Gilead Sher: The Day after Annapolis

Attorney Gilead Sher is upbeat about the U.S.-initiated Annapolis peace conference. Exhorting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pursue the opportunities that the Annapolis Conference presents, Sher says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report, "There are huge emotional, psychological, religious, political, historical and economic obstacles ahead of us. But I fail to see a continued status quo as a viable alternative." Sher served as a negotiator with the Palestinians under both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. His book describing the talks at Camp David and Taba, "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach" was published by Routledge in 2006. The Jerusalem Report: What advice would you offer Prime Minster Olmert for Annapolis? Gilead Sher: Three words: Prepare, prepare, prepare. We should prepare the working plan, which must start the day after the conference, and we should prepare the teams at various levels - diplomatic, ministerial and negotiating-professional. We must look ahead to November 2008, think of where we want to be and then "work backwards" to reach that goal. To do so, we must prepare the management of the conference and contingency plans for possible deadlocks or outbreaks of violence and ways to deal with the spoilers. However, at this time, I don't see this kind of preparation for an organized, binding, and clear process. What is the point of a high-profile conference, if everything is concluded ahead of time? The value of the conference lies in the fact that all the parties sit around one table and jump-start the process back into gear. The conference is not the place for long-term, concrete negotiations. What can we expect the conference to achieve? We must define success in modest, humble terms - we will not be able to resolve a final-status agreement in a day or a few weeks - perhaps not even in a few years. The conference should be able to define a clear, binding and continuous process that will commence - literally - the day after the conference; to reach a substantive understanding of a joint vision for the end of the conflict and the process that will lead us there; and to create a work plan for changing the difficult daily reality on the ground, in both Sderot and the West Bank and Gaza. If we succeed in calibrating our expectations and coordinating the process towards these goals, the conference will be a success. The Israeli public is wary because the failure of the Camp David Accords led to the second intifada. This is a common misreading of what happened at Camp David. It was not a failure: We set the main parameters for a permanent settlement there. In fact, we resumed negotiations only three days after Camp David and held more than 50 sessions before the end of September. We could have reached a comprehensive agreement. But then Ariel Sharon made his misguided visit to the Temple Mount and Arafat made a tragic decision - for his own people and for us - to resort to violence and hostility, instead of negotiating the end of the conflict. Furthermore, if the expectations are realistic, then even if the Annapolis Conference does fail, it will not result in despair and so there will be no violence. What do you think of the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the bill curtailing the government's ability to change Jerusalem's borders? I wish the leaders would stop dealing with words, and put their efforts into clarifying their positions and standpoints in terms of Israel's best interests. After all, if the Palestinians don't recognize Israel as a Jewish state - does that mean we will cease to become a Jewish state? That's ridiculous. But as we gear up towards any negotiations, there will always be political spoilers. It's the leaders' responsibility to help the public recalibrate their expectations. There seems to be little popular or political support for the conference, especially among the Palestinians. Is it wise to convene the conference under such conditions? In the Middle East, it's never the right time, the right place or the right moment and we never have the right leadership. True, both Olmert and [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmud Abbas have low approval ratings. But a leader must lead. If we don't pursue every opportunity for a resolution of the conflict, then in 40 years we'll look back at 80 years of occupation and ask, what have these years done to the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state? This is what the leaders should be talking about - our long-term strategic national objectives and explaining that as Israelis, we have a vested interest in the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Is the current administration taking advantage of your vast experience in negotiating with the Palestinians? I don't believe that the current administration is using the experience of the previous teams and they are not taking advantage of our collective memory. On the other hand, the Palestinians are coming with the same team they had at Camp David - and they will have the advantage of experience, familiarity with the Israeli mentality, and collective memory.