The Annapolis conference is convening tomorrow with no agreement in sight except to meet. The big question is: what now? The United States has succeeded, not only in convening the conference at the level of a summit, but also in drawing a crowd. More than 40 countries will send representatives, among them the Saudi foreign minister. That by itself is an achievement after seven years of a complete vacuum in diplomatic efforts on the Middle East peace process.
While the parties failed to reach agreement on a political statement with substantial content, they are expected to agree on a statement committing to negotiations proceeding from Annapolis. This is carefully calculated--to end this conference without a clear agreement would be a dangerous indication of failure opening the way to violence. At the same time, open-ended negotiations such as we have seen in the past will open the process to manipulation by the stronger party.
It is possible, however, that this initiative (which at face value seeks progress in peacefully ending the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis) is structured simply to serve internal political needs and requirements in Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. While all three leaderships will benefit from resuming a political process, all will be hurt by substantial negotiations and serious attempts to bridge political differences on weighty issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees, the city of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the borders of Israel and a future Palestine.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already been publicly threatened by his coalition partners, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was told frankly that delving into these final status issues would lead to an Israeli government crisis. For Olmert, therefore, a political process is useful--while substantial negotiations are dangerous.
US President George Bush, himself surrounded by ideologically-motivated "friends of Israel", will be perceived as a peacemaker by initiating and sustaining a process, but will face internal opposition if he tries to nudge Israel to stop the construction of settlements, for example, or opens up discussion about refugees and Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' situation is no different. He can negotiate, but he cannot compromise because his loud opposition is gambling that he will be flexible in negotiations, and is waiting to pounce. Any compromises will render Hamas' rhetoric correct in the eyes of the public, and further weaken the position of the peace camp, which will be painted as "selling out" Palestinian positions supported by international law and UN Security Council resolutions. Abbas in Annapolis risks being compared with Yassar Arafat at Camp David, who came home uncompromised to a hero's welcome.
In other words, all three leaderships have a strong interest in a process, but can afford neither its failure nor its success. This might bring us back to a status quo reminiscent of 2002, where the parties waver between success and failure. The difference now is that both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships are also too weak to sustain themselves in such conditions. The third party, the Bush government, is already a lame duck due to approaching elections.
The only reasonable outcome of this confluence of conditions is to concentrate on practical aspects, showing the public that this process--while not one for achieving a final agreement--can at least produce results in improving the economy and enhancing security. A sustained negotiations process that keeps hope alive, on the one hand, while on the other hand preventing the continuous consolidation of the occupation and improving economic and security conditions, will maintain the survival of both Israeli and Palestinian peace camps, likely reversing the process of political deterioration and radicalization.
In other words, the only way to avoid the outright failure of Annapolis, which could be very dangerous for both the cause of peace and the survival of the existing leaderships, is through a package of ongoing and sustained negotiations, the cessation of settlement expansion, and a systematic improvement in the economy of the Palestinian territories as well as security and law and order for both sides. From this high ground, Abbas might be able to resume dialogue with the relatively moderate wing of Hamas in Gaza, which would lead either to rejoining the authority currently divided between the West Bank and Gaza, or encourage debate and splits inside Hamas.- Published 26/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
For weeks I have been warning that the Annapolis meeting was ill-conceived because it was built on weak Israeli, Palestinian and American leadership foundations and a weak Palestinian institutional infrastructure. But now that it's happening, and with an impressive display of Arab support, we have to ask what should take place in the coming days and weeks in order for the US, Israel and the Palestinian leadership to take advantage of a dramatic but substantively empty beginning and turn it into an effective peace process.
First and foremost, as currently constituted neither the Olmert nor the Abbas government is structured for effective and prolonged peace-making. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be able to negotiate very far with a coalition that he put together to achieve political survival rather than a peace process. Sometime in the coming months, if indeed negotiations proceed and register progress, he will have to part ways with the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu and Shas parties. Taking into account likely right-wing defections within Kadima as well, Olmert will need the active support of Meretz-Yahad and the passive support of most of the 10 members of Knesset from Arab parties in order to survive politically. From past experience we know that this is not an easily-sustained arrangement.
