Following a tumultuous year, in which Hamas seized control of Gaza, we are now seeing a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. With an American-backed international conference scheduled for November, Palestinians and Israelis have stepped up their own bilateral diplomacy.
Some say the time is ripe for a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough. Others see this as wishful thinking.
What can be achieved through diplomacy at this juncture? Is the time ripe for a grand Israeli-Palestinian accord? Or should the parties’ aims be more modest? How can Israelis, Palestinians and the international community best take advantage of the present situation? And what pitfalls lay ahead?
The Forward posed these questions to a group of Israeli, Palestinian and American experts.
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have more time to waste. Since the failed summit at Camp David in July 2000, more then 4,500 Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives. Hamas took over the Palestinian parliament and then captured the Gaza Strip using brute force. What else could happen?
The November peace conference has to be a success. A failure would boost the Hamas quest for domination of the Palestinian territories and would be a devastating blow to the secular-minded, peace-oriented Palestinian leadership, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
If Abbas and Olmert reach an agreement on general principles for a permanent-status accord, the November conference will endorse it. This is the first prerequisite for success. The second one is that the conference participants issue a timetable for the negotiation of a detailed permanent-status accord. That would make the “political horizon” more concrete and tangible. It is an attainable objective.
There is no need to wait to start those permanent-status negotiations. The contours of an agreement are well known to everybody: The basic demarcation line between the two states will be the 1967 border, with adjustments and land swaps; there will be two capitals in greater Jerusalem, and Palestinians refugees will be able to exercise the right of return to the Palestinian state, not to Israel.
Among both peoples, two-thirds of the population would support such a solution. The other third will never accept any kind of compromise. What is required now is a strong political will on both sides to use the majority that supports peace to impose it. Such determination will lead to a breakthrough.
Ephraim Sneh is a member of the Knesset from the Labor Party. A retired general, he was, until recently, Israel’s deputy minister of defense and has served in the cabinets of prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
Failure to move the peace process forward in the near future will inflict considerable damage on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and on future prospects for peace and stability in the region. With the abandonment of his West Bank “realignment plan,” Olmert has been left without a policy, with nothing to offer the Israeli public. Meanwhile, without success in the peace process, Abbas could face the collapse of his administration in the West Bank or alternatively a permanent separation from Gaza.
Yet it would be naïve to think that a permanent-status agreement can be reached by Olmert and Abbas in the near future. Both men are too weak to muster the support needed for such a deal within their own parties and among their respective publics. Moreover, the risk of failure, estimated to be too great, is deterring the Bush administration from taking a serious leadership role in a viable diplomatic process. Finally, the public on each side views the other with distrust and, despite ample evidence to the contrary, believes it has no partner for peace. For Abbas to win majority support in a referendum on any agreement, a permanent deal must ensure return of 100% of the land occupied in 1967, Palestinian sovereignty over Muslim holy places in Jerusalem’s Old City and a refugee solution based on U.N. Resolution 194 — conditions Olmert is incapable of agreeing to today.
A slim chance does exist, however, for a more general agreement on basic principles. This set of declaratory principles must be based on the Saudi initiative: commitments to a two-state solution based on mutual recognition of identity (Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people), a return to the 1967 borders with a one-to-one territorial swap for any border adjustments, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a just settlement for the refugee problem. At the implementation level, the deal must allow a graduated process involving several elements: creating an independent Palestinian state, ending occupation and evacuating settlements, building a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods and Palestinian attainment of attributes of sovereignty. On the Palestinian side, such a deal would have majority support if presented as interim with a final-status deal to be negotiated in the future between the states of Israel and Palestine.
Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
Aaron David Miller
If you could put next month’s Middle East peace conference to music, you’d probably want to use the chorus from the country music band Sugarland’s latest single: “Everybody’s dreaming big, but everybody’s just getting by.” The gaps between Israel and the Palestinians are large, the prospects for implementation small, and time is short. Still, the urgency of the current situation has produced some very real openings. Taking advantage of them requires following a half-dozen rules of the road.
1) A ticking clock isn’t necessarily a good thing: Urgency is critical in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. If the two sides aren’t in a hurry, there’s usually not much chance of progress. But both sides may not be equally hard-pressed, and that can lead to problems. Mahmoud Abbas is thinking big when it comes to permanent status; Ehud Olmert isn’t thinking nearly as large. America must do its best to synchronize their clocks and scripts if it wants a successful outcome in November. This means a text that is something less than a fully agreed framework to guide permanent-status negotiations and something more than a simple declaration of intent.
