abbas Olmert jericho 224.
(photo credit: AP [file])
It's still looking like the international Middle East conference will take place in November at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It's a good venue, providing Camp David-like security and easy and fast access to Washington, DC. Should peace break out, Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert will be able to get to the White House within an hour to announce it with the president at their side.
You shouldn't hold your breath.
Nonetheless, it is beginning to appear that if the conference actually does take place, progress will be made. The reason is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians will attend a conference without a guarantee that each will be able to claim success afterwards. Similarly, the last thing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - and the Bush administration at large - needs is failure.
There is ample good reason for not convening a conference unless success is a near-certainty.
Right now, Israelis and Palestinians are striving to agree on an accord over final-status peace talks that could be endorsed during the conference. The problem is that the Palestinians want an explicit framework agreement that addresses the key final-status issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees, etc.), with a timetable for implementation, while the Israelis want a more ambiguous broad-brush joint statement.
PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert's reluctance to go for a more detailed agreement is not indicative of a lack of trust in President Mahmoud Abbas. Rather it is an outgrowth of his shaky political situation. Even if he did promise Abbas everything Abbas wants, Olmert would not necessarily be able to deliver, and the Palestinians know it. Nevertheless, Olmert is determined that Abbas not go home empty-handed because he wants to strengthen Abbas, not undercut him.
The bottom line is that the Palestinians are pretty much where they were in January 2001 when, at Taba, the two sides were on the verge of an agreement when the clock ran out (Bush replaced Clinton, and Sharon replaced Barak). And Olmert is near there as well.
This is all good. But it does not mean that an agreement will be reached, especially when the Israeli Right is already screaming about the idea of "dividing" Jerusalem. This is sheer demagoguery. No one proposes dividing anything. In fact, the last thing any Palestinian wants is a city in which they cannot move freely from one part of Jerusalem to another. Moreover, Palestinians know that no Israeli would even contemplate dividing the city; the city is undivided and will remain so.
All Abbas wants, and all Olmert is considering, is shared sovereignty, which should be no big deal - except to those who want the conflict to continue indefinitely.
NEVERTHELESS, Olmert may not be able to offer Palestinians much in terms of final-status issues now. Hopefully, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to agree on a set of principles that will govern future movement toward an agreement and keep the negotiations going. But there must also be tangible changes on the ground, changes which people can feel.
In particular, these must be actions which will strengthen Abbas and a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace with Israel. There are two obvious moves that fit the bill.
One is an immediate and indefinite settlement freeze. For Palestinians, a settlement freeze is what an end to terrorism is for Israelis. It is the sine qua non of further movement and the test of good faith. After all, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are about the final disposition of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Expanding settlements on those lands during negotiations over their final disposition is like eating the vegetables out of the bag while the grocer is weighing it.
And yet that is what has happened since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in 1993. Since then, the number of settlers has grown from 110,000 to 270,000. Every additional settler represents an additional impediment to the possibilities of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement (and it is one of the prime motives for the whole settlement enterprise).
THE OTHER action the Israelis should take is to remove redundant and unnecessary checkpoints in the West Bank. There are now some 500 checkpoints, many located not on the border between Israel and the West Bank but deep within the territory, serving not to guard Israel against terrorism but to separate one Palestinian village from another. These checkpoints make Palestinian life unbearable. The purpose they serve is basically to facilitate movement by settlers while cramping and restricting the lives of the local population.
No one suggests removing any checkpoint essential to Israel's security. However, any checkpoint that does not serve the purpose of protecting Israelis from terrorism should be taken down. Removing these unnecessary physical obstacles to the free movement of Palestinians would greatly strengthen Abbas and the forces of moderation he represents.
Neither of these steps would represent a great sacrifice for Israel. And yet each of them would buttress those Palestinians determined to live in peace with the Jewish state and help advance negotiations on a final-status agreement.
The writer is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.