One alternative--which in any case could be necessitated by the Winograd final report and a resultant Labor party defection--would be new elections. That would delay a peace process for months, bringing us to the end of the George W. Bush presidency (and the Mahmoud Abbas presidency in Palestine) and postponing the necessary American involvement until well into the term of Bush's successor, in mid-2009. Another alternative, if Bush administration backing is forthcoming, could conceivably be for Olmert to opt to concentrate on the Syrian track. Here he might be able to hold onto a larger coalition, conceivably even including the Likud.
The weakness of the Olmert government is replicated in spades in Palestine, where the Fayyad government has no political base at all and Abbas and Fayyad rule over barely part of the West Bank and none of Hamas-led Gaza. In order to negotiate in the name of most Palestinians and to deliver on his roadmap phase I responsibilities, Abbas may have to seek some sort of accommodation with Hamas that is acceptable to Israel and the United States. The appearance of success at Annapolis could help, as could the launching at Annapolis of an Israeli-Syrian negotiations track that weakens Hamas at the Damascus-based leadership level.
But an Abbas-Hamas accommodation would be problematic at the substantive level because it would radically constrain Abbas' freedom to negotiate on the core issues of a two-state solution. One alternative, which Israel has been postponing until after Annapolis out of consideration for Abbas' weak position, is an Israeli military operation in Gaza that restores Fateh rule there. This could have problematic ramifications for the legitimacy of Abbas' rule in Palestinian eyes. Nor could Israelis easily justify shedding the blood of IDF soldiers in such an endeavor.
Assuming productive negotiations do get under way, we now turn to substance. Israel and the Palestinian leadership ended up in Annapolis without the meaty joint declaration of principles that was originally envisioned. This reflects two simple facts. First, the two sides are farther apart today on the core issues of a settlement than they were at Camp David seven years ago. And second, the two governments are too weak to make the concessions necessary to narrow this gap.
Here the moderate Arab countries could be helpful: after demonstrating support at Annapolis, they must get involved in assisting the peace process. By rewarding the parties for concessions made, the Arabs can offer the Israeli and Palestinian publics incentives toward additional compromises. In this regard, one of the most significant statements to come out of the Annapolis process was the declaration by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Nov. 23 to Haaretz that the Arabs would take a step toward Arab-Israel normalization in response to every concession made by Israel. If this happens, it is the Arab peace initiative at its best.
Lest we forget, the original purpose of Annapolis was, in President Bush's words of July 16, 2007, very modest: to "review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions". One of the less anticipated fruits of the ensuing dynamic has been the energizing of the Israeli-Syrian track. Now, of all the extremely convoluted possibilities for turning Annapolis into a successful peace process, the Syrian track is the most promising. It offers Israel and its Arab neighbors the biggest possible peace dividend (weakening Iran and the militant Islamist movements; stabilizing Lebanon), a relatively straightforward process with a partner capable of committing and delivering, and a better chance for the survival of the government of Israel during a peace process. If this happens, Annapolis will be remembered favorably, even if for the "wrong" reasons.- Published 26/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org 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 Rafiq Husseini
It takes a lot of courage to agree to write about what may happen beyond Annapolis when the outcome of Annapolis itself--even though we are now a few hours before the conference--is yet unclear.
Nevertheless, let's dream together for a minute and suppose that Annapolis will achieve the impossible, where the wise leaders of Israel--emulating King Solomon the Wise--say:
* We accept that the Palestinians can have a state of their own and live with dignity and peace in 22 percent of historic Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) in return for the right of Israel to exist in the rest of historic Palestine in peace and security.
