly received any attention in the national Presidential campaign. In a significant policy statement, President Bush reiterated in April of this year his support of a two-state solution as he reaffirmed the U.S. steadfast support for Israel’s security. He also called for a new Palestinian leadership not compromised by terror. He committed the U.S. to support the establishment of Palestinian State that is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent. He welcomed the disengagement from Gaza and some settlements in the West Bank as real progress and as a bold initiative. He added that it would be unrealistic to expect a full withdrawal to the 1949 armistice line. This takes into account the demographics and the new population centers, otherwise known as facts on the ground. He accepted the barrier as a security, and not a political border, and stated that it should be temporary rather than permanent.

During this campaign, Senator Kerry endorsed and supported all these new positions adopted by President Bush in his April 14, 2004 speech. He made it a point to restate his personal, emotional and deep commitment to Israel. He gave the following promise to the people of Israel:

- We will never pressure you to compromise your security.
- We will never expect you to negotiate for peace without a credible partner.
- And we will always work to provide the political and military and economic help for your fight against terror.

The national debate about this issue could not been have been more superficial nor less substantive. It is summed up by a common strategy of heaping calumny on the Palestinian leadership and declaring Arafat an unacceptable partner for negotiations, which practically meant no negotiation with any Palestinian. Palestinian terror had to cease before negotiations, which again meant no negotiations. No criticism was directed against Israel’s harsh occupation policy, or against building the wall/barrier/fence on Palestinian land or its unceasing building of settlements. The commitment to Israel's security was stated on every occasion the subject came up, which is not often, and the Palestinian security was never mentioned. Palestinian civilian casualties – “collateral damage” — inflicted by the Israeli army were always seen as retaliation against terror. All in all, a packaged program meant to avoid criticism by anyone who remotely identifies with the Israeli government. Most of the Jewish and Zionist organizations found little to criticize in either candidate’s policy statements. Some leaders of the emerging Fundamentalist Christians thundered their divine wrath against the very possibility of compromise and wise heads nodded in profound acquiescence.

Now that the silly season is behind us, what can we look for? Much will depend on where the Palestinian question will fit in the strategy of the U.S. in the war on terror in general, the war on Iraq, and the perception of the President and his team of its centrality in reshaping and remolding the Middle East of the future. The new political realities in Palestine will make it possible to engage in serious negotiations, and may indeed provide the counterpart to the forces in Israel that is serious about peace. The Unites States may find the new political realities easier to reconcile with the national interest.

Much will depend on the definition of the national interest. If it is defined by a security-minded, global war against terrorism, with Palestinian acts of violence falling squarely under this rubric, it is likely that we will see a green light to Israel to pursue a military solution postponing, or more flamboyantly embalming, the whole project of the Palestinian state and all the vexing final status issues associated with it. The Gaza Disengagement plan will be the only plan in play for years to come and all the political discourse and jockeying will center on its implementation and its implications. The future of the West Bank and Jerusalem will be left in doubt to be determined by the ever- changing facts on the ground. The new Palestinian leadership will be allowed to play a role confined to Gaza and some northern parts of the West Bank with an indefinite conversation about the rest.

A more benign, compassionate if you will, definition of the national interest, will have to be more comprehensive than this and will address the political, economic and cultural dimensions of the Middle East policy. This definition will lead to the creation of a viable Palestine by identifying and empowering legitimate Palestinian leadership, and it means working with the Israelis to create this state. Committing to this goal publicly, the United States and Israel will have little difficulty finding the right partners. A long, drawn out period of implementation, needed to maximize security, and to generate attitudinal, economic and political changes, will be tolerated if the end game is clearly stated at the outset with early visible and concrete steps taken. Empowering the new Palestinian leadership, in concrete terms by concrete measures, reflected on the daily life of the Palestinian people, is the single most significant step towards peace and stability.

