Looking Ahead to the "November Meeting"
Negotiations with the Palestinians: An Inevitable Failure or a Chance for Change?
Over the last few weeks Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) have conducted political discussions meant to culminate in a joint declaration according to the Israeli approach, or in an agreement on principles according to the Palestinian approach. Underlying this process are first and foremost Olmert's and Abu Mazen's shared interests. Both leaders feel the need to demonstrate some progress in the international meeting scheduled to take place in the US in November. At the same time, the current negotiations are also a result of the sense of political distress felt by both leaders. Olmert in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, publication of the interim report of the Winograd Commission, and the withdrawal of the convergence plan must generate a new political agenda and demonstrate to the Israeli public some achievements. Abu Mazen against a backdrop of Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, and in view of the difficult domestic political situation in the Palestinian Authority also feels the need to offer his constituency some tangible results.
The fact that both Olmert and Abu Mazen are seen as weak political leaders has led various commentators to doubt the seriousness and chances of success of the talks. However, the flood of pessimistic analyses as accurate as they may be should not prevent consideration of positive developments that may produce a joint document and a successful international meeting. These developments include:
1. Another important phase of progress before a final settlement. The current negotiations with the Palestinians should be viewed in a wider context and with the understanding that these talks form part of an ongoing political process. For some time leaders of both sides have avoided addressing the truly problematic issues refugees, Jerusalem, borders. These were left in the Oslo accords for discussion of the final settlement. Understandings between Olmert and Abu Mazen may lay the groundwork for solving these issues with principles that serve as accepted guidelines for the respective sides' future negotiating teams.
2. Keeping the idea of a compromise solution reached by negotiations on the public agenda. Particularly in view of the strengthening of the Islamic movement in the Palestinian Authority, and the widespread disappointment in Israel regarding the possibility of reaching an agreed solution, the principal importance of the negotiations lies in the very renewal of political contacts. This leaves the option of an agreed solution based on the principle of two states for two nations in both the Israeli and the Palestinian public consciousnesses.
3. Creating a different dynamic in the internal Palestinian arena. Agreement on a joint document and progress with the political process it represents will force the Hamas movement to respond to developments in order to retain its relevance in the Palestinian arena. Clearly such a response may include attempts to stall the process through terrorist attacks. Alternatively, its response may include a willingness to show flexibility and to take some role in a future settlement.
4. Increased commitment from Arab states to contribute to the achievement of a permanent settlement. One of the main stumbling blocks of the Camp David talks in 2000 was the Palestinians' concern over making decisions on issues that they felt needed a pan-Arab consensus (such as the issue of Jerusalem). Reaching an agreement that would demonstrate significant progress would probably lead to Arab states joining the meeting in Washington and their involvement on some level during the process.
5. Reinforcing the moderate forces in the region. Convening an international meeting, followed by renewal of contacts for the achievement of a permanent settlement, will present an alternative to the extremist regional coalition headed by Iran. Thus instead of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by use of force, an alternative compromise solution would be offered. Such a development would bolster the moderate states in the region and rally them around the process.
Alongside all the above, it is clear that failure of the process would pose several considerable risks:
1. More damage to the consensus on the two states for two nations solution. Failure of the negotiations could be perceived by the Palestinian public and the Israeli public as further evidence of the inability to solve the conflict by agreed compromise. Among Israelis, such a situation may increase calls for the implementation of unilateral steps while boosting calls for Israel to strengthen its hold in the occupied territories. Among the Palestinian public, failure of the talks could strengthen the parties within Hamas that oppose any compromise with "the Zionist entity."
2. Further damage to the standing of Abu Mazen and the Palestinian secular nationalist political stream. The nationalist stream led by Abu Mazen and Fatah lost much of its standing after the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Failure of the current talks would provide an additional boost to the Islamic movement in the territories and would further weaken the Palestinian Authority and its institutions.
3. Cancellation or failure of the international meeting and a blow to US prestige. Failure by Olmert and Abu Mazen to reach agreement on a joint document is liable to lead to the cancellation of the meeting itself. Without a significant achievement in the talks between the sides it is reasonable to assume that the meeting will be cancelled or, alternatively, would serve as nothing more than a photo opportunity. This in turn would further undermine the United States' regional standing, lead to further weakening of the diplomatic effort in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and throw contacts between the sides into ongoing stagnation. In the pan-Arab arena, cancellation or failure of the meeting would be detrimental to the willingness of moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to take part in a future political process.
