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November 29, 2007

Grasp the Promise of Annapolis

Here is a piece I have in today's Forward (America's leading Jewish newspaper).

Even the most hardened of Middle East cynics could be excused for momentarily feeling a fluttering of hope after witnessing the scenes at this week’s peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

Israel’s much-maligned prime minister, Ehud Olmert, conducted himself with consumate dignity, displaying a rare capacity to combine unabashed national pride with sincere empathy for the other. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, met Olmert’s outstretched hand with an unflinching commitment to a negotiated resolution of this bloody conflict and to a realization of his own nation’s aspirations that would not be at Israel’s expense. Both men have developed a degree of genuine mutual respect and appreciation, and they were on display at Annapolis.

Only President Bush came up short, sticking to a simplistic good-versus-evil narrative that was not only patronizing, divisive and lacking any resonance with the Arab world, but might very well prove counterproductive. Nonetheless, the Bush administration, and especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, can allow itself a gentle pat on the back this weekend: A joint statement was achieved, the conference was well attended, the speeches were uplifting, and Bush personally committed himself to the process.

The self-congratulatory moment, though, should be a fleeting one.

This week’s peace conference assiduously avoided even a flirtation with the serious substance and content of a peace agreement. The warm words at Annapolis will be followed by pledges of hard cash at a donors’ conference scheduled for Paris in three weeks, but after that the testing ground returns to the far more hostile terrain of the Middle East.

If, several weeks from now, the negotiations are perceived to have stalled and the situation on the ground to have deteriorated or just stayed the same, then the smiling Annapolis summiteers will turn ashen-faced and their detractors back home will claim vindication. Such a scenario is all too imaginable; a return to mutual recrimination, blame games and American disengagement would be perhaps the bookmaker’s favorite.

As coincidence would have it, the Annapolis gathering fell on the same week as the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of Resolution 181. Separated by six decades, these events are in fact intimately and perhaps decisively linked.  Celebrations in Tel Aviv, November 29, 1947

Anyone who has supped at the table of Zionist history has that night and the U.N. vote indelibly etched into memory: 33 in favor, 13 against, 10 abstentions. This was the great moment of international recognition for the Zionist cause.

The rest is history: The Arabs rejected partition, brave young Israel survived a war of independence and a threatening alliance in 1967, and the country has since grown middle-aged awaiting an Arab peace partner. All national narratives tend to play fast and loose with the historical record, and ours is no exception.

So where do we find ourselves in November 2007? Sixteen Arab states, including all of Israel’s neighbors, attended the Annapolis conference. This comes five years after the Arab League adopted an initiative that holds out the prospect of recognition and normal relations for Israel with the Arab world once comprehensive peace is achieved.

Even before that, at the Madrid conference in 1991 and at the Sharm el Sheikh summit in 1996, the Arab states stood alongside Israel when the United States convened previous peacemaking efforts. Some dismiss the significance of these developments and point to the curmudgeonly refusal of the Saudis to shake hands, but as Olmert himself quipped this week, “What did you expect, tea in Riyadh tomorrow?” The Arab states have actually softened their own position by taking steps toward normalization in advance of Israel ending the occupation.

The historic success of 1947 was a territorial division whereby 55% of mandatory Palestine would become a national home for the Jewish people, while 45% would be an Arab-Palestinian state. The prospect held out by the Arab initiative and the Annapolis summit is of Arab, Palestinian and world recognition and support for an Israel on 78% of that original territory.

You do the math. The Arab world is saying yes to less than half of what it was offered — and rejected — 60 years ago.

Some may ask why we ought to be defeatist now; history, such critics have been known to argue, proves that the longer we hold out, the more we get. This approach ignores the devastating damage done to Israel’s standing in the world and to its security, as well as disregards how the country’s priorities have been skewed by the ongoing occupation and absence of internationally recognized permanent borders.

Are we really prepared to continue paying over the coming decades the human, material and moral price in order to edge the percentage of land we can call ours from 78% to, what, 80% or 81%?

Grasping the promise of the Annapolis conference and the Arab initiative means saying yes to 78% and withdrawing to the 1967 lines on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and on the Golan Heights. There can be reciprocal and minor modifications to those lines, such as land swaps, that would allow for incorporating the vast majority of settlers into Israel’s new and internationally recognized borders, but the basic parameters of the deal are pretty clear. Israel would be wise to seize the post-Annapolis moment, while the Arab consensus on the Saudi initiative still holds and before there is a further waning of American influence in the region.

It would be cozy and comforting if all this could be achieved in accordance with Bush’s division of the world into moderates and extremists, but that is as intellectually lazy as it is practically unachievable. The challenge to the Annapolis framework is not only the need to summon the political courage to embrace the 78% option, it is also to build a more inclusive process that creates openings for actors who will be crucial to the credibility and sustainability of any secure peace — in particular Hamas. Engaging Hamas, even indirectly, will not be easy, but Hamas, too, is inching toward an acceptance of the 1967 lines. In the context of an agreement that enjoys Arab consensus, an end of occupation and an acceptance of its own political role, Hamas’s acquiescence is far from inconceivable.

Annapolis represents Israel getting to yes with the Arab world. Now Israel and its supporters in America should declare a resounding yes to 78%. Last time I checked, we were a people who recognized a good deal when we saw one.

More Thoughts on Annapolis

The news out of Annapolis is mixed. The optics were certainly all there: a joint statement, uplifting speeches, impressive attendees list and presidential commitment. Of course, the statement lacked substance, but really, it was the statement's existence, not substance, that was important. Failure to produce a joint statement, even one so bereft of content, would have been an inauspicious beginning.

