Anyone interested can read the 8 point document here, which is similar in many ways to the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan of 2002. Haaretz has also been reporting that the Israeli Prime Minister’s office is taking a keen interest in the informal framework final status agreement developed between representatives of Abu Mazen and Yossi Beilin in 1995. That is a far lengthier and more detailed document spanning 10 long Articles and 8 solid pages of text. That paper, known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, contained some interesting clauses, particularly in it facilitating the continued residence of Israelis in the sovereign territory of a new Palestinian state, but no longer as exclusive Israeli settlements, municipal arrangements for an open and shared Jerusalem, and an interesting agreed historical narrative on the Palestinian refugee issue. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was involved in some of the background work for that document.) But that informal understanding was reached 12 years ago and many of the ideas seem anachronistic and somewhat overtaken by events. Indeed, if Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has taken an interest in the documents, it is probably as much to get a sense of the thinking of his interlocutor (the same Abu Mazen) as it is to search for practical ideas. Expect plenty more rumors for as long as a November summit is being planned.
The two leaders met again this week as part of the preparations for that summit. Abbas and Olmert announced the formation of working groups to begin drafting agreed principles across a range of issues, including professional teams to deal with what are considered to be the non-core issues, such as water, infrastructure, economic relations, and the environment. There is, it seems, no consensus at this stage as to whether the parties are attempting to formulate a rather general set of principles or a more detailed set of understandings, With the Israelis considered to prefer the former and the Palestinians the latter.
The weekend Israeli press had apparently been well-briefed by Deputy Prime Minister and Olmert-confidant Haim Ramon. The lead opinion writers, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, in Israel’s highest circulation daily Yediot Ahoronot began to spell out the details of what at least one influential Israeli has in mind for a November document. In describing Ramon’s plan, they suggest that 3-8% of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel in the context of land swaps, Jerusalem being divided along demographic lines and a special regime in the Old City, refugees could return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel other than in humanitarian cases, with a fund, to which Israel would contribute, paying for refugee rehabilitation.
Such talk predictably sparked opposition both from outside and from within the coalition. Ramon and Defense Minister Barak have a longstanding adversarial personal relationship, Foreign Minister Livni sees Ramon as encroaching on her territory, while a group of half a dozen Knesset members inside the ruling Kadima party oppose this effort for a variety of personal and political reasons. This group includes at least one Minister – Shaul Mofaz and perhaps a second – Avi Dichter, as well as two Kadima MKs who are settlers – Elkin and Schneller. For more on internal Kadima opposition, read here.
Allied coalition parties, the Orthodox Shas and largely Russian immigrant Yisraeli Beitenu have also both voiced disapproval at the leaks they are hearing and that’s before one considers the right wing opposition of Netanyahu and the religious-settler camp. First of all one should not get too excited, either by these early leaks, or by the opposition they have generated. It may also be convenient for Prime Minister Olmert to be able to point to just how difficult this exercise will be to sell domestically and politically. With Secretary Rice due in the region next week, it would hardly be unprecedented for an Israeli Prime Minister to point to domestic political opposition when claiming inflexibility on certain issues.
Secondly, the situation is hardly any simpler on the Palestinian side and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal was quoted this week as describing the November conference as being “a tool to be used by America to impose the US agenda and to embarrass Arabs in to taking the side of American policy.” But more on Palestinian developments in a future post.
Third, the situation on the ground seems very divorced from all this talk of peace and that gap between the promise of change and the dire reality on the ground has torpedoed many a previous peace effort. Israel is threatening and apparently seriously considering further punitive sanctions against the residents of Gaza, including cutting off essential supplies such as electricity in response to the rocket fire on southern Israel. Amnesty International has said that such collective punishment would be a violation of international humanitarian law. Read Gideon Levy on this.
With both the extended Jewish holidays beginning with the New Year just around the corner and the month of Ramadan also imminent, very little time remains to pull off a successful, rather than counter-productive, effort at advancing peace by year’s end.
The speculation and rumor mill surrounding a potential draft document has only just begun. On the narrow question of what could be produced for a November summit, and ignoring the regional dimension, which I have discussed elsewhere, there are perhaps four possible outcomes:
(1) An agreed and relatively detailed Palestinian-Israeli document that outlines parameters for permanent status – it would be a stretch to deliver this in such a short timeframe and under current conditions.
(2) A very general agreed paper on guiding principles for future negotiations. This however could be subject to conflicting interpretations by the parties and may do more harm than good if it is too vague.
(3) A paper that actually avoids the political issues and focuses more on questions of institutional state-building, Palestinian reform, economic relations, and such like. Given the raising of expectations and the inability to get real traction on these day-to-day issues on the ground, such a document is unlikely to either be politically helpful, or practically meaningful.
(4) Use the conference to launch a negotiating process with an agreed agenda, international and regional support and oversight, and ideally a timetable. This may be the most practical option.Of course, the regional dimension cannot be ignored and if ill-conceived and badly planned, November could do more harm than good. So far there is little to suggest that this is not the case. So now let’s wait to see what Secretary Rice’s visit to the region next week produces.