-- Efforts to reach a settlement aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will in all probability be postponed until after the Iraqi crisis. This delay -- together with the time needed to prepare for upcoming elections in Israel -- provides a political time span in which to lay the groundwork for the next stage of negotiations with the Palestinians.
In my view, there are two important lessons that need to be drawn from the previous round.
The first is that a decision on what comes first and what comes later in negotiations needs to be avoided, whether it be demanding an end to terrorism before negotiating on a permanent settlement or calling for reforms in Palestinian government as a prerequisite to a cease-fire.
All the components are interdependent, which makes preconditions meaningless. The departing Israeli government linked negotiations for permanent peace with a halt to terror. At the beginning, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for "seven days of quiet," something that never materialized. Thus, in effect, the fate of the negotiations was delivered to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In such circumstances, a single suicide bomber who succeeds in gaining access to a settlement and kills a large number of civilians can bring negotiations to an end.
The second is that it is very hard to put a stop to terror without the cooperation of the Palestinians. They are familiar with the breeding ground of terror and know who its perpetrators are -- more than we do. The chance that they will cooperate with us (cooperate, not collaborate) is remote unless they can identify a vested interest in such cooperation, namely a political horizon. If the goal is to mobilize maximum effort in the fight against terror, a political goal acceptable to both sides is vital. And a political goal can be created only by political negotiations.
For negotiations to be fruitful, there must be reforms in the Palestinian government, so that Israel can become convinced it is dealing with a reliable partner. A reliable partner cannot be represented by one individual given to whims. A responsible leadership distinguished by sound government practices is imperative.
Hence it is necessary to operate in three spheres at the same time: fight terror, engage in negotiations, effect reforms. I have discussed this matter of late with high-profile Palestinian leaders and was given the impression that they were prepared to undertake this three-pronged endeavor. It must be kept in mind that the Palestinians cannot advance their objectives -- a Palestinian state and return of territories -- without international aid, both for financial reasons and reasons of establishing their legitimacy. Israel, too, needs international aid, primarily to ensure that agreements with the Palestinians are a reflection of the international position.
The road map proposed by the American government has three stations. Moving from one station to another would be conditional on the results obtained at each, according to a predetermined sequence. I would prefer to see three parallel roads, on which traffic moves at full speed, rather than stations that put brakes on potential headway.
Another lesson concerns reforms in the Palestinian Authority. An opinion has been voiced from far and sundry -- also from some sources in the Arab world -- that Yasser Arafat is no longer relevant and needs to be replaced. The Europeans and Arabs have demanded the appointment of a prime minister, with Arafat in a solely representative position. This has never materialized -- in part because of a mistake we made when we forced Arafat into a corner of his compound in Ramallah, thus reviving support for him among many Palestinians. The perception that outside forces could, as it were, determine who would be the Palestinian leader or leaders proved to be erroneous. Arafat remained in place and retained his authority.
A call for reforms in the system of government therefore makes better sense than focusing all the criticism on one individual, despite the reality that the Palestinian Authority has been weakened by the control of its policy, security and finances being placed in the hands of a single person. Arafat has headed the authority for nine years, in the course of which there has been a deterioration in all fields -- political, security and economic -- both on the Palestinian side and ours.
The lesson to be drawn needs to be pragmatic: Change the system, because the fight is not against an individual but against a system -- Arafat's system. Arafat stood at the head of the Palestinian revolution. It transpired that what is suitable for a revolution is not appropriate for governing a state. Only by moving from the arbitrariness of a revolution to the principles of a state can the status of the person at the head of the system change.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long one, testing the endurance of both sides. The pace must be stepped up and a solution found that is acceptable to most of the countries of the world, and to the greater part of the Israeli and Palestinian populations: two enlightened states one alongside the other, in a Middle East whose economic achievements surmount the causes of strife.
The writer is a former prime minister of Israel.