When listening to the speech of President Bush versus that of both Olmert and Abbas, one cannot help but be struck by how jarring, divisive and dangerous Bush continues to be, with his Star-Wars-esque narrative of good versus evil - especially when compared to the more upliftingDarth Vader and empathetic speeches by Olmert and Abbas. It is this narrative that goes down like a lead balloon in the region and the policies it begets may well be the biggest obstacle to progress post-Annapolis. Though we got our nice statements today and there will be cold hard cash for the Palestinians at the Paris donor’s conference in three weeks time, it is ultimately the developments in the region, whether negotiations make progress or are paralyzed and whether the situation on the ground improves or deteriorates, that will define the legacy of Annapolis. If the Roadmap, stuck for the past four-and-half years, is still stuck in a month, and the negotiations are still at an impasse, all those currently sniping from the sidelines at Annapolis and looking like mean-spirited spoilers will feel vindicated and be strengthened. If Annapolis is more aboutBush isolating Iran, defeating Hamas and generally delivering a blow to DarthVader’s stormtroopers than it is about delivering a viable and realistic two-state solution – in other words, more of the same – then we can expect exactly that, more of the destruction and violence that we have seen over the past seven years.

On this front, it does not bode well that just about everyone appears to remain in the undecided category on Syria. President Bush was pointed and cutting in his reference to Lebanon, while the Syrians, for their part, chose to be represented by only a Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad. Annapolis does not yet mark the turning of a new page in the Syria file.

Back on the Israel-Palestine track, if the post-Annapolis process is to gain real traction, then it must be recognized that a divided Palestinian polity cannot midwife a stable, implementable peace. The Hamas spoiler potential is not solely or even principally about its ability to deploy violence but, rather, about the credibility and legitimacy of a process that excludes a democratically elected party. No matter how good the performance at Annapolis, the conflict in question remains grievance-based and its resolution lies in ending the occupation. Though this may be a tough little pill to swallow, America must recognize that the pursuit of an inclusive and comprehensive peace process is not only crucial to progress in the region, but is also therefore vital to the American national interest.

November 27, 2007

Thoughts on Annapolis

Here is a curtain raiser that I have in today’s Guardian online.

Theories abound as to why an Annapolis conference and why now. Jerry Seinfeld would be excused for thinking that this is all a personal conspiracy against him - his visit to Israel was dominating the headlines until Annapolis came along. In fact some in the Israeli media have been drawing a rather unflattering analogy: the Annapolis conference resembles a Seinfeld episode - it's about nothing. Yada yada yada.

It's easy to be cynical, but Annapolis does matter. Israelis and Palestinians will formally re-launch permanent status negotiations after seven long, violent and destructive years. The Bush administration is finally engaged and expending some capital on this issue. The Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, will be in attendance. At the very least it is the kind of gathering that cannot be convened every fortnight, and to come away from it with no results would be a setback to the cause of Middle East peace and something of an embarrassment to those in attendance. The uninvited naysayers back home - Hamas, Iran, you know the list - may look like meanie spoil-sports today, but if a month from now negotiations are stalled and the situation on the ground is just as dreadful (place your bets) then it is they who will be wearing the Cheshire cat grins.

Annapolis could signify the rebirth of hope, but for this to be the case the credibility gaps that have the sceptics buzzing will need to beBush and Olmert addressed.

The first involves the revival of the "roadmap". The history of the four-year-old document, according to which Israeli-Palestinian peace should have been secured in 2005, is one of the more abject lessons in how not to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. This week, however, the parties and the roadmap sponsors will rededicateBush and Abbas themselves to "roadmap phase one", peace-process talk for issues such as settlement freeze, outpost removal, easing of closure and removal of checkpoints, reopening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority institutional and security reform and a crackdown on terrorism.

Precious little from this list has been accomplished. The new ingredient to be revealed at Annapolis will be a US-led monitoring mechanism to oversee implementation of these issues. This may lead to partial improvement on the ground, but it ignores the bigger structural reason for the roadmap's failure. It is the same reason that incrementalism and confidence building has failed as an approach for over 15 years: namely that it is the core political issues that need to be addressed. Delivering on roadmap phase one issues can provide oxygen, for a brief period, to a serious permanent-status negotiation. They cannot replace it.

This takes us to the second credibility challenge Annapolis faces: what kind of a process is being launched? Syrian attendance implies the relaunching of comprehensive negotiations between Israel and all its neighbours. Yet everyone, including Syrians themselves, still seems to be in the undecided category regarding renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The Arab states will be in attendance, but unlike the Madrid conference in 1991, there is no pre-agreed framework for advancing a regional process the morning after Annapolis. At Madrid, a regional architecture was created whereby five working groups met during the subsequent months and years to discuss economic development, environment, water, refugees and arms control and regional security. The modality for maintaining an Arab states' role post-Annapolis has not thus far been formulated.

The headline question, though, is whether Annapolis sets in motion meaningful Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status negotiations. Is Annapolis more about isolating Iran, defeating Hamas and striking a blow for so-called moderation against extremism than it is about actually delivering a viable and realistic two-state solution? While these goals are sometimes described as being mutually supportive, the opposite argument is actually more convincing. The inability of the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans to produce any guiding parameters for these negotiations in advance of Annapolis hardly inspires confidence for the morning after.

So now let us look at each of these actors in turn.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, arrives at Annapolis battered and bruised from both ongoing police investigations and last summer's Lebanon debacle. Olmert's coalition allies on the right are threatening to desert him if the word Jerusalem even passes his lips, and their supposed counterweight, the Labour party leader, Ehud Barak, seems to relish the prospect of Olmert's failure more than the realisation of peace and security for his country. Before Annapolis, when Olmert peeked over this political precipice, he chose to pull back and avoid a moment of truth. But that calculation will need to change for negotiations to become productive. Olmert has convinced many in the Israeli peace camp and his international interlocutors of the sincerity of his pursuit of a realistic peace agreement. This week marked the 30th anniversary of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, an event from which Olmert might draw the following inspiration. When Menachim Begin went to Camp David to negotiate with Sadat, the Israeli public supported peace talks but did not support a full withdrawal from the Sinai or the dismantling of all Israeli settlements there. The then-Israeli opposition leader, Shimon Peres, cautioned Begin against making such concessions. Today's polls on Israeli-Palestinian talks are similar. Absent political courage from the Israeli side and encouragement from the American sponsor (remember the role of the much maligned Jimmy Carter at Camp David), there is no post-Annapolis worth waiting for.