2) A strong American hand: Without a more active American role in the period leading up to the November conference, there will be little chance of achieving any kind of consequential success. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must ask the right questions on the big issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees), get some straight answers and be prepared to lay out American bridging proposals to see whether an agreement is possible. If she can’t or won’t, we should stop raising expectations about the November gathering. America doesn’t need another high-visibility peace process failure, certainly not one that falls short because of failed U.S. proposals.
3) Bush’s role: The president doesn’t need to be the micromanaging desk officer for the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he must make it unmistakably clear that he considers it a top priority. If there is daylight between the president and Secretary of State, the Arabs and Israelis will play America like a finely tuned violin. Our friends (and adversaries) really need to know that the secretary speaks for the president in negotiations. It is not enough to have him make an appearance at the November event; the president must engage with Abbas and Olmert, and be tough and fair with both.
4) Keep the Arab states on board: If America is prepared to do serious diplomacy, then we must press key Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to do the same. The Saudis need to be both visible and engaged at the November meeting with Israel and the Palestinians and beyond. Nothing would better indicate a positive change in the regional landscape than an ongoing Saudi role, perhaps with Israel and the Palestinians and other key states (Egypt and Jordan) in a high-level follow-up negotiating committee. These Arab states can be an important counterpoint to Hamas, a balancing force on Syria and a legitimizing agent when it comes to negotiating with Israel, particularly on Jerusalem.
5) Managing Syria: Forget trying to hold Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian negotiations on final status at the same time. It’s too much for the political traffic in Israel to bear. Choose one. If it’s the Palestinian track, then there is merit for Secretary Rice to see what it would take to get Israeli-Syrian talks re-launched but with no expectations. The fact is the Syrians can cause serious trouble through Hamas and Hezbollah when they’re out. So it might be useful tactically to engage Damascus if only to protect the Israeli-Palestinian track.
6) Implementation is another matter: We need to be clear about one thing: No Israeli-Palestinian agreement on final status can be implemented under the current circumstances of a geographic and political split within the Palestinian polity. Abbas can barely speak for all West Bankers, let alone Gaza. And no Israeli government would dare make substantial concessions on the big issues to a Palestinian partner who doesn’t control all the guns and can’t guarantee security. Indeed, the great irony 16 years after Madrid and Oslo settled the question of who represented the Palestinians (answer: the PLO) is that the issue is now open once again. No greater problem now stands in the way of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And no solution to this problem is anywhere in sight.
Aaron David Miller served as an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson center and author of the forthcoming “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace” (Bantam-Dell, March 2008).
Despite the loud and optimistic talk about the potential of a breakthrough in resolving the Palestinian conflict, I am personally very pessimistic and very skeptical that anything serious and lasting will take place. Certainly, I am very doubtful about the chances of any progress taking place in the public domain. If anything, only an agreement worked out in total secrecy that is presented to both people as a fait accompli could have the possibility of working. Such a scenario would require strong leaders who are willing to risk their own reputation and political future to make it work. Furthermore, for anything like that to take place, a much different environment is necessary. Nothing on the present horizon gives me any serious hope that we have such an atmosphere that will be conducive to a political breakthrough. Israel has shown little inclination to change its attitude; Palestinians are so divided and weak that they are unlikely to have the courage needed to make tough decisions. Nevertheless, I wish and pray that I am wrong and something miraculous will happen.
Daoud Kuttab is the founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. He is currently a visiting Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.
The November meeting risks exploding in our face if we disregard Hamas’s power to thwart it. And thwart Hamas will, especially if Israel and the PLO seem on the verge of making significant progress.
Thus the most urgent challenge right now is to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Whether negotiated directly between Israel and Hamas or (more likely) indirectly, the ceasefire should provide for the cessation of all rocket attacks against Israel, the return of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for Palestinian prisoners, working arrangements regarding Gaza border crossings and a promise by Hamas that it will not undermine the negotiations between Israel and the PLO.
The ceasefire should not become a condition for the convening of the November meeting. But it should be seriously pursued since it is unlikely that Hamas will limit its role to watching the meeting on TV.
The meeting itself should be a modeled on the Madrid Conference of 1991. What I mean by that is, first, that all countries willing to hold peace negotiations with Israel should be invited; and second, that the outcome of the meeting will be an international directive for the parties to the conflict — including Israel and Syria — to launch bilateral negotiations.
Of course, the question of Gaza will not go away after the meeting; if anything, it might become all the more pertinent if and when Israel and the PLO do in fact reach a permanent-status agreement. If Hamas remains in control of Gaza when an agreement is reached, it may become necessary to transform the ceasefire into a long-term truce. If, on the other hand, the political unity of the Palestinian Authority is restored, it will be possible to include Gaza in the agreement and open the safe passage envisioned between it and the West Bank.
Yossi Beilin, a member of the Knesset, is chairman of the Meretz-Yachad Party.