November’s Peace Summit: Some Guidelines for the Perplexed

Somehow, during the course of the hot August days, a presidential address which seemed to promise rather little has become an effort in Middle East peace summitry that is beginning to raise expectations and is the first of its kind in almost seven years. Three developments have seemed to converge to create this new apparent moment of hope.

First, with the entrenchment of the West Bank-Gaza divide, efforts towards the political horizon long called for by President Abbas were embraced as part of the support for the “new partner in Ramallah.” Second, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, plagued by political weakness, has decided to reinvent his premiership, and an overture to the Palestinians sits nicely with this makeover. Third, the US administration, or (to be more precise) Secretary Rice and the State Department are belatedly ready to get engaged and invest some capital on the Israel-Palestine front.

So a certain expectation is developing in the region, though it is not yet felt in Washington (and it is perhaps unlikely to be, given Iraq’s dominance of the agenda post-Labor Day), that Israeli-Palestinian political issues may be fast-tracked toward an outcome in November. Olmert and Abbas have twice held preliminary discussions on permanent status issues in four eyes, and are due to meet again soon. After that a decision is expected to be taken on establishing teams to possibly begin a drafting process. The US has approached the Arab states and Saudi Arabia in particular to secure their buy-in for November. Ehud Olmert has polled his own public and discovered that they support such an effort (see posting below). Issues such as future borders, division of Jerusalem and refugee resettlement are being aired for the first time in seven years, and there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity.

I just spent ten days back in the region to get a sense of where things are at — meeting with very senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, and catching up with old acquaintances, analysts, and policy wonks.

This piece is an attempt to address ten questions about the prospective November summit. At the outset I should state that such an effort could be very encouraging if it is done right, but could also be rather dangerous if it’s part of a more-of-the-same policy.

1. What are the key actors hoping to achieve in November? It would seem that the broad approach would be to produce a paper setting out a horizon for an end of conflict, two-state solution, that boosts all the so-called moderates in the region, and improves America’s standing and the overall regional atmosphere.

The question of what is the primary driving motivation behind this exercise is an important one. Is this principally about advancing a realistic, decent sustainable Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or is it more an ideological and pedagogical effort to prove that the good guys will get carrots while the bad guys get bushwhacked (punish Hamas, further isolate Syria, etc.). But trying to achieve the latter would likely come at the expense of the former and could actually be a recipe for instability and for further undermining a realizable two-state solution.

And then there is a third interpretation: that this entire effort is a chimera and an exercise in snake-oil salesmanship. It can’t be done, and the entire build-up to November is actually about exposing either the Palestinian unwillingness or inability to deliver. Israel is cast as the side most wanting peace, while the US is the promoter of peaceful solutions and cannot be blamed for the failings of local actors. I think that some of the inside spoilers (the neocons still active in the administration, etc.) are playing along and are not particularly worried as they assume this outcome. I do not, however, think that this is either the motivation or the desire of the US Secretary of State, or of the Israeli leadership. But absent smart handling, it may well be the outcome.

2. What is supposed to happen next? Olmert and Abbas will continue meeting and at some stage, probably the second half of September, a decision will have to be taken on whether to start drafting a document, and, if so, who will do that drafting, and what kind of paper will they draft?  Currently, there is no consensus regarding what type of document is to be negotiated — a short Memorandum Of Understanding, a Declaration Of Principles, or a somewhat longer, more detailed Framework Agreement (FAPS).

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is due in the region in the first week of September, to be followed by Condoleeza Rice ten days after that. The parties are expecting some clarifications regarding the goals for November during those visits.

The donor countries to the Palestinians known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) are due to meet in New York on September 24 in the margins of the UN General Assembly. This will undoubtedly be an occasion for lots of corridor meetings between the various actors who should be involved in November. Palestinian president Abbas actually disclosed earlier this week (look up story, 3 days ago, Abbas saying don’t know who’s invited, what it’s to be.) Indeed the terms of reference have not been defined, but there are hints that a summit, if it is to occur, will actually be hosted by President Bush, and the effort will be to ensure maximum Arab state attendance.