Olmert's political problems must look like a cakewalk from the window of the presidential compound in Ramallah. President Abbas arrives at Annapolis as the head of a divided Palestinian polity and unable to even set foot in Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians live under siege and the threat of further punitive measures (their Israeli neighbours face daily, if largely ineffective, rocket strikes). Abbas needs political concessions from the folks in Jerusalem and Washington and, in particular, a prospect for the end of occupation in order to revive the fortunes of his Fatah movement and the path of negotiated non-violent conflict resolution. The Palestinians will be showered with kind words at Annapolis; three weeks later they will likely receive pledges of hard cash at a donor's conference in Paris. Even if the Palestinians are presented with a horizon of real independence and statehood, it will likely be preconditioned on an unrealistic set of Palestinian security measures.

To really be credible, the Annapolis process will have to overcome two remaining taboos: that Palestinians can deliver ongoing security to Israel under conditions of occupation and that a divided Palestine can midwife a sustainable peace. The Hamas spoiler potential is not solely or even principally about its ability to deploy violence. It is also about the credibility and legitimacy of a process that excludes the party that polled most votes in Palestinian elections.

Which brings us back to our American friends. The Bush administration continues to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of a global war on terrorism and as part of the momentous struggle of good against evil. The great irony of the Annapolis conference is that the framing narrative of its convener is the one thing that most undermines its chances of success. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is grievance-driven and its resolution is all about ending the occupation. Israel needs and deserves security and peace but those things don't coexist cozily with occupation. Violent al-Qaidists and their copycat crews use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to rally and mobilise support, to vilify America and to undermine America's allies in the region.

That does not change the basic equation that for the vast number of Palestinians, Hamas included, this is about addressing a real grievance and not about destroying Israel or America. An America that accurately connects the dots in the region will likely pursue a more inclusive and comprehensive process and do so with the conviction that this is a vital American interest. The alternative is to continue to pursue a policy that looks like it was drawn up on the back of a napkin over lunch with George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer. The Americans are back in the Middle East peacemaking business, but now Annapolis needs to be about more than nothing. And it shouldn't need 180 episodes to get to something. 

November 26, 2007

NPR Interview

I will be posting a longer piece on Annapolis soon but in the meantime, here is aDaniel Levy and Ghaith Al-Omarin NPR interview with myself and Ghaith Al-Omari which, in 9 minutes, gives a pretty succint exposition of our take. 

November 21, 2007

Haaretz Joins the Boo to Barak Chorus

This morning Haaretz came out with an editorial entitled, “Barak –suspected saboteur.” The editorial discusses the same points as yesterday’s ProspectsforPeace.com post, Barak’s Identity Crisis – which highlights Ehud Barak’s skepticism of Annapolis and the domestic political vacuum he leaves by expressing such views. Here a few lines from the editorial to wet your pre-Thanksgiving appetite (personally, I am off to watch England vs. Croatia):
The defense minister has the right not to believe the summit will succeed, but he is absolutely forbidden from sabotaging it while working for a government that has decided to strive toward its success.
His colleagues in the Labor leadership have good reason to complain. "We are keeping silent and leaving the arena open to pressure from the right wing," Ami Ayalon said recently. Others complained of their party's passive line. Labor is supposed to constitute the government's most influential bloc regarding progress on negotiations with the Palestinians. For this very reason, voters cast their ballots for it.

November 20, 2007

Barak's Identity Crisis

Could it possibly be that in the absence of Yassir Arafat, Ehud Barak has decided to assume the role of his erstwhile nemesis? Whether accurately or not, Arafat was often depicted as the stubborn naysayer - a mantle that rather too comfortably sits Barak's shoulders, these days. For a stunning demonstration of the analogy, compare Ehud Barak's speech to a Labor Party convention yesterday, with the former PLO leader's famous appearance at the United Nations in Geneva in November 1974:

Barak: Arafat and Barak"I will go to Annapolis so as not to miss an opportunity for peace, but it will be with both feet on the ground, with open eyes, one hand extended for peace and the other hand with a finger on the trigger in order to squeeze it at the suitable moment."

Arafat: "Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

All mischief-making aside, here is the real problem posed by the way the Israeli Labor Party Leader and Defense Minister is now positioning himself: to the extent that the creation of Kadima presented an opportunity to break the Israeli political deadlock, it was predicated on leading a diplomatic effort from the center of the Israeli political map that would be pulled from both right and left. A Kadima-led process would always, by definition, be centrist because of these countervailing left-right pressures. Theoretically, the Israeli political tie would be broken and a majority ensured for far-reaching diplomatic moves. Ehud Barak, by positioning himself to the right of Ehud Olmert, with regard to the diplomatic process, has destroyed this delicate balance. In so doing, he has made a political breakthrough, and the attendant advancing of peace and security for Israel, more difficult. Barak's own Labor Party colleagues have not been shy in criticizing the unhelpful role played by the Party Boss. The field has been left open to Olmert's right-wing allies in the Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties to drive the domestic political dynamic pre-Annapolis. Barak, more than anyone, could have prevented this. It would not be unfair to describe Barak, rather than Olmert, as the Annapolis spoiler.

Of course, Olmert's political weakness, which predates the Annapolis preparations, has also limited his room for maneuver and Barak is certainly not to blame on this front. And a lack of American boldness and decisiveness in driving the Annapolis process no doubt encouraged Barak's negativity and Olmert's caution. Barak is unlikely to change his spots post-Annapolis while he remains focused on regaining the premiership, though if he is successful, we may see a different Ehud Barak. If the American ingredient in this so-far unconstructive mix does not change, then we can expect more of the same damp squib process in the coming months.

