Israel’s early elections will pave the way for a resuscitation of the Middle East peace process. Such a revival should occur in a gradual and realistic manner. Both a continued stalemate and premature talks on a final and permanent agreement may well lead to renewed violence. Only a gradualist, two-stage approach offers a promise of success: the fulfilment of the Oslo peace process and the realisation, at last, of the two-state solution.

A revitalisation of the peace process has become possible due to a double turning-point in Israeli politics. Amir Peretz became the first Moroccan-born leader of the opposition Labour party, in an upset for Shimon Peres, the popular elder statesman. Mr Peretz’s victory accelerated the movement towards early elections. It also prompted prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud party and form his Kadima Party – a second major turning point in Israel’s political scene. Mr Sharon’s new party, at the centre-right of the Israeli political spectrum, is poised to win the ballots. The government will then face new and important opportunities.

Three possible scenarios lie ahead. The first is continuation of the status quo, under which Israel and the Palestinians would continue to co-ordinate on technical issues related to Israel’s September withdrawal from Gaza and Israel would maintain its expansion of West Bank settlements. Such a standstill would lead to violence and fail to satisfy the requirements of (Israeli) security and (Palestinian) economic recovery. Ruined peace prospects would confront the Quartet group of international mediators (the United Nations, European Union, Russia and the US) and its key Arab partners (Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) for years to come.

The second scenario envisages a one-go approach with immediate or early final status negotiations, against the backdrop of the Gaza withdrawal and in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli elections. Mr Peretz has already vowed “not to rest” until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is conclusively settled. Mr Sharon will be free to move, having left Likud behind. Such early final status negotiations, however, are both unrealistic and dangerous at this time. First, the gulf between the parties on the key issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders remains too wide and would most likely lead to a repetition of the abortive talks at Camp David in 2000, with equally disastrous consequences. A repeat of Camp David, with its central lesson that one must not bite off more than one can chew, will diminish peace prospects for years if not decades.

This leaves the last scenario, a two-stage move on the basis of a gradualist and realistic approach in full accordance with the “road map” for peace and the spirit of the 1993 Oslo peace talks. The first stage envisages a second “co-ordinated unilateral withdrawal” from the West Bank, as already promoted by Haim Ramon, an Israeli cabinet minister and member of Mr Sharon’s Kadima party.

Israel’s Gaza disengagement in September was undoubtedly a giant leap towards ending occupation of the Palestinian territories. A second disengagement would be a second giant leap consistent with the road map – still the sole peace plan that is broadly accepted by all parties – which requires further Israeli withdrawals during its second phase.

The second disengagement should result in the formal establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. The Palestinian core aspiration of self-determination and statehood must be addressed. Achievement of this goal would also provide the best foundation for ensuring Israeli demands of full security and universal recognition, and for an eventual realisation of Palestinian ambitions on the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and final borders. Final status negotiations on these issues would then take place between two states, paving the way for a comprehensive regional peace.

Thus, a further Israeli withdrawal and establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders would promise to avert the looming violence. This is the only realistic way forward. Further withdrawal is the only road for Israelis to curb violence and terror. Gradualism is the only way for Palestinians to realise their ambitions of statehood and self-determination. The early Israeli elections are thus a harbinger of great hope for a staged approach to a two-state solution in the Middle East.

The writer, one of the principal architects of the Oslo peace process and UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process until 2004, is president of the International Peace Academy

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