WASHINGTON: It s still looking like the international Middle East conference will take place in November at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It s a good venue, providing Camp David-like security and easy access to Washington, DC. Should peace break out, Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert could get to the White House within an hour to announce it, President Bush at their side.
You shouldn t hold your breath.
Nonetheless, it seems that if the conference takes place, progress will still be made – neither Israelis nor Palestinians will attend a conference without a guarantee of likely success. Similarly, the last thing the Bush administration needs is failure.
There is good reason for not convening a conference unless success is certain. In 2000, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat warned Americans and Israelis that he was not ready for a summer summit. He needed more time to decide what he wanted, to confer with the other Arabs, and to get his house in order. President Clinton agreed. But the Camp David conference went ahead anyway, and its failure replaced a relatively stable situation with four years of violence. The consequences of the failed Camp David summit are still felt seven years later.
In other words, it is safer to avoid a conference than to raise unreasonable expectations. That is why, right now, Israelis and Palestinians are striving to agree on final status issues that could be endorsed during the conference.
The problem is that the Palestinians want an explicit agreement that addresses final status issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees, etc) – with a timetable for implementation – while the Israelis want a more ambiguous joint statement.
Prime Minister Olmert s reluctance to go for a more detailed agreement is not indicative of a lack of trust in President Abbas. Rather, it is an outgrowth of his shaky political situation. Even if he promised Abbas everything, Olmert would not necessarily be able to deliver. Nevertheless, he is determined that Abbas not go home empty-handed; Olmert wants to strengthen Abbas, not undercut him.
Speaking before the Knesset s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, Olmert said that the current West Bank Palestinian leadership wants to make peace with us, advocate a two-state solution and support the fact that Israel is a state with a Jewish character. If we do not make peace with them, we will not make peace with anyone. I identify an opportunity here that will not recur. If we do not succeed this time, we will kill and be killed for a great many years to come.
This is all good. But it does not mean that an agreement will be reached, especially when the Israeli right is already screaming about the idea of dividing Jerusalem. This is sheer demagoguery. No one proposes dividing anything. In fact, the last thing any Palestinian wants is a city in which they cannot move freely from one part of Jerusalem to another. Moreover, Palestinians know that no Israeli would even contemplate dividing the city. All Abbas wants, and all Olmert is considering, is shared sovereignty.
Nevertheless, Olmert may not be able to offer Palestinians much in terms of final status issues now. Hopefully, Israelis and Palestinians will keep the negotiations going, while agreeing on a set of principles to govern future movement toward a final status agreement. But there must be tangible changes on the ground, changes that people can feel. In particular, these actions should strengthen President Abbas.
There are two obvious moves that fit the bill. One is an immediate and indefinite settlements freeze. For Palestinians, this is as significant as ending terrorism is for Israelis. It is a test of good faith, and the sine qua non for further movement. After all, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are about the final disposition of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Therefore, expanding settlements on those lands during final status negotiations is like eating vegetables out of the bag while the grocer is weighing it.
And yet that is what has happened since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in 1993-the number of settlers has grown from 110,000 to 270,000. Every new settler represents an additional impediment to agreement, which is one of the prime motives for the whole settlement enterprise.
Then there are settlements and outposts which even the Israeli government deems illegal. It was June 2003, at the Aqaba summit, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged to remove them. Since then, a total of four have been removed, and 100 remain (more than when Sharon made this pledge). All illegal settlements should come down immediately – this was even recommended in the Talya Sasson report on illegal outposts requested by Prime Minister Sharon.
As for the legal settlements – i.e. settlements sanctioned by the Israeli government-an immediate freeze is essential if the November conference is to succeed. In fact, Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, said today that Arab states will not even attend the Annapolis conference if there is no freeze.
Secondly, the Israelis should remove unnecessary checkpoints in the West Bank. There are some 500 checkpoints, many of which are located deep within the territory, serving not to guard Israel against terrorism but to separate one Palestinian village from another. These checkpoints make Palestinian life unbearable, and only facilitate settler movement, while cramping and restricting the Palestinians.
No one suggests removing checkpoints essential to Israel s security. However, any checkpoint that does not serve the purpose of protecting Israelis from terrorism should be taken down. Freeing the movement of Palestinians would greatly strengthen Abbas and the forces of moderation he represents.
Neither of these steps would represent great sacrifice for Israel. And yet each would buttress those Palestinians determined to live in peace with the Jewish state – helping advance negotiations on a final status agreement.
MJ Rosenberg,Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, was a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC s Near East Report. The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. For the full text visit www.israelpolicyforum.org.