Virtual Agreement, Virtual Negotiations

8. August 2008
By Haim Malka
By Haim Malka

To get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit down together at Annapolis was a hopeful sign – but negotiations need more than hope to succeed. What Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to in Annapolis was to begin negotiations on a virtual agreement, i.e. one that aims to win an apparent diplomatic victory without resolving the difficult issues that divide the two sides. The rationale behind this is that once an agreement is signed, it will shore up support for the embattled leaders, and eventually empower them to implement the deal at some point in the future. The launch of these virtual negotiations does little to resolve the competing visions of the parties involved, and those differing visions will likely stall all progress.

The first signal that things were not going as planned at Annapolis was the fallback on the 2003 “road map” document. Once again both Israelis and Palestinians agreed to fulfil their many obligations according to the road map. The first phase of this is particularly complex, with over two dozen provisions. For Palestinians it primarily deals with security reform, an end to violence, and institution building. For Israelis the first phase calls for the dismantling of settlement outposts erected before March 2001, a freeze on all settlement activity, and an eventual withdrawal to their military positions of September 2000. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have very different views on what this all means.

Palestinian negotiators make the unconvincing point that their side has already fulfilled the provisions of the first phase of the road map and that negotiations should now begin in earnest. As proof they point to a partial reform and consolidation of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces under the control of President Abbas, as well as to a crackdown against Hamas in the West Bank. Now, so they say, they are waiting for Israel to live up to its part of the bargain and freeze settlement activity – something not in sight, as, on their return home from Annapolis, it was announced that new construction will go ahead in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Homa, which Palestinians call Jebel Abu Ghneim.

Israeli negotiators believe that Palestinians have not even entered the first phase of the road map. They argue that as long as Palestinians have not fulfilled security requirements and dismantled the terrorist infrastructure, Israel is not bound by its commitments. The reality is that rockets continue to be fired from Gaza, this year alone, by some counts, over 2,000, while in the West Bank it is the Israeli army and not Abbas’ police force that is responsible for security. Palestinian leaders are quietly urging their Israeli counterparts to clear out Gaza and strike at Hamas. Neither side sees eye to eye.

To solve the inevitable problem of differing Israeli-Palestinian interpretations the Annapolis framework calls for the United States to “monitor and judge the fulfilment” of each side’s requirements under the road map. That unenviable task now falls in part to General James Jones, newly appointed Special Envoy for Middle East Security. General Jones is undoubtedly an experienced and capable commander. Yet the many security challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians have primarily political not military answers. The general will likely be as constrained as his many predecessors.

Meanwhile Europe is eagerly playing along, relieved that negotiations are once again on the agenda. They will have their moment at the upcoming Paris donors’ conference. But money is not enough. To be relevant European governments will have to do more than follow Washington’s script and put forward their own ideas. European aid should be directed at improving Palestinian society more broadly, not merely to support the small group around President Abbas.

All eyes are now turned on the Arab role in the process. For the Arab states, Annapolis was a mixed blessing. Yes, they all showed up, including Syria, but they are still hedging their bets. There will be increased attention on what they can do to support the process. However, it is often overlooked that the first phase of the road map also calls on Arab states to “cut off public and private funding and all forms of support for groups supporting violence and terror.”  It is not at all clear that the Arab states in attendance at Annapolis interpret this imperative in the same way as the drafters of the road map. Nor is it clear whether they have faith in the American-led effort.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states lack confidence in the U.S. approach, yet recognise that they have no choice but to play along. Their last effort to bridge the divide between opposing Palestinians factions through the Mecca Agreement came about in part because of U.S. pressure. Now, far from fully supporting President Abbas, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are treating Hamas in Gaza like a government, and only recently did they facilitate the movement of over a thousand pilgrims through the Rafah border crossing. Obviously they do have their own agenda and are quietly urging Abbas and Hamas to renew their deal for a unity government.

Arab states know that without a resumption of co-operation between Abbas and Hamas progress remains unlikely. Even if Abbas and Olmert do manage to arrive at an agreement, its implementation would still be dependent on the road map and its numerous provisions. It is difficult to see how negotiations under such circumstances can proceed in good faith. Rather than building hope, the new strategy for Middle East peace could be a recipe for greater frustration.

Haim Malka is deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.


Nahostkonferenz Annapolis

Die Nahostkonferenz am 27. November 2007 in Annapolis war ein weiterer Versuch, einen Weg zu einer gerechte Zwei-Staaten-Lösung zwischen Israel und Palästina zu finden. Die Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung hat Autoren und Autorinnen aus der Region, aus Deutschland und den USA um ihre Einschätzung gebeten.