Links to the re-released letter, ICG report, and C-SPAN coverage

 

The letter to President Bush and Secretary Rice with all the new signatories can be viewed here

The ICG report that was released at the event can be read here

The C-SPAN coverage of the event may be found here

November 19, 2007

Annapolis and Beyond: What (Not) to Expect

With the official American announcement of the Annapolis meeting (finally) due tomorrow morning, the New America Foundation, together with the International Crisis Group, will be hosting an event under the heading of this blog post with Rob Malley, Ghaith Al-Omari, and myself as three former negotiators (from the American, Palestinian, and Israeli sides respectively.) If you are in Washington, and want to come to the event, then show up at NAF (1630 Connecticut Avenue NW, 7th Floor) at, or before, 10 am. It's likely to be pretty packed but, at worst, there is an overflow room.

The event is due to be carried live on C-SPAN (the mothership channel, unless it gets bumped down to CSPAN 2 or 3,) so you can also follow it there. We will be using this occasion tomorrow to re-release the Annapolis Letter to President Bush with c 70 new signatories in addition to the original 8 (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee H. Hamilton , Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas R. Pickering, Brent Scowcroft, Theodore C. Sorensen and Paul Volcker.) The full list of signatories will be posted here as soon as it is formally released at 10am tomorrow. As a teaser, the list includes: Director, Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University; Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. Ambassador to Israel EDWARD DJEREJIAN, Former Chief Monitor, the Middle East Roadmap, Department of State and U.S. Ambassador JOHN S. WOLF, former US Senators GARY HART, LINCOLN CHAFEE, BIRCH BAYH, LARRY PRESSLER and TIMOTHY WIRTH, former US Ambassadors HARRIET "HATTIE" BABBITT, JOHN MALOTT, FELIX ROHATYN, and FRANK WISNER, former Congressmen STEPHEN SOLARZ and AMO HOUGHTON Jr., former Assistant Secretary of State JAMES DOBBINS, former State Department Policy Planning Director MORTON HALPERIN, RAND Corporation Board Member and New America Foundation/American Strategy Program Chair RITA HAUSER, former Israel Foreign Minister SCHLOMO BEN-AMI, retired Marine Corps General JOHN J. "JACK" SHEEHAN, former National Intelligence Council Chairman ROBERT HUTCHINGS, former Assistant Secretary of Defense LAWRENCE KORB, former National Security Agency Director Lt. General WILLIAM ODOM, Former CIA Deputy Director JOHN McLAUGHLIN, Brookings Visiting Senior Fellow DIANA VILLIERS NEGROPONTE, former EU Commissioner for Foreign Relations CHRISTOPHER PATTEN, and Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School Dean ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER

Finally, a new ICG report looking ahead to Annapolis will be released tomorrow and will be linked to here once it is available.

November 8, 2007

Pre-Annapolis Briefing: The Israeli Political Math

As Annapolis is approaching and with folks re-learning how to pronounce Shas, Yisrael Beteinu and getting their heads around the quirky nature of Israeli politics, I thought it would be useful to put out this rather comprehensive briefing (apologies up-front for the length of this, by way of compensation here is a link to the hilarious Obama Girl’s “Perfected: the Ann Coulter Song”—not to be opened until completing this piece though).  As reported at Prospects for Peace, the emphasis has shifted from delivering a document at Annapolis that provides some clarity on permanent status to focusing on issues of process with the likely product being a rather familiar mix of procedural commitments and on-the-ground deliverables (that are then not delivered). 

A major reason for the shifting of emphasis away from core permanent status issues has been the lack of political wiggle room afforded to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by the coalition math. Parties within Olmert’s governing coalition, as well as members of his own Kadima party, declared their opposition to any far reaching understandings with the Palestinians on territory, Jerusalem…etc.  Nevertheless, whether before Annapolis in a last ditch effort to make the gathering something more than a “photo-up” or post-Annapolis as negotiations move forward, the core issues will eventually have to be addressed.  So too will be the thorny Roadmap Commitments — settlement freeze, outpost removal, checkpoints, prisoners, and re-opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem.  And so the question will be asked: what can the Israeli domestic political traffic stand?  How far can Olmert go while maintaining a governing majority? Below is a detailed primer on that Israeli political landscape.  Obviously all the disclaimers apply of unpredictability, especially when Israeli politics is concerned—but some basic Israeli political number crunching can be attempted. 

First, in a way it’s nice to be discussing these issues.  Last time the Israeli pulse had to be checked on anything even vaguely peace related was the disengagement with Gaza, and, previously, during Ehud Barak’s negotiations with Yasser Arafat.  Anyone familiar especially with the Sharon disengagement story will remember the dynamic that often came into play.  On the one hand, an Israeli prime minister wants to get something done on the political track and genuinely needs to secure a Knesset majority to do so. On the other hand, displays of domestic political opposition, in particular when they come from within the governing coalition, are useful in demonstrating to the Palestinians, the Americans, whoever, that the Israeli leader has very limited room for maneuver.  Haaretz analyst, Aluf Benn, has called this the PM’s “Welcome right-wing leverage.” Arik Sharon played this game all the time.  Ehud Olmert appears to have recently got into the same habit, and fallen into this convenient modus operandi.  The American Secretary of State is encouraged to, “hear for herself” just how inflexible the Israeli Prime Minister’s coalition allies can be.  So Condoleezza Rice met with Shas party leader, Eli Yishai and Yisrael Beteinu Chair, Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom are Cabinet ministers and both of whom are threatening to bolt the coalition if Jerusalem is even discussed.

Of course the political acumen of the Israeli Prime Minister in question is also a very major factor in coalition building and maintenance.  Ariel Sharon had the political skill to hold things together; Ehud Barak did not.  Ehud Olmert has already proven what a smart, tenacious and effective political operator he can be. 

