The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Briefing / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After

The process that will be launched shortly at Annapolis may not quite be do-or-die for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but at the very least it is do-or-barely-survive.

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I. Overview

The process that will be launched shortly at Annapolis may not quite be do-or-die for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but at the very least it is do-or-barely-survive. Positively, a U.S. administration that neglected Middle East peacemaking since taking office appears committed to an intensive effort: it has persuaded both sides to agree to negotiate final status issues – no mean feat after years of diplomatic paralysis and violent conflict. But pitfalls are equally impressive. The meeting, like the process it aims to spawn, occurs in a highly politicised context, with sharp divisions in the Palestinian and Israeli camps. These will make it hard to reach agreement and to sell it to both constituencies and, for the foreseeable future, virtually impossible to implement. Moreover, failure of the negotiations could discredit both leaderships, while further undermining faith in diplomacy and the two-state solution.

To maximise chances of success and minimise the costs of failure, Israelis and Palestinians need to seriously confront permanent status issues, while taking steps to improve the situation on the ground; the U.S. and other international actors need to adopt a more proactive role, proposing timely compromises as well as imposing accountability for both sides’ actions; and a different approach is needed toward those (principally Syria and Hamas) whose exclusion risks jeopardising any progress.

In the roughly four months since it was announced, Annapolis has gone through three incarnations. What began in July 2007 as a meeting cautiously focused on building Palestinian institutions metamorphosed – as a result of unexpectedly convivial dynamics between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas – into a conference to unveil agreed final status parameters. But hopes cooled as negotiators were unable to translate warm sentiments into dry ink. It now is meant to serve not as the culmination of a bilateral process but rather the launching pad for three simultaneous ones: permanent status negotiations; implementation of the first phase of the 2003 Quartet Roadmap; and gradual Arab-Israeli diplomatic engagement. The idea is for the two sides to reach a peace agreement; present it to their respective publics through elections or referendums; and condition implementation on Roadmap compliance. While virtually all attention has been given to the gathering itself, therefore, what truly matters is what follows it – chiefly, whether final status talks can succeed.

A useful starting point is comparison with President Clinton’s attempt at Camp David a half year before he left office to broker a permanent status agreement. Not only does the Bush administration have more time to achieve its objectives, but little need be wasted determining how to do so. Annapolis comes six months earlier in Bush’s tenure, and the parties do not start from scratch: their positions have been well rehearsed, and the contours of a settlement are broadly known. Abbas and Olmert seemingly share a personal bond, common purpose and desperate need for success. Their talks have exceeded in substance anything between past Israeli and Palestinian leaders. All this is a far cry from the desultory relationship between President Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. In contrast to 2000, the Arab world’s involvement is being actively encouraged; its presence will boost the meeting significantly.

But the flattering comparisons end there. Since Camp David, Israel has all but destroyed the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian infighting has dramatically increased, and Abbas’s authority pales compared to Arafat’s. Critics rail that Hamas controls Gaza and Israel the vast majority of the West Bank, leaving the PA only Ramallah and, during the daytime hours that the Israeli military deem it safe, Nablus. Fatah, Abbas’s party and presumptive backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is divided, chaotic and bereft of ideology. Olmert fares not much better. He has recovered – slightly – from the humiliation of the 2006 Lebanon war but his poll ratings remain low, he faces multiple corruption investigations, and he must contend with rivals itching for his job and deal with a fragile coalition that could splinter or collapse at the first hint of compromise with the Palestinians. The U.S. administration’s staying power and willingness to take risks at a time when it must confront urgent crises in Iraq and Iran remain untested.

The past also offers useful lessons. Three reasons for Camp David’s failure stand out: lack of direction in the negotiations; disregard for developments on the ground; and inadequate management of Palestinian domestic politics. These problems inevitably will recur. They should be dealt with differently.

  • The U.S. and others should support and closely supervise the negotiations and introduce bridging proposals as necessary. Much debate between Palestinians and Israelis has concentrated on the need for a deadline (the former want one; the latter don’t; the U.S. says, aim for the end of the Bush term). But the real question has less to do with a timetable which would be impossible to enforce than steps that should be taken to maximise chances of success. At Camp David, the U.S. was loath to put its ideas on the table, waiting until December, when it was too late. This time, the international community should be more active, organise follow-on steps including by reconvening periodic, Annapolis-like meetings to concentrate the parties’ minds and offer ideas at the right time.
     
  • Talks need to be accompanied by rapid, visible changes on the ground consistent with and conducive to a two-state settlement. The goal should be less to build confidence than to move in convincing ways toward that solution. Measures include Palestinian restoration of law and order in the West Bank; a comprehensive Israeli settlement freeze; reopening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem; and regular and significant prisoner releases. The U.S. and the Quartet will have to monitor performance of Roadmap obligations and hold both sides accountable.
     
  • Internal Palestinian divisions must be overcome and Syria should be fully included. However distant it may appear – and distance grew with the tragic killings in Gaza on 12 November – Fatah/Hamas reconciliation and reunification of Palestinian territory ultimately are necessary for successful peacemaking. Unfortunately, isolating Hamas appears to be a principal motivation behind the Annapolis process: the U.S., Israel and Fatah are convinced Israeli-Palestinian progress and the Islamists’ marginalisation must go hand in hand. The idea is based on an assumption – that Gazans will rise up against Hamas because of the punishing siege – that reflects wishful thinking, not strategic thought.

More importantly, coupling Israeli-Palestinian peace with intra-Palestinian conflict risks promoting even greater opposition to a controversial endeavour, denying Abbas the means to legitimise an agreement and encouraging those who are excluded to sabotage the effort through violence. Through intra-Palestinian dialogue and Arab mediation in particular, Palestinian reconciliation must become an integral part of the Annapolis process. Given its central role, Syria must likewise become an integral part of the Annapolis process through revival of negotiations over the Golan.

With weak Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, inhospitable political environments, intra-Palestinian conflict and a polarised region, prospects are uneven at best. Yet, Annapolis is already in a sense a milestone: an apparent break with the incremental approach, which, by conditioning resolution on so-called confidence-building measures, guaranteed that neither took place. This is a break that Crisis Group has long urged and that gives at least some reason for hope.

Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, 20 November 2007

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