The diplomatic activity surrounding the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week is bringing the peace conference in Washington another step closer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the conference is meant to support the ongoing talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. She said that the meeting is meant to further discussions on the "core issues" for a solution to the conflict, and also support the Quartet representative, Tony Blair, in his efforts to build Palestinian state institutions.
"As is always the case with the Middle East, one should recognize that the road ahead is one that is very difficult," Rice said on Sunday at the completion of the meeting of the Quartet.
While recognizing that this is indeed the case, and assuming that Israel has a clear interest in the peace conference taking place and succeeding, it is important that the government make every attempt to bolster this diplomatic effort and avoid actions that may undermine it.
First, Israel must show openness and flexibility in the negotiations on the formulation of the declaration of principles that will be presented at the conference. The discussions between the Israeli and Palestinian teams, scheduled to begin next week, must not become fruitless haggling exercises among stubborn negotiators, lacking any substance. The professional atmosphere that has characterized the Abbas-Olmert talks to date must also guide their aides.
The majority of the Israeli public supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on the basis of the Green Line, while exchanging territory for large settlement blocks in the West Bank that will be joined to Israel. This also needs to be the basis for the joint declaration of principles, including the formulas for the solution of the questions of Jerusalem, the refugees and the future security arrangements.
Second, questions of prestige and political infighting must not be allowed to foil the diplomatic effort. There is no real dispute among Kadima ministers, or between Kadima and Labor, on the desired formula for a settlement. All are united around the same principles and the same map, more or less. The efforts by some ministers, especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to distinguish himself from the prime minister by putting forth pessimistic assessments and tough conditions for a settlement with the Palestinians only complicates, unnecessarily, the conduct of the negotiations.
Third, it is important that the efforts to bolster Abbas and the moderates in the West Bank are also felt on the ground, not only heard in speeches and statements. The prime minister's declaration during his speech last Thursday that "Abbas is a partner" was appropriate in both its setting and timing, and demonstrated Olmert's commitment to the peace process. But it does not fit well with the delays that the defense establishment is creating in lifting the roadblocks in the West Bank and in the removal of the illegal outposts. The government decision to release 91 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture for Ramadan was lacking in generosity, and talk about the deployment of Palestinian Authority policemen in Nablus seems to be pure mockery.
It is hard to see how these tiny steps will advance the declared aim - bolstering Abbas' standing among the Palestinian public - if these are not felt by the people in the West Bank.
There are still two months before the conference in Washington, and it is important that this time is used to further the process in which the conference is central, and to prepare for the next stages in the negotiations for the solution of the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
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