Let’s jump straight to the political threats facing Ehud Olmert and the seemingly endless calculations that are thrown up by an Israeli Knesset consisting of 120 members who are divided into 12 parliamentary factions, three of which are themselves coalitions of more than one party (the Ra’am-Ta’al inappropriately named United Arab List, the United Torah Judaism faction and the National Union-National Religious Party faction) and one more which is on the verge of a split—the Pensioners Party. 

The news of Ehud Olmert’s prostate cancer discovery (which medical experts have thankfully said is not threatening), the sympathy that it generated and the impressively transparent and forthcoming way in which the PM notified the public, have all given Olmert a boost in the polls.  Olmert continues to trail his challengers, the respective leaders of the Likud and Labor parties, Netanyahu and Barak.  But let’s not get carried away, this is not a popularity contest that excites most Israelis.  A few weeks ago during the Jewish holidays, the Ma’ariv newspaper polled Israelis on who was the best Prime Minister in the country’s history: Netanyahu scored 4.4 percent, Barak, 0.2 percent, Olmert, 0.0 percent.  Clash of the Titans this ain’t.

Health issues notwithstanding, there are four issues on the horizon that threaten to put an end to Ehud Olmert’s fine political run.  Fall-out from any peace effort is one of the four, but let’s first look at the other three. 

(1.)  The final report of the Winograd Committee investigating last summer’s Lebanon war 

It is still unclear when the final report will be made public, the issue is being contested in the courts and any delay beyond early ’08 is likely to lead either to the Committee disbanding itself or to its findings losing their political punch.  Court rulings permitting the report will be out by year’s end. The final version will not be significantly more damning than the interim report released in April 2007, except in one respect.  Prime Minister Olmert authorized the ground operation on Friday, August 11th even though the UN Security Council was in the process of approving Resolution 1701. That operation, in which 33 Israeli soldiers lost their lives, is widely considered to be the singular most catastrophic decision of an overall flawed war. The report will lead to new public, media, and political calls for Olmert’s resignation.  The public are unlikely to mobilize and the real question will be how Ehud Barak and his Labor party act.  During the Labor leadership elections, Barak committed himself to a vague formula on bringing down the government if Olmert did not draw the necessary conclusions from the Committee’s final report.  Barak is keen to flexibly interpret his own commitment and is unlikely to face significant pressure from within his own party to push for immediate elections. Barak intends to remain Defense Minister for a period of time and told Ma’ariv lead commentator, Ben Kaspit, that
I will live up to my promise. I never said that Labor would quit the government the moment the report is published.  I said that if Olmert did not reach the conclusions that he should, we will start talking in the Knesset about forming a new government or setting an agreed date for new elections.  That is what will happen.
Not exactly the kind of political threat that has Olmert quaking in his boots.  The Winograd report can act as an organizing moment for opposition to Olmert but absent an existing majority within his own party, in the coalition, or in the Knesset to exploit the moment, the report in itself, will not bring Olmert down. 

(2.) The ongoing police investigations against the Prime Minister  

There are several cases, in which Olmert is involved, which are currently being investigated in parallel.  All are related to supposed wrongdoings that preceded him becoming Prime Minister. These include framing the terms of the tender for the sale of Bank Leumi to assist an associate, political appointments when Trade and Industry Minister, and handing contracts to his friend, Uri Messer.  These investigations obviously make the public atmosphere in which Olmert operates uncomfortable.  It is worth remembering though that Olmert’s three predecessors—Sharon, Barak, and Netanyahu—were all in a similar position, serving in the highest office of PM while under investigation.  Such cases tend to proceed slowly and many neutral observers consider most of the allegations to be hard to substantiate, insufficient to bring down a Prime Minister, motivated by an over-zealous State Comptroller, or a combination of the three.  Unless something changes during the course of the investigations, these are likely to remain an annoyance rather than an imminent threat.

(3.) Approval of the annual state budget 

According to Israeli law, if the Knesset fails to pass the state budget 90 days into a new year then the Knesset is automatically dissolved and new elections are held.  This is not to suggest that insoluble budgetary issues confront Olmert in the weeks ahead, rather that the budget is always a good opportunity for the opposition to push the envelope with disaffected coalition members and for political brinksmanship. Given that the budget debates this year will coincide with the post-Annapolis political fall-out, there is likely to be a significant overlap between the two. Rebellious coalition allies could choose to force a showdown over budgetary rather than diplomatic squabbles.  Historically, the ultra-orthodox parties, on whom Olmert may end up relying, tend to be rather good at translating the mending of ideological differences into quantifiable budget lines. In fact, the budget conversely could be as much an opportunity as a threat and creates the prospect of treasury generosity securing the quiescence of the United Torah Judaism and/or Shas for Olmert’s diplomatic moves.

Annapolis Number Crunching

It is though, the renewed dialogue with the Palestinians that has coalition allies shuffling in their seats and threatening to abandon Olmert.  At this stage one can quite confidently predict that the Annapolis Summit will be light on substance of permanent status issues and rather heavy on matters of process and on Roadmap Phase 1 commitments.  Avoiding taking a stand on the questions of Jerusalem, territory, and refugees will ease the immediate coalition jostling.  In fact, fear of political fallout seems to have played a role in convincing Olmert to back off from the more substantive dialogue that was begun with President Abbas in advance of Annapolis.  Olmert convinced President Bush, Secretary Rice, and his Palestinian interlocutors that his political predicament was sufficiently precarious as to preclude outlining permanent status parameters.  Ambitions for Annapolis have been scaled back accordingly.  Yet whatever the outcome of Annapolis and even the limited commitments undertaken there will cause a degree of domestic political rupture.  And certainly if there is a process post-Annapolis that includes permanent status negotiations and implementation of previous commitments on settlements, outposts, closures, prisoners, etc. (as Secretary Rice is determined to see happen) then the Israeli coalition number game will become a popular spectator sport. 