* We accept the Arab initiative and are ready to return the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms to Syria and Lebanon in return for the normalization of relations with them and 50 other Arab and Islamic states.
* We are ready to work on a just and agreed-upon solution for the Palestinian refugees.
Should this happen, then the entire world would have changed beyond Annapolis--not only the Middle East! And we will all shout "Hallelujah, yet another miracle in the Holy Land!!"
But alas! We all must be rudely awakened from our deep sleep where we--like Martin Luther King--had a dream, into the reality that Annapolis will not produce results that come close to resembling this dream.
The most probable scenario therefore is that--not having learned from King Solomon the Wise--the leaders of Israel will say:
* We cannot accept that the Palestinians have a state in 22 percent of historic Palestine; we can only offer them parts of the West Bank (for now, without specifics).
* We don't accept the Arab initiative in its totality but we want to normalize with the Arab and Islamic states, nevertheless.
* We are not ready to return the whole of the Golan Heights to Syria and Shebaa Farms to Lebanon--but want a full peace agreement with both countries.
* We are not ready to discuss the refugee problem and will not accept any of the refugees back into Israel.
The gap between the dream and the reality is therefore immense.
As Palestinians, our expectations have dramatically changed since US President George W. Bush called for the Annapolis meeting five months back, from dreaming about a document defining parameters and guiding principles for the six final status issues (borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water, and security) to acquiescing to a statement of intent about creating conditions for peace and working on the first phase of the roadmap adopted by the Quartet (but without using the words "immediate and parallel" in reference to each side's obligations).
At the start, the US administration wanted to define the "end game" and "to build the building, then put in the furniture" but it, too, had to moderate its expectations.
So how then do we move forward beyond the "realistic" scenario of the Annapolis document? And how can we--the Palestinian moderates--convince the Palestinian voters to support peace and give them the perception that things will improve politically, economically and socially?
Here it is important to realize that the Palestinian voter, while free, is not independent. He/she is affected to a very large extent by what Israel does around him/her and will vote accordingly. That is to say if, before a Palestinian election, Israel removes checkpoints, releases prisoners, halts incursions, freezes building of settlements and the wall, then the majority of Palestinian voters will support moderate candidates. If, on the other hand, Israel does the complete opposite (which it did in the period before January 2006 and the parliamentary elections that brought Hamas a majority of seats) then the Palestinian voter will support the extremists and radicals.
Given all the deficiencies of Annapolis, and taking into consideration what the Israeli position will most likely be at that conference, and since we do not occupy Israel but the opposite is true, there are three tracks that we (Palestinians, Israelis and the international community) need to move along so that the Palestinian people's perceptions are strengthened in the direction of peace and coexistence.
The first is, of course, advancing the political track that is obviously not moving very far or very fast for reasons that only Israel understands and enforces. Yet a well-drafted document and an immediate serious-looking negotiations process would help give some of the Palestinians some hope (in contrast to a dream document and a process that would give all Palestinians all hope possible, or a lousy one that gives no Palestinian any hope).
The second track involves creating access, movement and other confidence-building measures, where most checkpoints are removed (they are useless, anyway). Movement of goods and people should be made easier, thousands of prisoners (from a total of more than 11,000) are released, settlement and wall construction is frozen, East Jerusalem institutions are re-opened and life in Palestinian areas becomes as near-to-normal as possible.
The third track involves economic revival in the West Bank and Gaza. This means that many job-generating development projects are initiated and that at the end of each calendar month, all government employees receive a full salary without delay and the private sector is promptly paid for the services it renders to the public sector and its beneficiaries.
The Palestinians--for their part--also need to continue to work with full speed and intent on their obligations under the first phase of the roadmap, especially with regard to security, which is Israel's main pretext for building the wall and denying us access and movement. The moderate leadership will also have to convince the majority of the population in Gaza that there is a way forward through peace and coexistence, so that they (the people) force the extremists to rescind their coup d'etat and accept the legitimacy of and new elections for both the presidency and the Legislative Council.
