Dear Mr. Olmert,
I am writing you in the hope that you will take time from your busy schedule as Israel’s acting prime minister to hear one Palestinian’s hopes.
Even though your ascension to the position of prime minister came in an awkward way because of Ariel Sharon’s stroke, I believe that you have an opportunity to be part of a historic reconciliation. While I am sure you will insist that you are going to follow in the political legacy of Sharon, you have some important advantages with Palestinians that Sharon did not have.
The first advantage is that you’re not burdened with Ariel Sharon’s negative image among Palestinians and Arabs. Having been the mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years, you know the situation of Palestinians close up.
I believe that the chances for a political breakthrough in our region have never been better. On the Israeli side, your faith in the political process was demonstrated recently when you and Sharon decided unilaterally to go against your own ideology and take on the powerful settler movement.
The two of you also went against conventional thinking by breaking away from your Likud Party, greatly weakening the ideological stranglehold that Likud’s far-right central committee held on Israeli politics.
The realization that withdrawal from populated areas, and thus an end to holding another people under permanent occupation, was necessary to preserve the Jewish nature of Israel clearly brought the two of you to the center of Israeli thinking.
On a much smaller scale, significant change has been taking place on the Palestinian side as well. While I believe that the occupation, rather than the reaction to it, is the main cause of our conflict, the unilateral tahdia ("declared calm") decision by Palestinian militant groups has reduced anti-Israeli attacks mightily, which shows that Palestinians also realize the limits of their military actions.
The decision by Hamas to join the political process by participating in the upcoming legislative elections shows that even this hardline Islamic movement has concluded that our conflict needs to be addressed by political rather than military means.
WHILE I understand that you are an Israeli patriot, I believe that much can be done to reduce the tensions between our two peoples, eventually leading to genuine reconciliation and peace. As a start, priority must be given to face-to-face negotiations.
Sharon and you might have felt that unilateral action was needed in Gaza, but the withdrawal from Gaza could have produced many more benefits for both sides had it been done bilaterally.
Direct talks should concentrate on two parallel tracks. They should attempt to produce an immediate cessation of violence from both sides while simultaneously focusing on a permanent settlement of our conflict.
Contrary to territorial withdrawal, cessation of violence can be achieved only bilaterally. Both sides should commit to an end to assassinations, shelling, bombings, and any other form of attacks on the other side’s military targets and citizens. To be effective, such a cease-fire must contain a monitoring mechanism.
Neutral foreign observers should be asked to be deployed in major hot spots and be asked to identify anyone on either side who violates any of the agreement’s clauses.
Alongside this effort, vigorous negotiations on a permanent settlement should start immediately. Historically, cease-fires have survived only when they are backed by talks that both parties believe are genuine and serious.
At the same time, the atmosphere among Palestinians and their attitude toward Israel must be improved, so that we can have a political environment that supports negotiations. Improving the daily conditions of life, particularly increasing Palestinians’ freedom of travel both between Gaza and the West Bank and within the West Bank, will also go a long way in helping to create a positive atmosphere.
I truly wish you success in your responsibilities as acting prime minister and acting head of Kadima. Your efforts to move forward toward resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would generate significant improvement in the political atmosphere in the entire Middle East.
But, whatever you do in the next few months to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections, please remember that the support that Kadima has received from the Israeli public derives precisely from the fact that it has taken a moderate centrist position. So please don’t allow yourself to be drawn into pandering to Israel’s radicals and hawks. The support that you and your colleagues will get from Israelis and Arabs will depend on the resolve that you show in making serious progress in the peace process.
That process, now as before, must culminate in an independent and democratic Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel.
* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.