3. How engaged is the US? The answer at the moment seems a little troubling. The administration’s engagement on the issue appears to have transitioned from “don’t want to do that” to “don’t know how to do that.” November is just around the corner, and yet there are precious few signs that heavy diplomatic lifting is really going on. Sporadic visits by the Secretary of State and her team hardly suggest the kind of day-to-day management that a successful outcome demands. No dedicated point person has been drafted in for this effort, and so far, the new Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, is not being given a clear political mandate. In addition, the Iraq debate will be sucking up most of the Washington oxygen in the intervening period.

The possibility of the US presenting a paper to the parties with its suggested parameters is being discussed in some quarters. The impression received in talking to certain involved Palestinians is that some of the Palestinian leadership might actually be holding out for a US position paper.

4. Where do the Arab states stand? Involving the Arab States in the November effort and building on the Saudi Initiative (which was endorsed by the Arab League) is now considered to be an important part of any process. Arab participation, preferably as broad as possible, would help confer legitimacy for a Palestinian sign-off on the compromises that any agreement would entail. This was one of the missing ingredients at Camp David in 2000. Likewise, the beginnings of a normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel would all translate into a major selling point for any agreement with the Israeli public. It would be very helpful to develop a roadmap outlining the reciprocal steps that would be taken between the Arab states and Israel as a process moves along. This might include mutual recognition, exchange of Ambassadors, security guarantees, and an architecture for regional cooperation.

Thus far there is insufficient evidence that such a roadmap is being seriously worked on. Secretary Rice’s last visit to the region which included a meeting with the GCC + 2 Arab foreign ministers and a bilateral with the Saudis, marked a beginning, but this has yet to be followed up in a concerted way. Key will be Saudi Arabia. In fact, the degree of emphasis that has been placed on a possible public Israeli-Saudi interaction is such that anything short of high-level Saudi representation will be deemed a disappointment.

On the flipside it also seems that the Arab states themselves have not developed a coordinated and coherent negotiating position that could maximize the leverage they have in advance of November. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in a press availability with Secretary Rice in Jeddah on August 1, stated that

On the peace conference, I said before that we are interested in a peace conference to deal with the substantive matter of peace, the issues of real substance and not form or non-substantive issues. If that does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia.

When it appeared that the US administration took this to be something of a Saudi commitment to be on board with the conference, the Saudis moved quickly to send clarificatory messages that the Foreign Minister’s statement should be read carefully, and that the Saudi conditions for engagement should not be dismissed. There may be a US effort to use the proposed new US multi-billion dollar arms sale to the Saudis and the difficulty that may face in Congress as leverage to soften the Saudi conditions for attendance.

And finally Syria. Syria has thus far been frozen out of any preparatory discussions for the conference, and as things stand, is unlikely to be seriously approached. Amongst many in the region, the Syrian spoiler capacity is well understood, and non-engagement with the Syrians is seen as unhelpful and even irresponsible. Better to have the Syrians on the inside was a refrain that I frequently heard from senior officials. In fact, what is remarkable is that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership would seem to prefer an inclusive approach with the Syrians, and it is the US that is digging in on this issue, and unwilling to cede any ground. This approach is all the more fraught with danger given the fragile situation in Lebanon. Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had this to say in a recent YNet op-ed:

Bush’s strategy is consistently lacking on several fundamental points. The international conferences basic rules do not include radical participants — Syria and Hamas — and thus encourage them to continue in their role of spoiling the fun. It’s an illusion to believe that peace can be achieved without the participation of these forces. As long as Hamas and Syria remain outside of the peace process, they are destined to proceed on the Iranian track.

5. Are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders politically in a position to carry this off?

Ehud Olmert’s political position has somewhat stabilized over the summer, although that could change when the Knesset reconvenes after the Jewish holidays. Barak’s replacement of Amir Peretz as Defense Minister and Labor leader, the weakening of potential challenges to Olmert within his own Kadima Party, and the likely smooth passage of the annual budget lead most analysts to conclude that elections will not be for a year rather than in a few months.

