In a welcome development, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) successfully relaunched Middle East peace negotiations at November’s Annapolis conference. The United States, the conference host, worked extremely hard to secure the attendance of the parties and much of the international community – including 16 members of the Arab League. Yet as difficult as it was to get all the participants there, the hard work really begins with the follow-up to the one-day event.
At Annapolis, Israel and the PA committed themselves to a parallel two-track process. On one track, the parties agreed to implement the confidence-building and essential security measures called for in the 2003 Road Map. Simultaneously, on the second track, the parties agreed to pursue consistent and sustained negotiations on the “core issues” of the conflict: Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees. And the parties set a “soft” target of completing negotiations by the end of 2008.
Further, recognising that the tracks may move at different speeds, the Annapolis understanding allows for the implementation of a final agreement to be delayed as long as security and confidence-building measures under the Road Map remain unfulfilled.
Tempering the optimism of the conference, however, is the knowledge that the path ahead is littered with obstacles that could derail either or both of the tracks.
On the confidence-building track, the Road Map calls on the PA to combat terrorism and reform its governing institutions while Israel is supposed to curb settlement activity and ease Palestinian freedom of movement.
But the reality on the ground has changed substantially since 2003. Most conspicuously, Israel completely withdrew its military and all settlements from Gaza in 2005. At the same time, Hamas was elected to head the Palestinian government in early 2006, and subsequently evicted PA President Abbas and his Fatah faction from Gaza in a violent coup.
If Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza, how will this affect the opinion of Gen. Jim Jones, the senior US general appointed to play the role of referee? Will he reproach Abbas if his security forces act only against militants in the West Bank? What if he fails to act against the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which has claimed responsibility for some of the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel?
Similarly, how will Israel’s commitments be interpreted? Will Israel get credit for dismantling settlements in Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 2005 disengagement plan? Or will Gen. Jones support the Palestinian demand that Israel not only freeze settlement expansion but also halt natural growth in existing settlements even before the Palestinians make any serious effort against terror groups? How will Gen. Jones judge the situation if Israel’s lifting of roadblocks leads to attacks on Israeli citizens, as has happened before?
The PA must also take steps against incitement against Jews and Israel in Palestinian media and education. Yet immediately after Annapolis concluded, PA-controlled media broadcast maps describing all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as “Palestine: 2007”. PA textbooks are rife with similar depictions.
And the rockets from Gaza, such as the barrage of 17 fired on Dec. 12 as the Israelis and Palestinians had their first post-Annapolis meeting, continue to fall on Israel, as they have since the 2005 disengagement.
As working groups discussing the final status agreement start to thrash through the familiar list of differences over issues like borders, Jerusalem, security and settlements, the thorniest may be the Palestinian and Arab demand for an unlimited “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech at Annapolis addressed this issue with great sympathy. At the same time, he made clear that Israel could not accede to this demand, since its practical effect would be the extinction of Israel as a Jewish state. The continued violence that has followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza have more and more Israelis convinced that the conflict is not about Israel’s borders, but remains its very existence. Viewed in this light, Israel’s demand that the Palestinians and Arab states recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state has grown in urgency and must be addressed as part of any resolution.
Moderate Arab and Muslim states in particular can have a positive impact by providing Abbas the political support he needs to make the necessary compromises, and assisting with much needed institution-building and economic and administrative reforms. In this regard, the presence of 16 Arab League states at Annapolis, including Saudi Arabia, was a positive development.
Non-Arab Muslim states, including especially Indonesia, as well as Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and others, may have a special role in breaking the hold of the old political baggage which still makes contributing productively to peace difficult in the Arab world. On the other hand, echoing the Palestinians’ rigid demands on issues such as the right of return – as key states did following Annapolis – will only make it harder for Abbas to compromise.
The Arab states had another opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the Palestinians by contributing at the donors conference in mid-December. Spearheaded by new UN envoy Tony Blair, the conference sought international aid to support the PA’s three-year development plan, and to provide Palestinians concrete benefits while also further isolating Hamas.
Finally, Arab and Muslim states should begin the process of normalising relations with Israel as the Palestinians and Israelis implement their obligations to one another. Just as the Palestinians will gain tangible benefits as the parties progress along the parallel tracks – culminating in Palestinian statehood – Israel also needs to see the tangible benefits of making painful compromises. The most important benefit is being accepted – as a Jewish state – by its Arab neighbours.