What little news is seeping out from the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations gives the impression that chances of reaching an agreement this year are small, even though 2008 has been described by the American, Palestinian and Israeli leaderships alike as a year of opportunity. This is the last year of the administration of US President George W. Bush and likely also for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Nevertheless, the three parties look set to fail to broker the deal to which they claim to aspire.
As a result there seem to have been some attempts to come up with creative ideas, among them trying to achieve partial results rather than a comprehensive agreement. There are a wide range of possibilities for such limited agreements--including a general framework agreement, and agreements on technical issues such as environmental, agricultural, health and other aspects of relations between the two states--that might be tackled without necessarily resolving the main issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders.
One of these attempts, it seems, is the idea of fixing the border issue first and leaving the rest to future negotiations. This might be worth considering in the light of two facts. First is the growing belief that there is no possibility of a comprehensive agreement for now. Second, the changes that are shaping the reality on the ground, notably the Israeli settlement building project, will make agreement on borders less and less likely the more time passes.
One of the reasons for the tensions that have accompanied the peace process since Oslo is the perceived motivation on behalf of both parties to influence the outcome of negotiations to their respective benefit, especially as far as determining borders is concerned. Israel is creating facts on the ground with its illegal settlements in occupied territory while the Palestinians are agitating against these settlements in order to ensure that the future borders will be as near as possible to the 1967 ones.
Thus, leaving the issue of borders subject to future negotiations will continue to instigate hostile and aggressive practices from the two sides. Many analysts and politicians have concluded, in their attempts to assess the reasons for the failure of the peace process, that the nature of the peace process is the main culprit at least as far as borders are concerned. The open-ended nature of negotiations convinced each side to keep open reserve options and motivated the parties to engage in words and deeds that prejudge the outcome of negotiations over borders, especially since that issue indirectly affects two other central issues for negotiations, settlements and Jerusalem.
An agreement on borders first can thus reduce tensions and allow for a more conducive atmosphere in which to negotiate other issues. It will also greatly reduce the hostile behavior and friction between the two sides before and during negotiations. When Israel knows that the border issue is settled it should be convinced to stop building settlements to the east of that border. And when Palestinians see that Israel is no longer consolidating its occupation and presence to the east of the borders, much of their motivation to resist the occupation and its practices will diminish. Settlers will have to start to think of choosing between moving back to their country or becoming citizens of a different state.
For Palestinians, a borders-first approach will also be seen as a test of the real intentions of the Israeli people and government. If Israel is hesitant in agreeing on borders, it will confirm suspicions among many Palestinians that Israel is using the pretexts of security and demography in order to control and annex as much occupied land as possible.
Finally, a borders-first agreement should be possible because there is a clear legal framework for where these borders are supposed to lie. Any deviation from these lines should only be made under the principle of a land swap equal in quality and quantity. Should this principle, the negotiating position that the late President Yasser Arafat took to the Camp David negotiations with the approval of the Palestinian National Council, be accepted, it should further facilitate a borders-first agreement. This in turn will constitute a significant achievement for both Israel and Palestine and will strengthen the peace camps in the two respective societies. - Published 26/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org
In recent weeks, the Israeli media has reported that both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert want Israel and Palestine to reach and publish a framework agreement on final status borders, even in the absence of consensus regarding other final status core issues such as refugees/right of return and Jerusalem. Sources close to Olmert have apparently briefed the press regarding this direction of negotiations.
Assuming Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to agree on such a partial step, it would presumably constitute a so-called "shelf agreement" whose implementation would be postponed until roadmap phase I is carried out. It might enable Olmert to pass a settler compensation bill and begin dismantling settlements and outposts (and build in those settlement blocs that become part of Israel) based on an agreed map. It would give Palestinians a clear territorial goal as an incentive to forge ahead with security arrangements. And, as an achievement for the Bush administration, it would correspond with enhanced American aid for settlement removal.
If this is indeed the direction, it is important to recognize that the parties are still too far apart in their negotiations even on the territorial issues to agree and go public. One report puts the negotiating gap between at least eight percent of the West Bank demanded by Israel and only 3.5 percent agreed by the Palestinians. This is more or less where the parties were at Camp David, leaving us to wonder what progress has actually been made. On the other hand, even that territorial gap is considerably smaller than the conceptual gaps separating the parties with regard to the Jerusalem holy basin and refugee issues.
Hence there is a certain logic justifying "territories, settlements and borders first"; it is an idea worthy of serious thought. There would appear to be both advantages and disadvantages to the idea of disclosing the details of a territorial agreement before success has been achieved concerning other final status issues. Not in all cases, though, does an advantage for Israel necessarily correspond with one for the Palestinians. In other words, this is not necessarily a win-win proposition.
