Olmert Abbas 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
'In furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements," US President George W. Bush said at the Annapolis Naval Academy on November 27, reading from a joint statement agreed upon by representatives of Israel and the PLO. "We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."
Truth be told, not many people thought the goal was realistic then, and that an agreement would be reached by the target date. The euphoria of never-materialized peace deals past gave way this time to a healthy dose of skepticism on all sides, including the media, which generally gush over the "history" of these types of proclamations.
That skepticism was warranted, since now - just four months shy of the deadline - the chances of actually concluding an agreement by the end of the year seem extremely remote.
This time, however, it is not only the hard nut issues - borders, refugees and Jerusalem - that are proving, predictably, impossible to crack. Nor is it that no one has still yet seriously addressed the elephant-in-the-room issue of what to do with Hamas in Gaza, quite an obstacle to any peace deal.
This time there is also the political uncertainty both here and in the Palestinian Authority, as well as a lame duck American administration that no longer has the leverage on the sides it once did.
The political uncertainty here is apparent to all, and its impact on the diplomatic process is clear. With new elections looming just around the corner regardless of who wins the Kadima primary in two weeks, Israel's negotiating team is not going to commit itself to the type of concessions that all realize would not play well with vast swaths of the electorate.
Recent history has shown that in this country candidates talk right before the elections, and then drift left afterward. An agreement to leave the vast majority of the West Bank is not a ticket for electoral success.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, chief negotiator with the PA and a leading prime ministerial aspirant, realizes this well, which is why she is talking about the danger of having a time line dictate the pace of negotiations.
"If there is one thing that it is forbidden to do," she said at a campaign really in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, "it is to let the political schedule impact on the result of the negotiations." Israel must avoid being pushed into a corner and trying to bridge gaps that are, at the present time, unbridgeable, she said to applause.
The Palestinians are also facing their own electoral season, as Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin told the cabinet on Sunday, even though it is not exactly clear if it will be a bona fide electoral season. The only clear thing, Diskin said, is that Abbas's term expires on January 9. But whether he will then hold elections, propose a constitutional amendment that would extend his rule, retire or declare emergency rule is still very much up in the air.
Whatever the case, Abbas too is uninterested in facing his constituency at the end of his term with an agreement that does not promise the "right of return" or enshrine Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state.
Neither Livni nor Abbas is keen on coming up with a document in the next couple of weeks charting where the sides agree.
While that type of document would be good for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because it would show that her work over the last few months has produced at least some fruit, it would be bad for Livni, because it would show what she has agreed to cede, and bad for Abbas, for it would illustrate to his constituency how far he is from getting what it wants.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also, is not keen on an interim document now, preferring instead a full shelf-agreement in December, sans Jerusalem, which he wants to shuffle off to another framework, proposing that it be discussed later, under an international umbrella.
It is clear why Olmert wants to continue with the Annapolis process that began under his watch. With his two-plus year term in office surely to be remembered for the Second Lebanon War and corruption scandals, only setting the foundations for a peace accord would have the capacity of somehow saving his tarnished legacy.
But his personal interest is colliding against both Livni's and Abbas's political ones. Some argued that Olmert's decision to bring to the cabinet for discussion this Sunday an evacuation compensation plan for settlers beyond the security barrier somehow indicated that the sides were further along in the negotiations than they were letting on. Unlikely. Rather, it is more likely this is an attempt to put this issue on the public agenda while the going is still good, because who knows what the makeup of the next government will be and whether it would ever debate such a plan.
Olmert's close ally Haim Ramon has been working on this plan for months, and it is critical for him that all that work not go to waste, but actually be discussed at a cabinet meeting.
Which brings up another very pertinent question. Where, indeed, are the sides on the major issues, nine months after negotiations began in earnest and are taking place in different committees on an almost daily basis?
According to senior diplomatic officials, the "scorecard" at this points looks something like this: significant progress on border issues, no progress on refugees and deferred discussion on Jerusalem.
Regarding security issues, this is being brokered by US Army General James Jones, who is expected to issue a report to Rice in about a month that will go a long way in determining the US position on what are Israel's legitimate security requirements - to ensure that a future Palestinian state is not a threat.
Regarding borders, Olmert reportedly has offered Abbas a deal that would see Israel leave 93 percent of the West Bank, roughly along the current contours of the security barrier, with the country hanging on to the major settlement blocs. The Palestinians would, as compensation for the settlement blocks, be given 5.5 percent of the territory they would lose from the Negev, and the rest in a corridor from the West Bank to Gaza.
The Palestinians, according to diplomatic sources, have not accepted the deal and are holding out for more. In addition, they are opposed to the corridor being considered part of the territorial compensation.
On refugees, the Palestinians continue to demand the right of return, and acknowledgment by Israel of responsibility for their plight. Israel remains opposed, with Livni adamant that it not take in any refugees or their descendants, and Olmert reportedly willing to take in a few thousand - some say the number is 20,000 - on a humanitarian, family-unification basis. Both Olmert and Livni are ready to talk about various compensation plans.
Jerusalem, meanwhile, is not being discussed, and Olmert's proposal is for a new mechanism to be set up where the fate of the city would be taken up again - this time with the involvement of key international players - after the shelf agreement is signed.
Regarding security requirements, Israel has presented the US with a laundry list of security needs for the day after a Palestinian state is established, from requiring that the new state be demilitarized, to early warning systems, control of the Jordan valley and access to it. The Palestinians are opposed, and Jones is still working on a document that Jerusalem believes will chart out what security requirements the Americans feel are reasonable.
While there probably won't be an interim agreement in two weeks, or even a shelf agreement by the end of December, the Jones document - according to diplomatic officials - will be presented to Rice in the coming weeks, or at least by the end of the Bush administration. If nothing else, the US wants to have at least that on the table for the next administration to use when it begins taking on our issues.
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