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A happy end for Israel and Palestinians at Annapolis?


Dr. Lerman posits a more or less "happy end" for the Annapolis meeting even though, as he notes "the best of intentions may not suffice." It seems to me that he doesn't see the dangers in failure, or in failure that is spun as success, which seems to be the happy end he has in mind. Yossi Alpher has a clearer view of why Annapolis is probably going to fail and what failure at Annapolis implies.

Ami Isseroff

A Bumpy Road to Annapolis: Where the Best of Intentions May not Suffice

It seems likely, as things stand, that the US-sponsored Middle Eastern summit (or “meeting,” as it is now being carefully referred to) in Annapolis next month will find it difficult to deliver on even the modest goal of a Declaration of Principles (DoP) - which is supposed, in turn, to establish the terms of reference for future Israeli -Palestinian negotiations on the permanent status agreements. This somewhat pessimistic outlook cannot, however, be ascribed to “the usual suspects,” the causes regularly offered as explanations for the failures of the peace process in previous years:

  • Unlike the Camp David debacle in the summer of 2000, the present deadlock does not flow from bad faith or bad interpersonal dynamics. President Mahmoud Abbas was among the first of the Palestinian leaders to recognise the need for a two-state solution and, more recently, to acknowledge that Yasir Arafat’s “militarization of the intifada” had been a terrible and tragic mistake. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is an honest, reliable and committed man, highly respected in Israel for his determination to bring a better life to his people rather than push them further into the abyss of conflict. Both have established a warm working relationship with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, and other Israeli leaders.

  • Nor does the problem lie - as many in the Arab world and in Europe would argue - with the putative Israeli refusal to treat the Palestinians as a people deserving sovereignty. The opposite is true. Despite all that has happened in recent years, which could easily have been translated into an undying enmity, a broad majority of Israelis have soberly accepted the inevitability of the partition of the land west of the River Jordan, and of the two-state solution. (Only one Zionist political bloc, holding a mere nine out of 120 seats in the Knesset, still rejects this basic notion.) In fact, Palestinian sovereignty could have been realised already: stage II of the Road Map, which the Israeli Cabinet ratified back in 2004 - while offering fourteen specific guidelines to future Israeli negotiators - should have led a long while ago to the recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state with provisional borders; but this was declined by the Palestinian side, for reasons of their own.

  • Finally, the problem of strategic orientation, which for a long period of time was the main barrier to peace, is no longer relevant. It is true that for generations, from the 1930s to the late 1980s, the Palestinian leadership latched onto totalitarian powers - first Adolf Hitler (as Alan Dershowitz recently pointed out, in response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assertion that the Palestinians suffered for no fault of their own), then the Soviet Union - orientations that precluded, in essence, any prospect of a meeting of minds. Following the end of the Cold War, Arafat remained (as he had been for many years vis-à-vis regional conflicts) a fence-sitter par excellence: one leg with Yitzhak Rabin, one with Hamas; one with the US, one with terror. Then 9/11 put an end to all that and threw his strategy off kilter, but he continued to play an ambiguous game until he died. Now, however, the pattern has been broken: Abbas has gotten off the fence and made a clear-cut choice (or rather, had it made for him by the Hamas insurrection in Gaza). At least where Abbas’ writ runs, in the West Bank, he has positioned himself as a valued member of the new anti-Islamist (and hence, anti-Iranian) coalition now emerging in the Middle East - a coalition that also includes, by necessity, the present Israeli government.

Why, then, is it still so difficult for like-minded people - who did learn in recent months to work together and even to like each other, and who face the same enemies and challenges - to find a form of words that would allow them to go forward? The answer lies where it often has before (eg, when Hafez al-Assad sent Bill Clinton packing in Geneva, on 26 March 2000): namely, with the contradictory interpretations of “international legitimacy” and the legal framework underpinning the process. For Israel, the ultimate outcome should reflect political and strategic reality and the practical needs of both sides - what economists would call a Pareto optimal point. For the Palestinians and the Syrians, however, what is at stake is quite different: dignity and justice have become - for their leaders, negotiators, diplomats, and the public at large - practically synonymous with the concept of “international legitimacy” (al-Shar’iyyah al-Duwwaliyyah), or in other words, their interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 and, in the case of the Palestinians, of General Assembly Resolution 194 (dealing with the refugees) adopted in December 1948. As they see it, these resolutions require Israel to undo its gains in the War of Independence and the Six-Day War, return to the 4 June 1967, lines and admit the “right of return” of a significant number of refugees.

Their stance is understandable in many ways - coming from players who see themselves as the weaker party, and must latch onto legalities - and yet, in fact, unfounded, unfair, impractical, and even dangerous:

  • Unfounded, insofar as the language of UNSCR 242 quite clearly meant that the status quo ante was not sacrosanct. (The IDF was expected, in the context of peace agreements, to withdraw from “territories,” not THE territories, occupied “in the recent conflict.”) And a caveat about good neighbourliness qualified 194, so that Israel may well be within its rights resisting a blanket demand for “return.” The United States government lent explicit support to the Israeli reading of these documents in the exchange of letters between President George W Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004.

  • Unfair, since both the 1948 and the 1967 wars were fought in self-defence (which was indirectly recognised by the UN: had they deemed these wars of aggression, they would have been obliged under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to demand a total withdrawal. They never did.) The collective Arab position - following the rejection of the UN Partition Plan in 1947 and during the three frenzied weeks of siege that began in mid-May 1967 - was, quite simply, exterminatory. The defeat (and in 1967, the pre-emption) of such plans need not be punished by undoing all of the defenders’ gains.

  • Impractical, because the strict application of the Arab interpretation of 242 would involve the carving up of Jerusalem and the return of the Holy Basin to Arab sovereignty - which would truly destroy any semblance of unity in Israel and lead to internal confrontation and political collapse; and would leave no fewer than half a million Jews on the other side of the border. Of course, modifications of the border can be agreed upon - but that is precisely the point: the spirit of compromise needs to replace the strict adherence to the 1967 lines, if a breakthrough is ever to be achieved.

  • Dangerous to Israel’s survival, insofar as some of the specific features of the old armistice line - for example, control of the hills overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport - have acquired a different meaning in the age of shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles and Qassam rockets. These changes in the technology of warfare compound the indefensible nature of the old lines - which is precisely why 242 called for “secure and recognised” borders, knowing full well that the 4 June lines were neither.

Even if these contradictions cannot be bridged by a piece of paper, however, the participants in Annapolis will not walk away empty-handed (unlike the fate of Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David). Given the positive aspects described above - personal and ideological compatibilities; common interests; basic Israeli support for the two-state solution - it is safe to assume that, among the broad range of options for progress on the economic and security fronts, enough will be found to enable both Abbas and Olmert to go home with gains in hand.

Dr Eran Lerman

Dr Lerman is Director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee. Originally published by the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. Reproduced by permission.

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