There is one caveat, and that is the looming threat of the publication of the final report from the Winograd Committee investigating last summer’s war. The schedule for publication is towards year’s end (unless a court appeal procedure that is being used by army officers threatened by the report’s findings causes a long delay). The Winograd’s findings will be harsh and could set in motion a political unraveling, if Barak makes good on his commitment to take Labor out of the coalition. The current assessment is that this is unlikely. Olmert appears to have a parliamentary majority for a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians. Even if Avigdor Lieberman’s right wing “Our Homeland Party” quits over progress with the Palestinians, Olmert can still have a majority and may even be strengthened by demonstrating resolve. It is also worth noting that Olmert is considered by many inside Israel, and among the Palestinian Ramallah leadership, to be the best option available for a peace process right now, given that the alternatives are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

On the Palestinian side, the division between the West Bank and Gaza presents problems of its own. The general perception, even in the West Bank, is that this effort is unlikely to deliver any meaningful results. That assessment is only partially shared by the Ramallah leadership, among whom there are differences in nuance but the basic position is to give this effort a chance while maintaining an understandable skepticism. Were there to be some kind of agreement, then President Abbas would have no problem getting the support of the government in Ramallah. Beyond that things get tricky. Parliamentary approval would have to depend on the absence of Hamas PLC members (which is facilitated by over forty of them being in Israeli jails). Use of a referendum or new elections as a means of legitimizing any deal with the public is considered probably unfeasible in the current circumstances, especially regarding Gaza. A referendum raises the additional question of whether Palestinians outside of the territories would be able to participate. Currently, there is no real plan as to how Gaza could be reintegrated into the Ramallah-led Palestinian Authority, nor is there much appetite in Ramallah for the renewal of any dialogue with Hamas.

The Palestinian public reaction to any deal will be greatly influenced by the substantive content of what is agreed, and also by whether or not there is any improvement to the daily situation on the ground. The refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and even Jordan could become a magnet for opposition.

6. And Hamas, what is happening with them?

Readings at the moment suggest that the Hamas leadership does not feel particularly threatened by the November process. The working assumption in both Damascus and Gaza is that this does not lead anywhere, or at least not anywhere that worries Hamas. Of much greater concern is the day to day situation in Gaza, and, for Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, a sense of potentially becoming the “mayor of Gaza in exile.”

Paradoxically, the November process, when at all considered, could be viewed by Hamas leaders as presenting something of an opportunity. If that process either goes nowhere, or is easy to discredit, due to its substance, or the realities on the ground, then Hamas would be in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fatah. Under this scenario, either President Abbas moves to resume some kind of unity talks with Hamas (as they have advocated), and/or Hamas is boosted and regains the popularity it has recently lost. Hamas is also confident regarding Fatah’s inability to internally reform itself and gain momentum.

If the November process begins to look like it might deliver results for the Ramallah government then the Hamas calculation might change, and resorting to violence to torpedo things would likely be considered. And those who do take the conference seriously, and are planning for it are doing nothing to address up front how Hamas might be brought on board and disincentivized from collapsing the process. In fact, the current approach is quite the opposite.

7. How is the situation on the ground?

In two words, not good. There is no recognizable improvement in the West Bank (nor, of course, in Gaza), and that fuels the Palestinian sense of the futility of the current process. The one major improvement has been the payment of salaries by the Ramallah government, and this obviously has given a boost to the West Bank economy; but, so far, precious little else has changed. There has been no progress on closure and freedom of movement issues. In fact, the new/old Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be positioning himself as something of a spoiler on this front. Barak was quoted extensively in the Israeli media a couple of weeks ago as opposing any withdrawal on the West Bank in the next three to five years. A new plan is being touted that would see permanent checkpoints being replaced by ” mobile checks,” but this, too, would take time to implement and offers little hope. Nothing has been done on the longstanding Israeli government commitment to outpost removal, there is no settlement freeze, and the route of the separation barrier being constructed continues to meander deep into Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to make the most of this bleak situation by focusing on those areas where his own government can have the most impact. His main emphasis is on security and bringing internal law and order to Palestinian cities which would indeed be a significant improvement for the residents. In Ramallah at least, the situation has visibly improved and Fayyad would like to repeat this in other cities, but even this requires Israeli cooperation which has not yet been forthcoming. The impact of July’s prisoner release is long forgotten, and no further releases are planned although an Israeli gesture on this during Ramadan is an option.

The situation in Gaza continues to decline with damage being done to the Gazan economy that will take years to reverse. Under siege, Hamas is increasingly using strong-arm tactics to impose its will in Gaza. There is also a sense that the Ramallah leadership is encouraging this siege on Gaza, and the mutual recrimination in the Palestinian media between Fatah and Hamas serves to feed a public sense of despair and frustration at all political actors.

