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, 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.