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Nabil Shaath: Back to the Table

Negotiating is the only chance for peace.

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the spiraling violence in the Middle East is the breakdown in dialogue between the peacemakers on each side. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent confession that he does not believe in permanent peace came as no surprise to Palestinians. He is, after all, the man who opposed the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and who voted in the Knesset against Israel's historic peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985 and the Hebron agreement in 1997. He did not even vote in favor of Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. Nevertheless, his public rejection of permanent peace further dashed the hopes of those on both sides who still believe a lasting peace is possible.

Despite the breakdown in trust and confidence created by the continuing violence, I can attest that a majority of Palestinians yearn to get back to the negotiating table as equal partners in the quest for permanent peace. But there must be someone across the table who shares this goal. Sharon has declared that no negotiations can go forward until the violence ends, even as he escalates that violence.

At some point, Sharon will learn that, as much as he may desire it, he will not be able to starve and shell the Palestinians into submission. At some point, he will have to accept that a return to peace and stability requires changes in the status quo, such as withdrawal of Israel's army from populated Palestinian areas; a halt to Israeli settlement expansion; implementation of existing interim agreements; and relief from Israel's economic suffocation of the Palestinians.

Steps such as these, which have been recommended by the independent Mitchell Committee, are the only way to end the violence. Demanding that Palestinian leaders call for an end to violence without addressing the underlying cause of such violence -- military occupation -- is a nonstarter.

But it is questionable whether Sharon really wants an end to violence. For a return to stability on the ground would inevitably lead to a return to the quest for a permanent peace. And, as he has made clear, Sharon does not believe in permanent peace. His vision of a settlement includes the retention (and expansion) of Israeli settlements, the return of at most 42 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, no recognition of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and no solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees. Of course, he also seeks a state of "nonbelligerency" -- so that Israel can continue its occupation of Palestinian lands in peace and tranquility.

Sharon's dream is destined to remain just that, a dream. For there is in fact no alternative for either side but to return to where we left off at Taba. In the dying days of the Barak government, we and the Israelis achieved remarkable progress in defining the boundaries of a mutually acceptable permanent agreement. Even in the context of ongoing unrest, we were able for the first time to envision a solution that would meet the requirements of both sides. There was even a breakthrough on the issue of Palestinian refugees, in many ways the most difficult issue of all: For the first time in 50 years, Israeli officials acknowledged a degree of responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis. And we made clear our continued commitment to U.N. resolutions that call for two distinct states in historic Palestine.

The progress made at Taba proved that Barak's offer at Camp David -- which would have created a patchwork Palestinian state completely surrounded and controlled by Israel -- was not, as Barak insisted at the time, as far as Israel could go. His "take-it-or-leave-it" approach at Camp David contributed greatly to the profound Palestinian frustration that helped fuel the recent intifada. Only by returning to the negotiating table as true partners in peace can we bring our dreams to fruition.

In 1988, and again at Madrid in 1991 and Oslo in 1993, the Palestinian leadership accepted Israel's right to live in peace inside its pre-1967 internationally recognized borders based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, with mutually agreed-upon modifications. What we want has not changed. We realize that because of the recent turmoil, we must again convince the Israeli people that we have no designs beyond the pre-1967 borders.

But Israelis need to again convince us that their designs on our land and resources are over; that they truly seek to end the occupation; and that they are ready to negotiate with us as partners, not as rulers, as occupiers, as colonizers.

We are ready to work tirelessly with Israel in the pursuit of a true and lasting peace. The Mitchell Report, already supported by the Palestinians and the United States, offers a reasonable way back to the negotiating table. But Sharon's vision of peace is a recipe for war; unless he becomes serious about the pursuit of peace, none of us will be at the negotiating table for long.

In the meantime, nothing would bolster the peacemakers more than to hear President Bush formally endorse the Mitchell Report and recommit the United States to the principles of the Madrid Summit, convened by his father a decade ago. These are the principles we and the Israelis were in the process of implementing at Taba. They remain the only basis for permanent peace.

The writer is minister of planning and international cooperation in the Palestinian Authority and a principal member of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Taba talks.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company