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Monday, September 17, 2007

Marching forward to disaster: The Israeli-Palestinian Conference in November

Apparently, nobody including the US and Israeli governments and the pundits of INSS Insight, understand what sort of damage may be done if (when) the November Middle East conference fails.
Ami Isseroff

INSS Insight

September 17, 2007 No. 30

The Israeli-Palestinian Conference in November

Shlomo Brom

President Bush's initiative to convene an international meeting in November on the Israeli-Palestinian track has given a new boost to the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. This follows the dynamic created by Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in June this year. The key question now is whether these stimuli can pull the cart of Israeli-Palestinian relations out of the bog in which it has been stuck since the end of 2000.

Hamas' takeover of Gaza made possible a renewed dialogue between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas because it led to the breakup of the Palestinian national unity government that had been boycotted by Israel. It also prompted the adoption of a policy aimed at building up the Fatah government in the West Bank and strangling the Hamas government in Gaza. The operating assumption behind that policy is that if the Fatah administration becomes a success story and the Hamas administration turns out to be a failure, the Palestinian public will abandon Hamas and renew its support for Fatah, which has recognized Israel and been its traditional interlocutor. In dealing with Israel, the Palestinian side has consistently argued that, alongside measures to improve the quality of life, the best way to improve Fatah's public image is to create a political horizon. That argument implies that Fatah's clearest advantage over Hamas is its ability to secure a political agreement that satisfies the basic aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Announcement of the Washington meeting, which was upgraded in the international and Israeli media to the status of "conference," created a target date for concrete results in pre-meeting negotiations, because since the failure of the Camp David meeting in 2000, there is great apprehension about building up expectations that end in huge disappointment. As a result, the dialogue between the two sides has been accelerated and now involves periodic meetings between Olmert and Abbas as well as contacts carried out by Minister Haim Ramon aimed at reaching some understandings that will provide the basis for agreement between the two leaders.

Both sides will have to overcome serious obstacles in order to reach the desired agreement. The main obstacle is the lack of Israeli confidence in the Palestinian ability to implement any agreement at all. Consequently, the agreement now under discussion is not meant to be implemented in the immediate future. Indeed, it is difficult for Israel to take on clear obligations in the context of an agreement which it doubts will ever be implemented. Secondly, the lingering trauma of Camp David has left Israel reluctant to enter into what it suspects would be another adventure in permanent status negotiations that will fail and produce only negative consequences. Israel therefore prefers a process built on partial agreements. The third obstacle is the domestic situation on both sides, which results in each side having an interest in a different type of agreement.

The Palestinians want as detailed an agreement as possible that addresses all the sensitive issues, including Jerusalem and the refugees. But on the Israeli side, a weak and divided government produces fear that if the Prime Minister agrees to what will be seen as concessions on these sensitive issues, his coalition will crumble because two parties, Shas and Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu, will walk out. For these reasons, the Israeli side prefers as general an agreement as possible. The brief period left until the November meeting makes it difficult to bridge the gap between the two sides; a solution is being sought in the form of an agreement on principles that is not meant to be implemented but that will lay out the guidelines according to which a detailed, permanent agreement will be negotiated and formulated later. Following a couple of earlier meetings, Olmert and Abbas agreed on 10 September to appoint negotiating teams to work out these guidelines.

However, matters are further complicated by exogenous factors. The policy of cultivating Fatah in the West Bank while pressuring Hamas in Gaza creates a strong Hamas interest in sabotaging the Olmert-Abbas dialogue. One way to do so is to portray Abbas as a servant of Israel and the United States who concedes to them on issues of vital Palestinian interest. Another is to resort to violence, because it will be very difficult to conduct effective negotiations in an atmosphere of rising violence. Indeed, there has recently been a noticeable rise in violence in the Gaza Strip and Hamas has also tried to launch attacks from the West Bank. Several successful attacks and the ensuing Israeli responses could well make any agreement impossible.

The success of the November meeting/conference will depend not only on the two sides' ability to produce a common position paper but also on the identity of the other participants, because the meeting represents an effort to encourage states supporting the Arab peace initiative to play a more active part in promoting Israeli-Palestinian agreement. However, Saudi Arabia – which helped formulate the initiative – has thus far avoided any commitment to participate. Saudi Arabia shuns any direct, public contact with Israel and leaves that "dirty work" to Egypt and Jordan, states that already have peace treaties with Israel, so Saudi participation in the meeting would constitute a deviation from this policy and show readiness to take a more visible role.

Given the difficulties in reaching pre-meeting agreement and the problematic question of the attendees, it is not surprising that both Israel and the United States are now trying to lower expectations. Their efforts have already had some success: immediately after Bush's announcement, the media tended to inflate its importance; the Israeli media, at least, have more recently begun to downplay the significance of the event.

Even if the November meeting produces no real achievement, it will probably not have the same dramatic aftermath as did the failure of Camp David, simply because expectations are so much lower. Still, failure this time would seriously undermine the policy of building up Fatah and wearing down Hamas. The chances of that policy succeeding are in any case not high given the tendency of the Palestinian public to blame the problems in Gaza on Hamas' enemies rather than on Hamas itself. But failure in Washington would also allow Hamas to demonstrate clearly that its political rival is incapable of delivering the agreement that the Palestinians desire.


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