The Hard Part of a Mideast Deal

The Washington Post

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has clearly spelled out how the Bush administration expects the Palestinian peace negotiations now underway to unfold. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are to hold preparatory meetings to define major elements of a settlement. Their draft outline is to be submitted to an international conference assembled in Annapolis at the end of November; members have yet to be chosen.

Rice has shown determination and ingenuity in bringing matters to this point. Her next challenge will be to steer the process so as to avoid what happened at Camp David in 2000, when Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization leaders sought an agreement, only to see it blow up into a crisis that continues to this day.

At the beginning of most negotiations, each side is clearer about its own position than about the ultimate outcome. With the Annapolis conference, the outcome is to be agreed in advance. What remains uncertain is the participants' ability to implement that outcome.

For most of its history, Israel has rejected the notion of a Palestinian state, insisted on an undivided Jerusalem as its capital and refused to permit a return of Palestinian refugees. The Arab side has matched Israeli refusals by refusing to recognize Israel in any borders; later insisted on the 1967 borders that were never recognized when they were in existence; and demanded an unrestricted right of refugees to return to Palestine with the demographic consequence of overwhelming the Jewish population of the Jewish state.

The process is being driven by the assumption that the parties can be led to accept by the end of November – or have already tacitly accepted – the "Taba Plan" of 2000, developed in the wake of the abortive Camp David meeting. It provides for Israeli withdrawal to essentially the 1967 borders (with minor rectifications) retaining only the settlements around Jerusalem but narrowing the corridor between two principal Israeli cities, Haifa and Tel Aviv, to about 20 miles. The to-be-created Palestinian state would be compensated by some equivalent Israeli territory. Israel seems prepared to agree to an unrestricted return of refugees to the Palestinian state but refuses any return to Israel. Plausible reports have the Israeli government willing to cede the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem (as yet undefined) as the capital of a Palestinian state.

If matters are indeed brought to this point, it would reflect a revolutionary change of perceptions on both sides and a major diplomatic breakthrough.

The intifada and the global momentum of radical Islamism have brought home to the Israeli public and leadership that their state is threatened by four new and growing dangers: first, an altered security environment in which the principal threat is not so much conventional wars as terrorist attacks from groups with no defined geography and operating from small, mobile bases; second, the demographic challenge, because the alternative to a two-state solution could become a single state in which the Jewish population is a minority; third, the existential threat of nuclear proliferation, especially from Iran; and fourth, an international environment in which Israel finds itself increasingly isolated because of the growing perception in Western Europe and in small but influential U.S. circles that Israel's alleged intransigence is the cause of Arab hostility toward the West.

At the same time, the emerging fear of Iran has caused a reordering of priorities in the Arab world. For moderate Sunni states, the danger of a dominant Iran has become their principal preoccupation. The confluence of American, Arab, Israeli and European concerns encourages the hope that an agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors would ease, or even eliminate, their common fears.

Will diplomacy be able to deliver on these expectations? Is the optimism for the proposed schedule justified? And what are the implications of a deadlock? For as soon as the issue of implementation is reached, a host of seemingly technical but profoundly divisive issues will emerge.

As a general diplomatic rule, it is expected that the parties to an agreement assume principal responsibility for carrying out its terms and are able to deliver. In the proposed diplomacy, the interlocutors on both sides have extremely shaky domestic positions. The governing coalition in Israel has collapsed, and approval ratings for the cabinet are at a historic low. The removal of settlements from the West Bank, involving tens of thousands of settlers, will be a traumatic experience for Israel. This is all the more true because Israeli concessions are concrete, immediate and permanent, while the Arab concessions – recognition of Israel and normalization of relations – are abstract and revocable.

The definition of a Palestinian partner has so far proved elusive. Gaza is governed by Hamas, which is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of Israel, not to speak of the specific terms under negotiation. It is unclear how much of the West Bank population Abbas can speak for. Who then takes responsibility for Gaza?

The speeded-up process may also sacrifice short-term convenience to long-term crisis. Would it not be better to draw Israeli cessions of territory from areas with a predominantly Muslim population than from the essentially vacant south? This would improve the demographic balance of both states and reduce the danger of a new intifada later.

Several Arab states have declared their willingness to recognize Israel once it returns to the 1967 borders. But recognition of a state's existence has historically been treated as a factual, not a policy, matter. It is how sovereign states conduct international relations – even when they clash on policy issues. A key question, therefore, is what is meant by "recognition." Will the moderate Arab states pressure Hamas to accept the premises of the peace process? Or will the fashionable pressure for "engagement" with Hamas turn into an alibi for evading that necessity?

Arab opinion is far from uniform. At least three viewpoints are identifiable: a small, dedicated but not very vocal group genuinely believing in coexistence with Israel; a much larger group seeking to destroy Israel by permanent confrontation; an offshoot willing to negotiate with Israel but justifying negotiations domestically as a means to destroy the Jewish state in stages. Are the moderate Arab states prepared to expand and strengthen the group committed to coexistence? Will recognition of Israel bring an end to the unrelenting media, governmental and educational campaign in Arab countries that presents Israel as an illegitimate, imperialist, almost criminal interloper in the region?

Several moderate Arab states have been extraordinarily reluctant to go to Annapolis. If they appear, will they treat their presence as their principal contribution for which one-sided pressure on Israel is deemed the appropriate concession?

Even more portentous will be the implications for the balance of forces within the Arab world. There, moderates will be less praised for their achievement than accused of having betrayed the Arab cause. The statement of Iran's supreme leader last week attacking the Palestinian peace process and warning Arab states not to participate is likely to be the beginning of a systematic campaign. We will be able to sustain the proposed course only if we are prepared to extend long- term support to our Arab partners against the foreseeable onslaught.

The peace process will therefore merge with the generic conflicts of the Middle East. The Annapolis conference cannot be the end of a process; rather, it should lay the groundwork of a potentially hopeful phase that will continue into future administrations. But if our Arab or Israeli friends are asked to take on more than they are able to withstand, we risk another, even larger blow-up. A preparatory "solution" that tears apart the body politic of the parties will prevent ultimate progress. Breaking the psychological back of our Israeli ally would only embolden radicals and thereby destabilize the region – whatever contrary arguments conventional wisdom advances.

Secretary Rice is right in insisting that the Olmert-Abbas talks avoid the ritualistic adjectives of previous efforts still awaiting definition after decades, such as the "just" and "lasting" peace within "secure" and "recognized" borders of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the appeal to a "just, fair and realistic" solution of the refugee problem called for by the "road map." Agreements regarding enforcement and guarantees are also essential – an especially delicate matter when demilitarization and resistance to terrorism are imposed on an emerging sovereign entity.

American leadership on realistic parameters with Israel and moderate Arab countries is an essential precondition to success in Annapolis. In its absence, deadlock and American isolation beckon. The strength of the forces of moderation depends on U.S. standing in the region, and not only with respect to Palestine. No more in Palestine than in Iraq can American influence be fostered by an image of retreat. All the peoples of the region, friend or foe, will be judging the sum total of America's purposes and its steadfastness in pursuit of them.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services Inc.