The Palestinian partner was born in Oslo in the summer of 1993, and died seven years later at Camp David. Following seven more years of violence, diplomatic stalemate and renewed settlement - and following the disillusionment from the misconception of unilateral moves - the word "partner" is slowly making a comeback.
The Ramallah branch of the Palestinian government is no longer considered "an entity that supports terrorism," as former prime minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet defined it in its December 2001 statement on the Palestinian Authority. Following the recent loss of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was transformed overnight from a weak and irrelevant leader to a partner worth strengthening.
During his last meeting with Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even mentioned something about possibly agreeing to discuss the permanent peace agreement in their next meeting. However, one should keep in mind that when Jerusalem mentions the permanent peace agreement, it does not mean the third and final stage of the international Quartet's road map plan for peace.
It therefore does not pertain to the statement in the document, which determines that its final stage "will resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, United Nations Security Resolutions 242, 338 and 1397." Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are not offering to discuss "an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue, and a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem," as required in that godforsaken road map.
The shapers of Israel's policy regarding the Palestinians are acting on the assumption that negotiations on the three cardinal issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem would soon stalemate. They cite the substantial gaps between the Palestinians' expectations and the concessions Israel is actually prepared to make. The bitter experience of the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David of July 2000 has taught the Israeli negotiators that when the Palestinians are unsatisfied with the diplomatic option, they turn to the military one.
Obviously, if negotiations place the two parties on a collision course, then it is worthwhile to find detours. By getting on the byroad, the road map is put back in its second stage, which should have been exhausted by 2004. According to the Quartet's plan, the second stage should see an international summit that will start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the formation of a Palestinian state within temporary borders.
In other words, unlike the Gaza pullout of 2005, the West Bank is to be evacuated consensually and through dialogue aimed at having both sides agree, rather than sign agreements. The Prime Minister's Office is currently working on a plan to dismantle the settlements east of the separation fence, and transfer roughly 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian hands. (With luck, Vice Premier Haim Ramon will persuade Olmert to include Arab Jerusalemite neighborhoods in the territory Israel will propose as the temporary Palestinian state.)
The problem with this model is that since the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have had occasion to learn that with the Israelis, temporary agreements have a tendency to become permanent. They suffer from the opposite problem - of permanent agreements revealing themselves as ultimately temporary.
That is why former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who enjoyed much better public standing than Abbas, insisted that the temporary border formula come with a plan and a timetable for a permanent agreement that will include the refugees and Jerusalem. The Agreement of Principles which U.S. Foreign Secretary Condoleezza Rice is proposing is tailored to meet that need of preventing the temporary from becoming permanent. Her plan is designed to reinvent U.S. President George W. Bush's intangible vision as a binding written guarantee.
And that's where everything is stuck. Despite Olmert's generously broad coalition, the prime minister is even failing to meet his commitment to dismantle the illegal settler outposts in the West Bank.
The prime minister and foreign minister refuse to discuss the refugee issue - they barely agreed to allow 41 Iraqi refugees from Iraq to enter the West Bank. The same goes for an exchange of territory for settlement blocs. "Now is not the time to discuss these matters," they say.
When will it be time?
It is time we realized that time does not take orders from Jerusalem. Abbas is telling every Israeli he meets that in 18 months at the latest, we will have to look for partners from Hamas.
If we have a partner, then we must begin talking to him right now. If we have no partners, then we best prepare the bomb shelters. There is no such thing as a half-partner.
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