Resolving the Palestine - Israel conflict will need the personal commitment of the President, which would be best expressed by his appointing an envoy empowered to see this project through. The person selected will have to have solid credentials and will need to enjoy the full confidence of the President. President Bush, elected with a 3.5 million vote margin of victory, with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, has the mandate and power to implement his policy. He will be able to make his policy choices based on his vision of the national interest without political considerations.
National interest is not an objective scientific reality. It is based on choices made by the political leaders who are the winners of the multitude of contending and competing forces in the nation. The Palestine-Israel conflict in this country has reflected the influence of a coalition of forces that cuts across many segments of the nation in support of Israel. This coalition had deep roots in the Democratic Party as well as serious support in the Republican Party, The business community as well as Labor Unions, the defense establishment as well as white and black liberals, Fundamentalist Christians as well as Jews, the media and academia.

It is possible, in theory, to think of a coalition of forces that share a common interest in a two-state solution. Those who want a safe and secure Israel as well as those who want to create a peaceful and secure Palestine share this goal above all. These strange bedfellows should be at the core of this alliance. People who are interested in peace, in stemming the tide of extremism and militant religious fundamentalists of every stripe, human rights groups who see the prospect of a constitutional and democratic Palestine as template for the Arab World, corporations and business people who stand to make profit in a stabilized Middle and Near East, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the moderate wing of the Republican Party, the Civil Rights community, various ethnic communities, as well as the academic and intellectual community the C-SPAN crowd- that has an understanding of the implications of policy and strategy - all these groups are potential allies in this single-issue coalition that has yet to emerge. No link has tied these groups together as of yet.

The academic and intellectual community, arguably the societal equivalent of the central nervous system, has the unique ability to germinate the ideas and motivate the youth to guide this movement. The budding confrontation and polarization on campuses, generally driven by idealism and a quest for justice, with a large dose of tribalism and passion, should be channeled into a serious movement to achieve a defined achievable objective rather than to score debating points. In so doing it can make a singular contribution to world peace. What is needed on campuses is an alliance for a two-state solution. At the core of this alliance, or coalition, should be Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Muslim and all American members of the academic community who are serious about peace. It is hard to ask members of the academic community to engage less in scoring debating points, and more in the hard work of building a genuine political coalition and working to impact policy, but it is important.

This coalition can be built around a single issue, the Historic Compromise. Talk of a bi-national, or one state, a la South Africa, is yet one more model for non-peace. The Jewish people of Israel, who have dreamt for millennia of their state and fought for it, will not peacefully surrender it after losing a debate. The Palestinians who have suffered exile, occupation and second-class citizenship for two generations should settle for nothing less than a viable and free state of their own. The future relations of these two states should be left to future generations. To call for a bi-national state now is to resign us to decades of conflict and this choice has to be understood by all. It is a choice and not a destiny. The energy of young men and women can best be spent to define the elements of the Historic Compromise, to carve out a better future for these two peoples, rather than to dwell on the pain of the present and the past, and by doing so to perpetuate it.

It is hard in the passions of the moment, with so much suffering and pain, to speak of a dispassionate compromise. There are however new political realities in Israel and in Palestine that make this issue less likely to ignore, and, more optimistically, less intractable to tackle. The presence in the White House, of a decisive leader, with a strong mandate can provide the indispensable ingredient of the arbiter of peace.

In Israel, the disengagement plan has pitted the super-Hawk and father of the settlements, Sharon, against the settlers and their supporters in his own party. It has made it necessary for Sharon to seek an alliance with the Labor and other peace groups and to confront his own religious extremist past supporters. Regardless of his intentions, that are suspect by the majority of the Palestinians who see this as a ploy to hold on to the West Bank, he is creating a serious challenge to the metaphysical hold on the land. This will have ramifications for the future.

The Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, the only leader they have known for the past four decades has fallen ill and has been moved to Paris. The long and deep shadow that he cast on Palestinian, and regional, politics will be cast over politicians of lesser stature, if not more skill. The challenge for the Palestinians and their leaders is to hold the supremacy of their established institutions, and to effectuate a political transition under occupation without violence or civil strife: A most challenging feat.

These new political realities offer a unique mix of variables that can be utilized to bring about compromise, negotiations and peace. They just as plausibly could lead to chaos, and worse, persistent conflict with global ramifications. Decisions made by our newly elected president, with the prodding political support of an engaged and committed coalition for compromise, can translate the promise of the moment to a reality of peace. It is left to us, to our country, the only Superpower left standing, and to our people, to pursue this promise for the sake of global peace, and because it is in our interest, and also, because it is the right thing to do.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017