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Time For A New Script In The Middle East

This column was written by Shlomo Avineri, former Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Yitzhak Rabin. He is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University, and author of "The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx," "Israel and the Palestinians," and "The Making of Modern Zionism."

When President Obama will meet Israel's Prime Minister this week, they will need to ask themselves why the Middle East peace process, going on since the 1993 Israel-PLO Oslo Accords, has failed to achieve its aim: reconciliation between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.

Conventional wisdom maintains that it would be helpful if Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, would publicly accept a two-state solution. Yet Israel's previous center-left government, headed by Ehud Olmert, was committed to this formula, negotiated with Palestinian Authority - yet no agreement was reached, despite efforts like the US-inspired "road map" or the Annapolis meeting. Obviously formulaic and declaratory statements are not enough; thinking outside the box is required.

Both sides can be easily blamed for the deadlock. On some seminal issues - borders, settlements, security, refugees, Jerusalem - the gap between even the most moderate positions on both sides is very deep. Moreover, since Hamas violently ousted Abu Mazen's Fatah from the Gaza Strip, the ongoing Palestinian civil war means that the Palestinians lack today a legitimate authority. With the Palestinians unable to agree among themselves on a minimal consensus, and their contending militias shooting at each other, how can peace be achieved between them and Israel?

Yet a more fundamental issue is at stake. The Oslo process envisaged building a Palestinian state from the top down: establish a Palestinian Authority, hand over territory to it, provide it with funding and arms, hold elections - and a Palestinian nation-state would emerge.

But this is not what happened. With a weak civil society, and no institutional traditions of either self-government or political pluralism, the Palestinian Authority emerged as an authoritarian and corrupt structure, boasting seven competing security services yet unable to provide security or deliver necessary services to ordinary Palestinians. The election victory of Hamas in 2006, and the ensuing civil war, was an outcome of this failure at nation-building.

A change of paradigm is now needed: instead of a futile attempt to build a Palestinian state from the top down, efforts should concentrate on building it from the bottom up. The good news is that there are encouraging signs this is already happening, but because it is incremental and non-dramatic, it is far war from the glare of publicity.

The credit for this goes to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and to US General Keith Dayton - respectively, the plenipotentiary of the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN) and the security advisor to the Palestinian Authority. Over the last two years they have focused on institution-building in three West Bank districts - Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron. Here local authorities were supplied with direct funding and advice; chambers of commerce became the backbone of local trade and industry; an independent bourgeoisie emerged; police were trained (in Jordan) and now function effectively, not as thuggish militias; business relations with adjacent Israeli regions have been re-established. Consequently, Israeli military presence has been greatly diminished, with law and order handled professionally by Palestinian forces.

This is still a far cry from what one would like to see at the end of the road - an independent, and functioning, Palestinian state. But this empowering of an effective local leadership, now created, for the first time, the building blocks necessary for Palestinian nation-building. There are no short-cuts.

This development should be encouraged - accompanied by an insistence that Israel stop its settlements activities. Instead of vacuous declarations, such a measured process will continue the effective transfer of power to the Palestinians, while also showing the Israelis that an emerging Palestinian polity does not necessarily threaten them.

Such an approach will also give all sides the ability to confront the issue of Iranian nuclear development, which because of its enormous strategic regional significance, cannot be linked to the minutiae of Israeli-Palestinian developments. All this calls for new paradigms of thought, committed not to repeat the failures of the past.

By Shlomo Avineri
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