Speaking at the Brookings-Saban Forum on Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister directly addressed the rocky coalition road ahead, “We will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations [Roadmap]…some of them are difficult, some will create considerable political hardships—and I have no intention, no matter how difficult it is of attempting to escape the obligations imposed on the state of Israel.”  All three parties, American, Israeli, and Palestinian, have spoken in recent days of attempting to conclude negotiations while President Bush is still in office. So, in the absence of formaldehyde being applied to the process post-Annapolis, sustained progress will be intimately linked to the dynamics within the Israeli Knesset.  Of course the situation on the ground, divisions on the Palestinian side, and American tenacity will also all play key roles.  But they are not the subject of this briefing. 

Knesset Recap

Before playing with the numbers let’s just remind ourselves of the composition of the current Knesset:

Kadima: 29
Labor-Meimad: 19
Likud: 12
Shas: 12
Yisrael Beteinu: 11
National Union (NU)/National Religious Party (NRP) (Ichud Leumi-Mafdal): 9
Gil-Pensioners Party: 7
United Torah Judaism (UTJ): 6
Meretz-Yahad: 5
United Arab List (UAL)/Ra’am-Ta’al: 4
Hadash: 3
National Democratic Assembly (Balad): 3

In broad brush terms this is how the various factions line up on peace efforts with the Palestinians;

Kadima (29)

The party was formed around the agenda of further disengagement from the Palestinians and withdrawals on the West Bank although the platform avoids specifics on territory, Jerusalem, etc. As a bloc, Kadima will support the efforts of its own Prime Minister; there exists though potential for a small rebellion within Kadima—part of the rebellion will be ideological and part personal-political.  Of the ministerial heavyweight political rivals to Olmert inside Kadima, only one, Shaul Mofaz, is really likely to lead an internal opposition.  Of the other potential candidates; Interior Minister, Meir Sheetrit, belongs to the dovish wing of the party; Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, now heads the negotiation team and it would be very awkward for her to break with the PM over the Palestinian issue and Public Security Minister; Avi Dichter, though occasionally openly critical of Olmert’s peace efforts and least reliable of the three, is still unlikely to cross party lines. 

Transportation Minister, Mofaz, traditionally a hawk, has already voted against Olmert in the cabinet on prior prisoner releases and seems to be positioning himself to possibly attempt to pull Kadima rightwards or lead a group that would split and reunite with the Likud.  In terms of Kadima foot soldiers to join a rebel movement, there are perhaps half a dozen MKs in the mix.  MKs Otniel Schneller and Ze’ev Elkin both live in settlements on the West Bank and occupy Kadima’s hawkish flank while MKs Marina Solodkin and Avigdor Yitzhaki both harbor personal political grievances against the PM.  With deft political management, Olmert could keep the Kadima political defections on peace to very small and manageable numbers.  The same applies to the seven-member Pensioners Party, which sits in the Knesset as a joint faction with Kadima.  The internal personal rivalries within the Pensioners Party again create the potential for a mini-rebellion (2 MKs perhaps).  According to Israeli rules, one-third of the members of a Knesset party faction is required in order to break away and form a new, independent and recognized faction.  The potential for a one-third breakaway within the Kadima/Pensioners faction does not seem to exist, individual rebellions are likely.  

Labor (19)

Despite Ehud Barak’s unconcealed skepticism and right-wing posturing in the run-up to Annapolis (he described the summit as a soufflé), the Labor party, even under his leadership, cannot politically oppose the peace efforts of a centrist Prime Minister.  In fact, Barak has already started tempering his rhetoric, describing the Annapolis Conference as “an opportunity not a threat.  I hope it will succeed with all my heart” when speaking at the rally to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday night.  Virtually the entire Labor party faction in the Knesset is less hawkish than Barak and the Defense Minister is, therefore, ultimately severely constrained in his ability to mount any political opposition to Olmert’s peace moves. In fact, criticism is growing within Labor ranks of their leaders apparent sabotaging of a peace effort — from Minister Ami Ayalon and MKs Sneh, Pines-Paz, Peretz and Cabel among others. But Barak is Defense Minister and in this capacity he will have endless opportunities to undermine the Prime Minister were a serious peace push to be embarked upon. Olmert has the 19 Labor votes in the Knesset, Barak has a security tool-box full of tempting provocations and obstacles. 

The Likud and Right-wing Opposition         

The 21 seats of the Likud (12) and NRP-NU (9) opposition will be solidly against any diplomatic effort by the current government.  The Likud could change its posture were they to join the coalition but that is sufficiently unlikely at this stage as to not be worth factoring into the equation.  Nahum Barnea commented in Yediot Aharonot this week that for the first time in a long time, “the extreme right-wing is returning to the streets.”  This renewed protest activity represents a certain trepidation regarding Annapolis (that it might actually lead somewhere), is designed to keep the parliamentary opposition right on a short leash (no difficulty there) and more importantly to put pressure on the right wing parties within the coalition—Shas and Yisrael Beteinu.  It is worth noting and it is a remarkable feature of the current Knesset that the only hands that are guaranteed to be raised against any peace move right now belong to the 21 members of this bloc.  Virtually every other vote is up for grabs at least to abstain and this is a crucial asset for Olmert if he actually intends to make progress. 

The Ultra-Orthodox Parties

Shas (12) and UTJ (6) do not of course begin their voting calculations on the diplomatic process from the same position, Shas being inside the coalition and UTJ not.  And there is no guarantee that they will vote the same way, yet there is a strong interaction between these two parties on such issues.  It is more difficult for Shas to display flexibility on a given peace-related vote if UTJ is implacably opposed and vice versa.  This is because the respective Rabbinical councils, ultra-orthodox media, pamphleteers, and street activists are rather good at embarrassing each other, and take great spiritual pleasure in so doing.   