Thus, in the current situation, whereby the initial contacts and the actual holding of the international meeting are in doubt, the political process is highly fragile and liable to fail. Failure to achieve an agreed document, a large scale terrorist attack by Hamas, a large number of casualties caused by a Qassam rocket, or even a lack of willingness on the part of Arab states to attend the peace conference may all lead to the failure of the contacts and realization of the dangers inherent in such failure. On the other hand, the very cost of such failure may serve as an incentive to all the sides involved to make an effort to ensure the success of the process. This is particularly so when the personal prestige of the Israeli prime minister, Palestinian president, and senior members of the US administration are at stake. Assuming this is the situation, several measures can be suggested that may increase the chances of success of the current talks. Some of these measures are contingent on the Israeli government and can be realized immediately, while some are more complex and depend on the Palestinian leadership with the help of the international community:
1. Significant reform of the PA's institutions - In order to implement a permanent agreement, if and when achieved, the Palestinian side must carry out wide ranging reforms in the field of security such as unifying the security apparatuses and, in the civilian field, such as reducing the size of the public sector and establishing a social security network. The goal of such reforms must be to turn the PA into a functioning political system capable of realizing its sovereignty in given territory. Without such political changes, any agreement, if and when reached, will be devoid of any practical meaning.
2. Substantial change in West Bank daily life. Such a step is essential for mustering the support of the Palestinian public for the process and for boosting the standing of the nationalist movement in the territories. There are several areas where considerable changes may be generated with relative ease:
a. Economics alongside the grandiose plans to build an economic future for the Palestinians, to set up "a corridor of peace" in the Jericho area, to improve water and electricity infrastructures in towns, and so on, it should be remembered that the area of the West Bank is very small. Thus, one can generate significant economic changes by means of relatively simple measures that do not necessitate long term plans: increasing the number of people employed in Israel, providing relief on imports and exports of merchandise, and implementing other measures would bring rapid and substantial change to the lives of the residents of the West Bank.
b. Freedom of movement most of the checkpoints in Judea and Samaria were set up during the first years of the Intifada and were designed to provide a response to the threat of suicide bombers. Over time they lost much of their relevance. The IDF's newly gained operational freedom in Palestinian towns following Operation Defensive Shield and the intelligence superiority developed by Israel enable Israel to thwart terrorist attacks more precisely in their initial stages and within the Palestinian towns themselves. As a result, the checkpoints mainly prevent the economic recovery of the West Bank while exacerbating the frustration of the Palestinian population. According to media sources the Ministry of Defense has for some years had a plan for reducing the number of check posts by 45 percent "without harming the security of Israel's citizens."
3. Maintaining the democratic process in the territories this process is important to allow the development of political forces alongside Fatah. These may offer an additional moderate political alternative, and may even encourage the Fatah movement to carry out significant organizational reforms. Indeed, in view of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, even as part of a democratic process, one could argue that continuing the process involves the risk of a similar development in the West Bank. Further Israeli and Palestinian activity against the Hamas movement's infrastructure in the West Bank and ruling out candidates who do not play the game by democratic rules may also provide a solution for this potential danger.
4. Generating a framework and a diplomatic agenda for maintaining the process in order for the political process to stay alive after the peace conference, all sides Israeli, Palestinian and American should prepare a framework in advance for maintaining contacts and formulating a political agenda that will sustain the diplomatic momentum after the November meeting.
In conclusion, at this stage renewed political contacts between Israel and the Palestinians are clearly only at an early stage, and the entire process has numerous weaknesses. There is a great chance that it will fail. The analysis above suggests that the sides have to do their utmost to agree on a joint statement that will comprise a basis for renewal of negotiations immediately after the international meeting. The start of a real political process under a regional umbrella is the most positive result one can expect from the current contacts. Therefore, the international meeting if it succeeds should be viewed only as the beginning of a process, and not as its end.
 I would like to thank Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz for drawing my attention to this matter.
 Haaretz, September 4, 2007.
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