On the positive side (for both parties), a border delineation agreement would signal genuine progress in peace talks and could constitute an incentive to proceed and tackle the tougher issues. It could even form the basis of a Palestinian declaration of statehood that would correspond in part to Roadmap phase I. It could conceivably be a sufficient achievement for Olmert to take to new elections (if he survives that long politically in view of corruption allegations). It would be good for Israel's international image and strike a dramatic blow in favor of the two-state solution. But even if a two-state solution failed, it would give Israel an agreed border to which eventually to withdraw unilaterally.
But at the substantive level, a West Bank-Israel border agreement would also signal that Israel and Palestine had exhausted the areas where they are capable of agreeing. Israelis could easily live with this, but not Palestinians. This is precisely why it is hard to believe that Abbas would make or acknowledge such a separate deal. Moreover if he did, he would undoubtedly be hard put to persuade the Palestinian public to accept a territorial agreement--even one based on the 1967 lines--that does not offer Palestinians at least minimal satisfaction regarding the "narrative" and religious issues of right of return and Jerusalem and does not restore Gaza and the West Bank to united Palestinian rule.
Then, too, the notion of a delayed "shelf agreement" is untested. How could Abbas defend his concessions when even implementation is postponed to an indefinite date? Suppose Israel's assessment of security dangers causes it repeatedly to postpone withdrawal to the agreed new lines, thereby posing the specter of yet another unfulfilled agreement.
Conceivably, then, Abbas would or could refuse to dignify the agreed final status map with the status of an agreement. In other words, if indeed a territorial consensus is reached, what Olmert presents as a framework agreement would be downplayed by Abbas as merely a positive step in that direction. Abbas would hope to use it to show his public that Israel is finally dismantling outposts and settlements.
All this speculation assumes that Olmert and Abbas are indeed capable of delivering an agreement of any sort, that Bush is energized enough to assist and support them, that the situation in Gaza somehow doesn't prevent Abbas from proceeding and that Israel's negotiations with Syria don't take off and overshadow those with Palestine. This implies a giant leap of faith with regard to the viability of the leaders in question. - Published 26/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
by Nabeel Kassis
The Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993 left several issues--"Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and co-operation with other neighbors and other issues of common interest"--for later negotiations that would determine permanent status.
One could argue that most of these issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, were left for later negotiations because they were simply too difficult to resolve upfront and needed much work to prepare the ground for agreement. Another argument--cynical to some but, in hindsight, not so at all to others--is that the additional work needed was in fact to create more facts on the ground and thus render those issues even more intractable and less amenable to resolution.
In any case, the issues seem to have been arranged in a descending order of difficulty, borders coming lowest on this ladder since the last two items, relations and co-operation with other neighbors and other issues of common interest, are really tangential and there is no point discussing them before the more basic issues are dealt with. With this in mind, what are the merits of settling the least difficult issue, i.e. borders, first?
Agreeing on borders and putting other issues on hold would constitute another "interim agreement". Experience tells us that this is a recipe for prolonging the process and that nothing good will come of it. In any case, one would assume that the negotiating teams would undertake to approach all permanent status issues simultaneously and in parallel and not sequentially, stating and resolving that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", probably with room for minor trade-offs when all issues are brought together.
Still, it is possible that progress in dealing with one particular issue may be quicker than with others. Agreement, however, is something else. Having said this, let us see if the issue of "borders" is amenable to faster progress.
The border issue is intuitively less difficult to resolve than the issues of Jerusalem or refugees. But it is far from easy. In fact, it is difficult enough to warrant calling resolving it "real progress". From a Palestinian point of view--and according to international law--the issue of borders is not one of determining where the borders are and delineating them since this is a matter that is already settled by the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. Hence, the borders are the armistice lines drawn in 1949, which are, by and large, the same as the lines on the eve of June 4, 1967. The issue of "borders" then becomes one of resolving details such as what to do with the no-man's land, determining border crossings, addressing the permeability of the borders between the two states, trade across borders, transit, movement of persons and goods between the two states and between Gaza and the West Bank, etc.
However, the history of negotiations and the repeated references to land swaps and ratios, tells us that the issue as tackled in real negotiations is certainly more complicated than as just described. If this is the case, then it is difficult to ascribe any value to a discussion of "borders" unless the context is defined and agreed. To be more specific, before the two parties even start to look at maps, they should have already agreed and settled all issues of principle, including that the Palestinian people should be able to freely exercise their right to self-determination on all land bounded by those borders, that within the solution of two independent sovereign states, the State of Palestine shall be recognized by the community of nations and be guaranteed to enjoy all rights and privileges as a member state of the United Nations, and that the Palestinian state shall enjoy full sovereignty over its land, natural resources, water, sub-soil, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and air space.
