Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to make the planned international conference in Annapolis a success and move the parties closer to peace. Israeli leaders never want to miss an opportunity for peace so Olmert has agreed to attend the meeting even though he knows the prospects for success are remote.
The Bush Administration is pushing for an agreement because it has come under constant criticism for failing to be more actively engaged in peacemaking, because State Department Arabists believe the fallacious argument of Arab allies that forcing Israel’s capitulation to their demands will improve America’s standing in the region, and because achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians offers a potential way of salvaging the president’s legacy. Many people also believe that the likelihood of greater violence and instability increases in the absence of negotiations. Unfortunately, the conditions on the ground give little reason for optimism and the administration’s initiative faces a number of seemingly intractable obstacles.
The foremost problem is the weakness of Abbas. He is president in name only. He does not control the Gaza Strip and has only tenuous control over parts of the West Bank. Assuming he has the best of intentions, it is impossible for Abbas to implement any agreement he would sign. He has shown little interest in preventing terrorists from trying to attack Israel from the West Bank and no power to stop Kassam rockets from being launched from Gaza. He also has little support from the people or the armed factions that rule parts of the territories by mob law.
Furthermore, the contentious final status issues remain no closer to resolution today than when the Oslo accords were signed 14 years ago. Abbas has shown no willingness to compromise on settlements, borders, Jerusalem or refugees. The continuing irredentism of the Palestinians remains the greatest single obstacle to peace.
Israelis are also reluctant to make new concessions to the Palestinians after the experience with disengagement. Had the Palestinians spent the last two years creating the infrastructure of a state in Gaza, resettling refugees from camps to permanent housing, stopped weapons smuggling and halted all terror and rocket fire, Israelis would have been open to additional territorial compromises in the West Bank. Since none of those positive steps occurred, few Israelis are willing now to risk giving up more land without ironclad guarantees of security.
Olmert has repeatedly expressed a willingness to give up territory in the West Bank, however, the current governing coalition, and Olmert’s low level of public support since the war with Hezbollah, makes it difficult for him to offer concessions without evidence that Abbas can deliver on any promises that he makes. The Israeli public has repeatedly shown itself to be responsive when an Arab leader demonstrates by word and deed a commitment to peace, and would likely support compromises that are currently unpopular if the Palestinians took serious steps to build confidence, such as releasing kidnaped soldier Gilad Shalit, stopping the rocket fire from Gaza and preventing attempted terrorist infiltrations from the West Bank. In the absence of such steps, along with far more conciliatory rhetoric, Israelis will not support major changes in the status quo.
The Palestinians could also help their cause if they called upon the other Arab countries to take positive steps. In particular, the Saudis should be told the only way to be relevant to the peace process is to recognize Israel and engage in direct talks. The Egyptians need to stop the smuggling of arms and cash into Gaza that is strengthening Hamas and further undermining Abbas. Jordan and Egypt, in turn, need to lean on the Palestinians to give up their maximal demands. Despite the recent tensions with Syria, a peace agreement has been on the table for several years and remains unfulfilled only because President Bashar Assad rejects the formula of exchanging peace and security for the Golan Heights.
The final obstacle to progress toward peace is the forum planned for the negotiations. The Bush Administration’s decision to convene an international conference in the hope of achieving an agreement represents a return to the consistently unsuccessful approach favored by the UN, State Department officials and former president Jimmy Carter.
The precedents for the success and failure of negotiations were established as early as 1949 when Ralphe Bunche insisted that the Arabs negotiate armistice agreements with Israel one at a time. This approach resulted in the signing of accords between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon over a five-month period. By contrast, the UN’s Palestinian Conciliation Commission tried to transform these armistice agreements into peace treaties at a conference in Lausanne. The mediators in Switzerland tried to pressure Israel into drastic territorial concessions and the Arabs and Jews never met face to face. The result was a reuniting of the Arab League coalition and the stiffening of Arab opposition to any compromise.
Almost 30 years later, President Carter was intent on repeating this mistake. Few people remember that the stimulus to Anwar Sadat’s momentous decision to go to Jerusalem – the psychological and political breakthrough that made peace between Israel and Egypt possible – was Sadat’s conviction that Carter’s desire to hold a conference was such a bad idea it would be impossible for him to achieve Egypt’s goal of regaining the Sinai from Israel.
The problem with an international conference is that the Arab participants have an incentive to stake out the most extreme positions. None of them can show a willingness to compromise that might be interpreted by their friends and rivals as weakening the collective effort to force Israel to capitulate to their demands. In Sadat’s case, he knew the Syrians would never make peace with Israel and he did not want to allow them a veto over his intention to negotiate an agreement. He, therefore, went behind Carter’s back to negotiate directly with the Israelis. Carter’s conference never convened anyway, in large measure because of Syrian obstinance.
The scenario that Sadat feared was played out in 1991 when the administration of George H.W. Bush pressured Israel to go to an international conference in Madrid. Prior to the meeting, Israel was asked to take confidence-building measures, and it did by releasing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, instituting reforms in Gaza and reopening a West Bank university. Simultaneously, Secretary of State James Baker called on the Arab states to end their boycott of Israel and support the rescinding of the odious “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN, but they refused and insisted that Israel withdraw from the disputed territories without offering anything in return.
The Madrid conference went forward and was considered a great accomplishment by many because the Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis were in the same room (the Saudis refused to come just weeks after U.S. forces saved their kingdom from Saddam Hussein). Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave a conciliatory speech, holding out an olive branch to his neighbors. Each of the Arab leaders then proceeded to saw the branch into dust with bellicose speeches that offered no prospect of compromise or coexistence. The conference ended without any agreements and the State Department approach was superceded two years later by the Oslo negotiations, which again were done behind the back of U.S. officials. Those face-to-face talks produced a formula for peacemaking that would have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state had the Palestinians fulfilled the promises they made.
Olmert is very familiar with this history. He was the health minister at the time of the Madrid conference. At that time, he had called for immediate negotiations to achieve peace with all the Arab nations as well as the Palestinians. He remains committed to that vision. As Sadat and, later, Jordan’s King Hussein discovered, Israel is forthcoming when it has American support and is confident of the intentions of its interlocutors. Israel cannot be pressured to accept conditions that undermine its security.