The key historic moment for Shas on the peace process came when its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 1989, announced a religious halakic ruling that land could be ceded if that would help save lives (Pikuach Nefesh). The Shas of then is not the Shas of now—the party now competes more aggressively for a broader rightist Likud-leaning constituency and has drifted toward ever more resolute hawkishness. Yet Rabbi Yosef remains its spiritual mentor and under certain circumstances Shas could still swing both ways.  Those circumstances tend to be intimately connected to budgetary allocations. But it is too simple to say that Shas support for a diplomatic effort can be bought.  The Shas leader, Eli Yishai, is on record as opposing even a discussion of the issue of Jerusalem with the Palestinians and has threatened to quit the coalition if this happens.  Shas is constantly looking over its rightwing shoulder. 

UTJ is similarly most open to diplomatic initiatives when its snout is at the appropriations trough.  If anything, UTJ has a more vociferously rightwing constituency than Shas and more rigid rabbinical leadership.  UTJ actually contains representatives of two competing trends within Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy—Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel—and they do not necessarily vote the same way.  Both parties have a keen sense of political strength and political weakness, of where the political winds are blowing and of self-preservation.  So the surrounding envelope, the context in which any key diplomatic vote takes place can be crucial to how Shas and UTJ behave.  A yes vote is a stretch although just conceivable but an abstention by the 12 members of Shas or the six members of UTJ or both is within the realms of the politically deliverable.  

Yisrael Beteinu (11)  

Party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has gone as far as to produce a document of principles and red-lines for final status arrangements with the Palestinians that he shared with PM Olmert.  Suffice it to say that a minor ingredient lacking from this plan is the machine that would produce the Palestinians who would agree to its content.  The eleven members of Yisrael Beteinu are likely to be the most ardent Annapolis rejectionists from within the ranks of the current coalition.  Lieberman’s party may choose to oppose implementation of Roadmap Phase 1 issues from within the coalition but are likely to join the opposition benches should real progress be made on any permanent status document.  Lieberman may prefer to quit the coalition closer to elections rather than spend a longish period on the opposition benches. 

The Zionist and Arab Left

Meretz (5) will likely provide a safety net even from outside of the coalition for any agreement with the Palestinians.  While there is some dissent within the ranks led by MK Zahava Galon that calls for bringing down Olmert irrespective of any peace overtures, that is currently a camp of one person and is unlikely to grow.  The three parties that represent the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel are, unsurprisingly, not on the same page.  Hadash (3) is closest to the secular nationalist PLO leadership and is most likely to support any agreement that Israel reaches with them.  UAL (4) is closer to the Islamists and could possibly split on a peace process related vote (with MKs Ahmad Tibi and Talab El-Sana closer to a Fatah line, and MKs Abbas Zkoor and Ibrahim Sarsur more Hamas-sympathetic although if these last two had the deciding votes they would be hard pushed to oppose something that a PLO leader supports).  The Balad faction (3), whose party leader, Azmi Beshara, is now in exile and faces a criminal investigation were he to return to Israel, would feel the least constrained in unapologetically rejecting any deal reached with only one part of a divided Palestinian leadership.  Given the unfortunate (and sometimes racist) nature of the Israeli political discourse, one can anticipate Olmert being less than enthusiastic about relying on Arab support to secure a majority in any critical peace vote.  In political terms Olmert may prefer winning on a vote where the opposition includes Arab MKs.

Get out the Abacus

So where does all this leave us?  First, a reminder of recent history.  Just over seven years ago when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak left for Camp David he was leader of a minority coalition of only 30 members.  From a high point of 77 members when the government was formed and included 7 parties, the coalition had collapsed to include just one quarter of the Knesset (30 MKs) and only two parties (Barak’s own Labor Party-One Israel faction and the Center party).  Olmert will leave for Annapolis in an incomparably better position in this respect. 

There are many ways to slice the Israeli Knesset.  Here are the relevant ones when looking at Olmert’s maneuverability for before and after Annapolis. 
The coalition/opposition split is 78/42.
Within the coalition, 55 MKs are from parties in the center, 23 MKs are from parties on the right. 

On the opposition side, 21 MKs are from the right and far right, 6 are ultra-orthodox and 15 on the left, including the far-left that will not take its cues from the PA-Ramallah leadership.

Dividing the Knesset, center-left versus center-right (that includes all the religious) the breakdown is 70 versus 50. 

On the diplomatic process the best way to present the numbers is probably as follows: 67 MKs from parties/factions favoring a deal, 21 MKs from parties opposed to a deal, 32 MKs from undecided parties who will tend to oppose but who have a certain degree of flexibility at least to abstain. 

So let’s take that starting position of 67.  It includes Kadima, Labor, Pensioners, Meretz, Hadash and UAL.  Olmert has to lock-in these votes and lose as few as possible.  There will be defections—mostly from within his own Kadima party—5 or so rebels is manageable, 10 becomes a melt-down and has the political danger lights flashing.  The melt-down is avoidable. In addition, Olmert has to woo as many of the 32 undecideds as possible to at least abstain or be absent in key votes.  That is a more realistic prospect at least with Shas and UTJ, and absentees/abstentions would be enough to hand Olmert large margins of victory in key votes (one could imagine 60 MKs in favor, 40 MKs against and 20 MKs absent/abstain). 

Of course much depends on what issue is being brought to a vote.  Prisoner releases, checkpoint removal and easing of closures all do not require Knesset approval—they can be challenged by no-confidence motions but coalition allies (Shas, Yisrael Beteinu) have all opposed such measures in the past without threatening to bring down the government and that is unlikely to change. 

A settlement freeze, outpost removal, IDF redeployment and re-opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem also need not be taken to a Knesset vote—but these issues have not been tested in the current Knesset and the opposition would seize on any of them in order to push no confidence votes, pressure and embarrass reluctant coalition allies.  IDF redeployment is the easiest to do politically but the most difficult to convince the security establishment on.  The Knesset traffic can almost certainly bear the token removal of a few outposts—but not implementation of the actual Roadmap commitment of removing all outposts erected since March 2001. 

