In connection with the Israeli elections, Stephen Cohen and Daniel Pipes met at a Middle East Briefing in New York City to debate the future of the Oslo process and the prospect of peace in the Middle East. The debate was moderated by Serge Schmemann of The New York Times. Stephen Cohen is an activist in "Track Two Diplomacy," which seeks to foster non-official contacts between hostile peoples. He founded the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in 1979, and has served as its president ever since. He is also a National Scholar of the Israel Policy Forum. Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. A former government official, Mr. Pipes is the author of twelve books and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Cohen: Implement Oslo
Israel cannot afford another failed prime minister. With the election of Ariel Sharon, it is important to consider how he might achieve success, and not collapse, as his two predecessors (Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) did while trying to implement the Oslo accords.
Success depends on three variables. First, Sharon must ward off foes from within his own Likud party who seek to unseat him. Second, he must ward off those from the Labor party who wish to do the same. And third, he must handle the Shas party, which has been the Achilles heel of his two failed predecessors.
To achieve these goals, Sharon must carefully and directly communicate with those around him as he works to implement his vision of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. This is precisely the arena where his predecessors have failed. Additionally, given that his approach may not fit into the way Palestinians see things, he will need to be flexible.
Sharon will have to meet the three major demands of the Israeli public: personal security, national unity, and progress towards peace. More broadly, it needs emphasis that the basic premises of the Oslo accords are still accepted by the Israeli people. That explains why Ariel Sharon will almost certainly have to disappoint his right-wing supporters.
In the end, Sharon must work toward several goals: maintain mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis, reach an agreement with the Palestinians through diplomacy and not violence, and help the Palestinian Authority evolve into a more viable government.
Ariel Sharon was not elected to turn his back on peace. Israelis want security and a tougher approach to negotiation, so that war does not erupt in the region. Israel must insist upon negotiations whereby it fulfills its obligations and ensures that the other side fulfills theirs. Indeed, in the end, this process makes sense. However, both sides must remain patient.
It is a fallacy for Israel to believe that more power equals more security. Israel must be strong but not use force. Wisdom and patience are now what is needed in order for things to change. This conflict took 100 years to develop; solving it will take years, as well. Wisdom and patience is what is now needed. And if Ariel Sharon is not careful, he will meet the same fate as his two predecessors who lacked these two important traits.
Pipes: End Oslo
There are four questions to cover. Where do things stand today in the region? Who is Ariel Sharon? What are the implications of the Israeli elections? What shape should U.S. foreign policy take in the region?
The state of the region. With the breakdown of Arab-Israeli negotiations, the goal is no longer to achieve peace but to avoid war. Arab-Israeli relations are far worse today than they were seven years ago at the time of the signing of the Oslo accords. The winds of war are blowing despite calls by regional leaders for calm. This calls for an Israeli strategy of deterrence, reminiscent of the Israeli defense policy before 1993. Fear of Israel's military power is what is needed to deter its enemies from a conflict that they will likely lose.
Ariel Sharon. Sharon may be good news for Israel. His reputation as a hard-liner makes him a one-man deterrence force. Saddam Husayn recently threatened to bomb Israel continuously for six months; if anyone can dampen such threats, it's Sharon. Because Israel is perceived as weak, Sharon may be exactly what the region needs to avoid war. In truth, however, we don't know what Sharon plans in detail, for he ran on a vague platform.
The election. It is clear that Israel has not opted out of Oslo. The support for Shimon Peres, who was sidelined during this election, was nearly equal to that of Sharon. What this shows is the Israeli public's disapproval of Ehud Barak's negotiating methods (running towards final status and forgoing interim agreements) rather than the Oslo accords, themselves. It appears that the Oslo process will continue under Sharon, perhaps in a different form.
U.S. policy. For the United States, war avoidance is the crucial objective. Peace is something that will have to wait until better weather. Until then, the potential enemies of Israel must be deterred. From a U.S. perspective, war will be avoided when Israel's foes question their strength vis-à-vis Israel. Nobody wants to see a blunder like 1967, when the Arab world grossly overestimated its strength.
More and more people are jumping off the Oslo train. Those die-hards that still support the process are living in a different age. Fundamentally speaking, you can't have peace between non-democracies. You can, however, have non-war. This is the best we can hope for: to avoid war is an achievement. Pushing for more, as we have already seen, may be a big mistake.
Cohen: Arab Leaders against War
Most of Israel's enemies have no interest in war. Those who are calling for war are Saddam Husayn, and those who live in the West Bank and Gaza. Saddam wants a major war in which Iraq ushers in a sweeping Arab victory, but his is blowhard rhetoric. Israel's neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are not interested in military conflict. Mubarak made this clear at the Arab summit in Cairo in October 2000, and Syria's military is clearly in no position to get involved. Sharon must fashion a policy whereby it is recognized that there is nothing to fear. In the end, no Arab leader truly believes that Israel is weak.
Pipes: Arab Street for War
Mr. Cohen is right that the leaders of Egypt and Jordan have no interest in war but that Saddam does. He is missing the fact, however, that the Arab "street," or public opinion, wants action. Prompted by what they see on satellite television and the media, they believe that Israel has become weakened. This is due to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, Barak's empty ultimatums at the start of this latest intifada, and many other developments.
Summary account by Jonathan Schanzer, research associate at the Middle East Forum.