If a political process does emerge, then the IDF will have another justification for maintaining the tight restrictions on movement in the West Bank. Namely, that a fragile process threatened by spoilers could be undone overnight in the event of a serious security breach, and that circumstances therefore require heightened security caution.

8. What is the best case scenario for November?

First, that the leaders agree to a document that actually spells out — in a meaningful way — parameters for an endgame permanent status including reference to the ’67 lines, Jerusalem division, and refugees. This could perhaps be enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution. A roadmap for relations between Israel and the Arab states that would be built in stages, as the Palestinian process proceeds, would also be helpful. The potential spoilers, especially Hamas and Syria, are given there own roadmaps or political horizons, and they perceive their own interests in acquiescing to, rather than derailing the November process.

All this bolsters the local public acceptance of the process on both sides. It also has a knock-on effect in the region that serves to limit irredentism and mobilization of opposition to the deal in public discourse, on Al Jazeera, and in the refugee camps. Positive visible moves are witnessed on the ground and security holds up, thereby increasing public belief in the process (this might include evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank). The US would then lead an effort to translate the agreed parameters for a deal into a detailed implementable treaty. In this context, should the Palestinians begin to reintegrate politically and resume Fatah-Hamas dialogue, then the US and Israel, this time, do not intervene to undermine such moves.

Having spelt it out like this, I should add to this uber-optimistic scenario, that Manchester United, Chelsea, and Spurs all get relegated, Arsenal do the treble, Tim Henman wins the US open, and England retains the Rugby World Cup.

9. What if that doesn’t happen, what are the pitfalls?

As we’ve mentioned, Abbas, Fayyad and the Ramallah government would be further weakened by failed efforts. The same could happen to Ehud Olmert, paving the way for a more right-wing government in Israel. The belief in a peace process on both sides would be further eroded.

It could, however, be much worse. Fatah, shorn of political hope, might do a repeat run of 2000 — directing a round of violence against Israel as a way of seizing the initiative from Hamas. A half-baked effort would create ideal circumstances for a Hamas- and Syrian-led pushback, and irredentism throughout the region, de-legitimizing negotiation efforts with a long-term negative effect for the prospects of a two-state solution. In an extreme, though not totally unrealistic version of this scenario, opposition is mobilized in the refugee camps (especially in an already tense Lebanon), Iran is emboldened, US allies are undermined again, and the region is further destabilized with possible spillover effects being felt even in Iraq. The regional atmosphere is crucial and it makes the lack of an attempt to engage (even indirectly) with Syria and Hamas even more stunningly negligent.

The last time the peace process collapsed it led to seven lean years. If that were to be repeated it is highly questionable whether the two-state solution can be salvaged. If the prevailing ethos is limited diplomatic capacity and ideological stubbornness, then it would be better not to attempt a November home run. At the very least — and learning from the Camp David experience — fallback plans should be developed.

10. So what to do?

November could still be an opportunity, or at least a moment from which something positive can be salvaged. Of course, the entire issue could become a moot point at any moment should a security or political crisis engulf the scene.

The three key components that are likely to determine the outcome of this effort are as follows:

• The substance of any agreement.
• Getting positive traction on the ground.
• Diffusing the potential risks and addressing the spoilers.

Mishandling any of these three, let alone all of them, may do enough damage to derail the efforts.

Substance matters. This is a moment of choice, and if the leaders are not ready on either side to make the tough choices, then they shouldn’t go in for deception that attempts to paper over the gaps. That means a border based on ’67 with 1:1 land swaps, a divided Jerusalem, and a refugee arrangement that provides compensation, rehabilitation, and understanding, but no right of return to Israel. The US and Quartet should be ready to table a plan.

Even such a paper would still only be a photo of a carrot for the Palestinians, and if the gap between that photo and the reality on the ground is stretched to snapping point, then expect consequences for security and the entire process. In that respect, the US needs to push harder, especially with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to secure improvements in the situation in the territories.

Finally, all who are involved must take the regional dimension seriously, and especially those actors whose exclusion is both unnecessary and threatening. This is either about building a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace or ideological point-scoring. It’s either-or. It should not be both. One should be de-fanging, rather than sharpening the fangs of the potential opponents to a deal. Incentives for cooperation should be created, even indirectly via, for instance, back channels led by European states or Turkey. A helpful November outcome requires dramatically stepping up the diplomatic engagement and water-carrying, and doing so very soon.