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Israelis and Palestinians after Annapolis

Israelis and Palestinians after Annapolis


by Mark A. Heller

According to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli-Palestinian relations can be divided into two distinct historical phases: pre-Annapolis and post-Annapolis. The last few weeks of the pre-Annapolis period were marked by frenzy of speculation about what the meeting was intended to produce and what its chances of success were. Most of this speculation rested on a very weak foundation of fact, but analysts frustrated by the fog of pre-meeting uncertainty could at least console themselves with the hope that it would soon dissipate and be replaced by post-meeting clarity. That hope has been realized only to a very small degree.

A case can be made that Annapolis has launched a serious process of conflict management. Israel and the Palestinians have recommitted themselves to the Road Map, enunciated in 2003 and essentially ignored since then, and agreed to the establishment of an American-Israeli-Palestinian mechanism to monitor its implementation, thereby improving the chances that the obligations of the two sides will actually be carried out. Moreover, regional and international participation in Annapolis signifies broader support for efforts to help build Palestinian institutions, code words for money and other forms of assistance intended to strengthen Abbas in his competition with Hamas and to make him an authoritative and effective interlocutor for Israel. True, much ambiguity still attaches to these components of conflict management. For example, apart from the nomination of former NATO Commander General James Jones as American monitor and judge, there is no indication of precisely how the mechanism will function and what the consequences will be if Jones finds one side or the other delinquent in its undertakings. Moreover, there are not even clear-cut criteria for determining what constitutes failure to fulfill a commitment. Judgments about a halt in Israeli settlement construction can be based on empirical evidence (though there is considerable controversy about an exception for “natural growth” in existing settlements), but judgments about what constitutes good-faith Palestinian efforts to halt incitement and prevent terrorism are inevitably subjective and will be colored by political calculations, including those of the United States. Similarly, more funds may be raised at another donor conference and technical assistance and advice may be offered by Tony Blair on behalf of the Quartet, but Annapolis provides no new guidance on the most critical element in improving the performance of Palestinian government and security organs – the contribution of the Palestinian Authority itself. Notwithstanding these lacunae, however, the promise of more effective support structures for stabilization and institution-building is a noteworthy outcome of Annapolis, particularly against the backdrop of failure even to manage conflict over the past few years.

It is, however, much less clear that Annapolis has also launched a genuine process of conflict resolution. Although the parties have agreed to begin sustained negotiations in mid-December, nothing that happened at the Annapolis gives any indication of how the substantive gaps on core issues – especially borders, refugees, and Jerusalem -- might be overcome. In fact, the joint statement of understanding failed even to specify those issues by name, presumably to avoid aggravating political sensitivities and threatening the survival of the ruling coalition in Israel. That fact points to the first major obstacle that hovered in the background of the conference: domestic politics on both sides. Even before he left for Annapolis, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confronted threats of defection by coalition partners if he agreed to concessions on these issues (or even to discuss some of them), and that reality will continue to influence his negotiating posture. Abbas is, if anything, in an even more precarious position since he has already lost Gaza to Hamas and faces widespread opposition in the West Bank, as well, to any peace of any sort with Israel (opposition which is contained, in large part, by Israel’s military presence). That opposition was given vivid expression in the mass demonstrations against his participation in the conference, which may well be merely a foretaste of the kinds of actions, including stepped-up terrorism, that Hamas and its foreign patrons are likely to attempt in order to ensure that the futility of Annapolis that they so confidently predicted is demonstrated beyond any doubt.

Perhaps this domestic political vulnerability also explains the failure of Annapolis to produce much in the way of conciliatory atmospherics. Although Olmert expressed his empathy for Palestinian suffering over the years, Abbas was unwilling or unable to reciprocate and confined himself to anodyne descriptions of the virtues of peace and the reiteration of long-standing Palestinian demands. The role of ambience in promoting the resolution of substantive conflicts may be exaggerated, but the nature of the exchange at Annapolis served as a reminder of how little atmospherics have contributed in previous negotiations and how much needs to change if they are to influence future negotiations differently.

Annapolis also served some other functions, including the reestablishment of American centrality in Middle Eastern diplomacy and the mobilization of a large grouping of states and organizations from which Iran was excluded and to which Syria tentatively adhered. In the context of ongoing efforts to organize a response to the Iranian-led challenge to regional and international order, these are not insignificant achievements, even if they prove to be transient. In fact, they may even be of greater strategic moment than progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. But they are ancillary to what was ostensibly the focus of the conference: the promotion of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Unlike previous such efforts, this one did not even specify a deadline for the completion of negotiations, settling instead for a commitment to try to reach agreement by the end of 2008. That may reflect an acknowledgement of the logical absurdity of stipulating in advance how long negotiations will take. It certainly reflects a sober appreciation of how much still needs to be done and how little understanding there is of how to do it.

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