In such a context, one could argue that movement along the "borders" front constitutes real progress. However, all this would be of no practical consequence and should actually not be pursued as a strategy, if all the two parties are trying to achieve is a "shelf-agreement". That won't be acceptable. The principle of a comprehensive solution should remain paramount and the idea of a shelf-agreement should be shelved. Progress on "borders" would be a worthwhile pursuit, but with "no agreement until everything is agreed". - Published 26/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Nabeel Kassis is a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team and a former minister.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A secure Israel within recognized borders
by Gilead Sher
In its sixtieth year of sovereignty, Israel has neither recognized borders for all of its territory nor a constitution. Both are vital to ensure Israel's identity as the state of the Jewish people, a Zionist and democratic state that reflects the spirit of its declaration of independence. Every serving government in Israel must ask itself what steps would guarantee a solid Jewish majority within the territory of the state.
At Annapolis, three parallel processes that could serve this goal were seemingly initiated: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over final status, implementation of phase I of the roadmap and the creation of an opportunity for a broader Arab-Israel dialogue. While it may appear, based on the negotiations of 1999-2001, that the general shape of a final status agreement is known, I assume that agreement on most final status issues will not be reached in the current negotiations. To agree on most of these core issues requires considerable depth at the working level, detailed, integrated and extended negotiations and a readiness to make historic decisions at the leadership level. The political weakness of all the relevant actors, the domestic circumstances in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority and in the United States as well as the nature of negotiations all combine to render this practically impossible.
Under these circumstances, pursuing the comprehensive ("package") approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dragged down by inertia and without new thinking, means an "all or nothing" approach. The collapse of the process is liable to precipitate serious and conceivably irreversible deterioration.
The danger that the entire process will fail points to the need to find an available alternative--the territorial alternative. In other words, for the time being let us disregard the most loaded issues, with their symbolism and ethos, of Jerusalem and refugees, while the security issues will apparently sort themselves out; what remains and can be achieved is a territorial agreement. This is seemingly logical: it is certainly feasible to sketch a reasonable map according to which Israel annexes some 5-6 percent of the territory containing the large settlement blocs, against a swap of identical-sized territory to be awarded to the Palestinian state. Based on informal talks held recently with senior Palestinians and settlers, I have concluded that this is possible.
Yet we must not be tempted to adopt this approach outside the broad regional political context. Therefore, if Israel attempts reaching territorial arrangements that precede an overall settlement in the hope that the latter eventually will be achieved, it must effect a rapid and fundamental reorganization of its diplomatic strategic thinking. Were I asked to advise our decision-makers, I would consider the need for an additional and separate agenda to be implemented in parallel with the negotiating process, in coordination with the US and on the basis of the following components:
- Establishing a Palestinian state within provisional boundaries at an early stage of the process by means of unilateral and coordinated recognition not based on an agreement. This would enable negotiations to proceed with a state rather than an amorphous entity. It would probably weaken Hamas, strengthen the Palestine Liberation Organization and dilute the final status package.
- An energetic effort to obtain the active and binding involvement of a third party and/or international force in order to stabilize ruling institutions and establish a solid democratic regime, toward the goal of Palestinian independence.
- In this context, the only stable, serious and extended effort currently being undertaken in the region is that of the team headed by General James Jones. It focuses on the security aspects of possible agreements and on formulating a practical security plan that advances a solution of two states for two peoples. This effort should be supported and linked to the Arab peace initiative; the territory in which the security plan is implemented should be expanded on the basis of performance on the ground.
- Realizing that ending its control over the Palestinian people is vital for Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state within secure borders. Hence, parallel preparations at the national/inter-ministerial level for coordinated unilateral disengagement must be undertaken. As noted above, it is almost certain that the current negotiations and perhaps those in the coming years as well will not generate a stable and comprehensive agreement that could actually be implemented. Our future as Israelis and Jews in our own country must not be dependent on the Palestinians. In the context of an unconditional but orchestrated disengagement, Israel should consider involving a third party and inviting the international community to assume security responsibility over the territory that is evacuated. The process of moving settlements and settlers will be based on comprehensive, long-term national planning that will take at least three years to carry out. Disengagement will be effected only after Israel has minimalized the physical capacity to perpetrate violence and terrorism against it and found an effective response to rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.
Let there be no misunderstanding: unilateral disengagement is not the preferred option and is not a substitute for negotiations. Yet we must prepare for unconditional disengagement in parallel with our effort to withdraw within the framework of a permanent status agreement.- Published 26/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Gilead Sher, an attorney, is former chief of staff and policy coordinator for Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. He was co-chief negotiator with the Palestinians in 1999-2001, including at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.