Diplomacy: The return of an Oslo state of mind

Israel witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity over the week, including a number of historic visits.

blair peres 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
blair peres 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
All of a sudden, things are moving again on the diplomatic front. They are not moving a lot, they are not necessarily moving by leaps and bounds, but they are moving. And this time it is movement, however slight, not just motion - as in months and years past. The movement started last week, with the meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. It picked up speed with US President George W. Bush's speech on the Middle East, and with the visit on Thursday of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Talking to new PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, Solana enthused to Israeli interlocutors, "is like talking to ourselves. We are on the same page." In the intervening days, Israel decided to release 255 Palestinian prisoners and grant amnesty to nearly 180 wanted Fatah men who were potential prisoners - moves that fueled the momentum. And that was all last week. This week a senior Norwegian diplomat came here, on Sunday, to prepare the ground for a meeting of the donor countries to the PA in September and again at the end of the year, answering Bush's call for the donor countries to take a key role in building up the PA. This was followed by the arrival of new Quartet envoy Tony Blair on Monday, adding his charm and stature to the diplomatic process. On Wednesday it was the turn of the Jordanian foreign minister, Abdelelah al-Khatib, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit for what was billed in Israel, at least, as a "historic first," the first time representatives of the Arab League came for talks in Israel. And that isn't all. On Friday, Blair is to convene a meeting in London to discuss what he saw here this week and how to move forward; on Monday, Gheit and Khatib will give a report to the foreign ministers of the Arab League on their proposals for moving the Arab Peace Initiative forward, and on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive again. Another Olmert-Abbas meeting is likely at the end of next week. "We are witnessing a level of diplomatic activity that we haven't seen in some time," one senior diplomatic official said. "We have to see where it goes, but we haven't had a week like this in quite a while." Another official said after Olmert's meetings with Khatib and Gheit that there was a sense of "cautious optimism" for the first time in years. This sense of momentum was also fueled by the entrance of Haim Ramon into the picture, a virtual "Eveready Bunny" when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Since he was appointed vice premier earlier this month, Ramon has proven instrumental in coming up with names of Palestinian prisoners to place on the list of those to be released, was appointed chairman of a committee tasked with dealing with the illegal settlement outposts, and is floating ideas for Israel's withdrawal from various parts of the West Bank. With Ramon's ideas out there, Olmert's realignment plan - the plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank that Olmert unveiled just before the elections, and which seemed so dead just a few short months ago - is making a reappearance on the national agenda. Also making a return, though much more surprisingly, is terminology reflecting a mind-set from the heady days of Oslo. Sources close to the prime minister confirmed this week that the negotiation of an agreement of principles with the Palestinians was one of a number of ideas being discussed between Abbas and Olmert. The idea behind this agreement of principles is to hammer out an accord on the "political-horizon" issues - what a Palestinian state would look like, how its economy would run, what its relations with Israel would be - and then deal with the more difficult issues later. This represents a fundamental shift in Israeli diplomatic thinking, and signals an abandonment of the road map process, where reaching a peace agreement was seen as a sequential, stage-by-stage process with security being the first stage. A decision to go after an agreement-of-principles document would mean reverting to the approach that largely defined Oslo. In fact, the Oslo Accords were officially called a Declaration of Principles, the idea being that the PA would be set up for an interim period, and the permanent status issues - the hard to solve issues such as Jerusalem, the settlements, refugees, security and borders - would be decided later. The Oslo process was based on the idea that first you make peace, first you sign an agreement, shake hands, reach a Declaration of Principles, and then everything else, including security, naturally falls into place. After the breakdown at Camp David and the second intifada, however, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon reversed this sequence and pushed the idea that first peace and then security simply doesn't work, and that what was needed in its stead was first security, and then peace. First stop blowing up buses, and then it will be possible to talk about a comprehensive peace agreement. A willingness now to discuss an agreement of principles with the PA is coming as more Israeli officials - prodded on by the international community - are saying that the newly reconstituted PA is genuinely trying to put its house in order, but that if Israel waits until the PA uproots the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, it would be waiting a very long time indeed. And time, as the host of visiting leaders here this week pointed out, is very much of the essence. President Shimon Peres, whose move to Beit Hanassi has also energized the diplomatic process, spoke this week of a "historic window of opportunity" whose duration was none too long. Blair echoed these thoughts. The fleeting window of opportunity theme was also picked up by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Blair, Gheit and Khatib. When you have a "historic window of opportunity," this logic demands, you have to act, and act fast. You can't wait for the plodding road map process because it will take forever for the terrorist infrastructure to be dismantled. Time is of the essence. And, indeed, from Olmert's perspective time is of the essence on two counts. The first is a desire in Jerusalem to contain Gaza so that Hamas can not make the types of inroads it made in the Strip inside the West Bank as well. The overriding strategy in Israel, among the Abbas-Fayad camp, and in the international community, is that the Palestinians in Gaza will turn their backs on Hamas if they can only touch and taste benefits coming from alignment with the moderates. But this needs to be done quickly, before Hamas - well oiled from Iran - is able to strengthen its hold on Gaza and expand into the West Bank. In other words, it must be done quickly. And second, there is, of course, a key domestic political element in this equation for Olmert. He does not have all the time in the world, and needs to show the Israeli public that he is heading in a positive direction, that there is hope. He needs results, success, a positive track, and he needs it quickly, before the publication of the Winograd report later this year.