This way, we hope that the moderates--armed with progress on the above three tracks--regain their control of PA institutions in a democratic and non-violent manner.
If we are successful, even to varying degrees, on the three tracks, we will see a positive, supportive and more patient Palestinian public with the peace process beyond Annapolis. On the other hand, if we are not successful on a combination of these three tracks, then we can kiss moderation and the peace process goodbye and both of us--Israelis and Palestinians--will be rolling down a steep hill toward further disaster.- Published 26/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Rafiq Husseini is currently chief of staff of the Office of President Mahmoud Abbas. He was born in Jerusalem and was educated in Alexandria, Beirut and the UK.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A moment of truth
by Yossi Beilin
It was a mistake to arrive in Annapolis without agreement on at least one of the core issues: borders, Jerusalem and refugees. I certainly hope that this lacuna neither weakens Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the pragmatic group under his leadership nor strengthens Hamas, contributing to an outbreak of violence. I hope this is the beginning of an intensive process that leads to peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians--by exploiting the final year of Abu Mazen's presidency, the desire of the US administration to leave behind some sort of diplomatic legacy in its last year and the appeal by Syrian President Bashar Assad to initiate unconditional negotiations with Israel.
It is the task of US President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas to ensure that the Annapolis conference, which currently has no objective rationale, becomes a success. That means the immediate convening of an Israeli-Palestinian forum alongside an Israeli-Syrian forum, along the lines of what transpired following the Madrid conference in 1991.
What happened in the course of recent weeks repeated a well-known syndrome: the parties approach a moment of truth, get cold feet and decide this is not yet the real moment of truth. After Olmert and Abbas had appeared to find a common language and succeeded in overcome obstacles, it emerged that the "professional" teams headed by FM Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) regressed light years into the past and got "stuck" at inexplicable corners--like the Israeli demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state before the two parties had even reached agreement and the Palestinians' response of resolutely rejecting what they themselves had accepted unilaterally in the Palestinian National Council decision of 1988 in Algiers.
After Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas, with or without the assistance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will have to maneuver their negotiating teams out of the corners and steer them back to a serious discussion of permanent status. The negotiators' points of reference already exist--the Clinton parameters, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document and the Geneva initiative--and should enable them to reach agreement within a few months.
Negotiations with the Palestinians must be daily and continuous. They can be held as in the past in the United States or in the region, in a neutral country. But they must not continue in the format of recent months--in Israel alone, and for a few hours a week.
Negotiations with Syria presumably cannot be held in the US; the best venue might be Turkey. The drawback of this track is American doubts and reservations, while its big advantage is the existence of a partner capable of both signing and implementing an agreement. In contrast, the advantage of negotiations with the Palestinians is that the US is very interested, while the drawback is the need to separate the signing of an agreement from its implementation and to condition the latter on the Palestinian Authority's security capability as determined by the US.
Is this an imaginary scenario? Not necessarily. If the two partners understand that they have nothing to lose; if they appreciate the negative significance of postponing a solution to a distant date; if they comprehend the tremendous opportunity that has been created at this strange and hard historical juncture, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip; and if they grasp that their broad publics long for peace and an end to violence and overwhelmingly support any peace agreement delivered by their leaders--then they can accomplish in 2008 what has not happened for the past 40 years.
And as for Olmert's government--the prime minister built a coalition that is antithetical to the political concept he himself has been describing in every available forum for the past two years. Conceivably, his decision to invite the Yisrael Beitenu party headed by Avigdor Lieberman to join the government reflected his desire to build a broad coalition that would accompany him up to the "moment of truth". But that is not how our political life works. As long as Yisrael Beitenu is part of the coalition, the temptation grows to delay the moment of truth. The scenario I am describing for the day after Annapolis can only take place without Lieberman. Olmert won't be able to avoid making a decision for long.- Published 26/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.
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