Declaring a settlement freeze would possibly take PM Olmert into new coalition territory and lead to a coalition re-shuffle.  If the US is insistent and Olmert convincingly depicts the settlement freeze as the price for not making concessions elsewhere, for broader Arab participation in the process (i.e. Saudi Arabia) and for maintaining an international front against Iran, then the politics of a freeze can be surmounted with only limited and not fatal coalition damage.  The East Jerusalem institutions would be a much more challenging political stretch, although it is worth noting that this is a Roadmap deliverable that the Palestinians rarely mention. 

And what of an agreement on permanent status issues?

While Olmert is very unlikely to be up-ended and lose his coalition over the act of conducting negotiations, the reaching of an agreement or parameters or a DOP, is another matter.  This would be a moment of truth—all the Israeli protestations of being so peace-loving would be put to the test, and it would have something of a sobering effect on all concerned.  When the prospect of creating such a moment was contemplated in the run-up to Annapolis, Olmert blinked first.  If, as all parties will claim at Annapolis, great effort is to be devoted to securing an agreement during Bush’s remaining months in office, and it “succeeds” then Olmert is more likely to take that to the public than to the Knesset.  In the unlikely event of an agreement being reached on permanent status, expect Olmert to call new elections, make this his platform and turn the poll into a kind of referendum on peace. 

Bottom line, should he be so inclined, Olmert has a majority to pursue negotiations and for many key Roadmap deliverables; and yes there would be the political knocks, bumps and crises that can be safely avoided by doing nothing.  None of those crises will be as damaging to Olmert politically or to Israel strategically as the folly of last summer’s Lebanon war.  Probability?  Well here’s one indicator: there used to be, but there is no longer a market for trading on Israeli-Palestinian peace at intrade.com (you can though bet on an air strike on Iran by December ’08 and that last traded at 50% probability).  The folks at Intrade ain’t betting on Annapolis and so, thus far at least, neither can you!

November 6, 2007

Annapolis Update: Now It's All About Post-Annapolis

(This post will mainly be an update on where things stand and for once, only offer very little by way of commentary.)

It has not been made official yet, but the US is due to announce that the Annapolis meeting to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace will take place on the week beginning November 26th.

Efforts in bilateral talks between the parties to reach agreed guidelines or parameters for permanent status have been put on hold. There will be nothing on substance of note at Annapolis. The emphasis on the product or outcome of Annapolis has now shifted to detailing the process that will be pursued following Annapolis and in trying to make that look credible.

Annapolis will be the re-launching of permanent status negotiations. It will mention that all issues will be discussed, talk about the seriousness and intensity with which the parties will approach those talks and offer a suggested timetable, namely the end of the Bush administration and a possible regional dimension (the option of gradual Arab states normalization with Israel in parallel to any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track).

Alongside process, Annapolis will mark a reiteration of the parties’ commitments to implementing Roadmap phase I obligations. That is principally security measures and ongoing institutional reform on the Palestinian side, alongside settlement freeze, outpost removal, easing of closure, redeployment of IDF, and reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem from the Israeli side. Expect an argument the morning after Annapolis on whether these measures are to be taken in parallel or sequentially (in other words, the Palestinians have to fulfill all their obligations before anything is expected of Israel). Re-selling and re-packaging 4 year old commitments that have been stuck since day one should pose a challenge to the spin-masters.

The suggested new ingredient will be a trilateral committee – Israeli-Palestinian-American - to oversee implementation of these measures. The same reasons that have led to paralysis on gradual measures all these years still apply, although American engagement and heavy lifting, which have thus far been absent, could at least deliver some traction on the low hanging fruit items (a settlement freeze of sorts, resumption of Palestinian security presence in West Bank towns a la Nablus model, prisoner releases). The Annapolis statement or closing declaration will likely also refer to matters that fall within the mandate of Quartet Envoy Blair, namely economic development, institutional reform, and donor assistance to the Palestinians.

The intriguing outstanding question relates to the participants at Annapolis and in particular whether the Saudis and Syrians will attend. On this, ProspectsforPeace.com has heard rumors in both directions and has nothing new to report.

In short, Annapolis has become all about post-Annapolis. Expect precious little there there at the meeting itself. Attempting to look on the bright side, it could be argued that Secretary Rice is over 7 months ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with permanent status issues when compared to the Clinton administration. If Rice can build a robust negotiating process on the core issues and deliver some respite from the deterioration on the ground, then that would not be a bad thing. It would also present new opportunities in the coming months for the US to intervene constructively, should it choose to do so, on the parameters of permanent status. Alongside this, it has to be said that to again base an Israeli-Palestinian process on an American political timetable is ill-advised.

But the real problem is one of framing and the erroneous premise on which this effort continues to be built. Without a reframing on two key issues, at least, success will likely continue to be elusive. First, real security for Israel and continued occupation of the Palestinians cannot go together. Only with de-occupation can Israel realistically expect and demand a robust Palestinian security capacity. To make the latter a pre-requisite of the former is the equation that has previously and will continue to fail. That is a difficult ask for Israel  and everything should be done to minimize the risks, but that is the real world. And second, a broken Palestinian body politic and an entrenched Palestinian division is the way to neither Palestinian statehood nor Israeli security. To the extent to which this process is about re-making Palestinian politics and defeating the bad guys, it is a misconceived process. Hamas will need to be part of the equation and until key actors accept and act upon that truth, actionable progress will remain painfully out of reach.

November 1, 2007

Mapping Solutions on Israel-Palestine

For those of you in Washington, tomorrow’s event with Dan Rothem at the New America Foundation promises to be interesting. Dan is an Israeli who specializes in maps of the occupied territories, settlements, border options, previous negotiations and the separation barrier. This is the next event in our New America Pre-Annapolis briefing series and Dan will look at the current realities and options on all the territorial issues and ideas raised in previous negotiations. Here is the link to the event. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP to communications@newamerica.net.