Some dates are sacred
The politicians who argue that "this is not the time for negotiations on a final settlement," are unable to guarantee that in one year, two years or 10 years we will get a better offer, if at all.
The Palestinians consider November to be unlucky, and justly so. Since the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, which recognized the establishment of a national home for the Jews in the Land of Israel, November bodes badly for them - in 30-year intervals.
In November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted on the establishment of a Jewish state; in November 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem to announce that the most important Arab state recognized the Jewish state. If in the coming weeks there is no dramatic change during the meetings for drafting the Annapolis document, November 2007 will be added to that forlorn list. But this time the failure will be marked in bold letters in the book of misses by the Zionist movement.
In an interview published last week in Newsweek and The Washington Post (and widely quoted in the Arab media), Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas expressed regret that the Palestinians refused to accept the UN's decision to divide the area into two states. From the interview, as well as the discussions that he and his aides have been holding with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his advisers, it emerges that the principles of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are within reach. They have not been significantly altered since the Palestinian National Council, under Yasser Arafat (who died in November 2004), declared in Algiers in November 1988 that it accepted UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
In other words, it agreed to dividing the territory on the basis of the borders of June 4, 1967. In the interview, Abbas also expressed his support for Haim Ramon's framework for a settlement on Jerusalem, and explained that even though he, as a Safed native, is not allowed to relinquish the right to return to his home, the two sides should agree on a way to solve this issue.
As in any talks designed to reach a compromise and achieve reconciliation, it is necessary to identify the counterpart's red lines and know when to stop bargaining. Olmert would do well to study the lessons of Ehud Barak in his negotiations with the Palestinians at Camp David and the Syrians at Shepherdstown. Arafat and Hafez Assad refused to give up on the principle - established in the peace agreement with Egypt - of peace in exchange for the territory occupied in 1967, even at the cost of the talks' failure and a falling out with the United States. Abbas, who lost the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which lost the support of a significant portion of West Bank voters, will not give Israel more than Arafat was willing to give, just like Bashar Assad will be no more generous than his father.
What has changed for the better since Arafat and the elder Assad exited the scene is what the Arabs are willing to offer for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory. In November 2007 Israel, for the first time, will attend a peace conference that enjoys broad Arab support, and not only on the Jewish state's right to exist within the 1967 borders. The Arab League peace initiative offers Israel, in advance, a normalization of relations - an entry ticket to the Middle East club. The League's declaration also states that the solution to the refugee problem must be reached with Israel's agreement. The wording intentionally leaves a great deal of room for negotiations on alterations to the border, special arrangements for the holy sites and security arrangements for the evacuated territory.
Fourteen years ago, when Yitzhak Rabin decided to delay the withdrawal from West Bank and Gaza cities, he argued that "there are no sacred dates." Israel's leaders have interpreted this statement in the broadest possible way. According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian state should have come into being by May 1999. Before the road map, the entire conflict was supposed to finish by the end of 2005. Ignoring the calendar has not worked in our favor. The bad years since the peace talks have not softened the Palestinians' - or Syrians' - basic positions regarding the price of peace. Furthermore, the Iranians are not waiting patiently for Olmert to make time from the police investigations or for the Winograd Committee to finish its work.
The politicians who argue that "this is not the time for negotiations on a final settlement," are unable to guarantee that in one year, two years or 10 years we will get a better offer, if at all. None of them is able to promise that the Arabs' willingness to break from their November tradition will still be in place if the Annapolis summit ends without an agreement on principles in the spirit of the Arab League initiative, and without a reasonable and binding timetable.