Crafting the Invitation to Annapolis

By outlining his principles in a letter of invitation to Annapolis, Bush could save the conference from near-certain failure.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
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Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

As the date for the Annapolis summit nears and doubts increase over the ability of Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a joint document outlining how they intend to resolve the core issues of the conflict, the time has come for the United States to step in and draft a letter of invitation.

Such a letter could be particularly useful if it were modeled on the invitation to the Madrid peace conference of 1991. A carefully crafted piece of diplomatic acumen, that document was the product of intensive shuttle diplomacy by then U.S. secretary of state James Baker, who understood that in order to ensure the success of the conference, he needed to articulate its terms of reference in advance, in the invitation itself.

The invitation to Annapolis need not "reinvent the wheel" of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; in fact, it must not. The general parameters for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been known since U.S. president Bill Clinton put them on the table in December of 2000. Since that time, the Taba talks, and even more precisely the unofficial Geneva Initiative, have filled in the missing details of what a permanent agreement would look like.

Since he came into office, U.S. President George W. Bush has opted to chart his own vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. His statements have been few and far between, but they do amount to something. In fact, after almost seven years in office, Bush has said enough that can be used to draft a constructive statement outlining Washington's position on the shape of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement with specific references to the three core issues of territory, Jerusalem and refugees.

Thus, on the issue of territory, Bush may draw from his letter of April 14, 2004 to then prime minister Ariel Sharon: "As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."

This in itself, of course, would not be enough for the Palestinians, but Bush could add some language from a statement he made at a press briefing with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 26, 2005: "A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a [Palestinian] state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza, [and any] changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to."

Bush has been mostly silent on the issue of Jerusalem, but judging by his statements on territory, the American president should be able to say the following: The principles underlying the agreement on the final borders between Israel and Palestine should enable both parties to have their mutually recognized capitals in the area of Jerusalem. Given the complexity of the issue, however, including the need to maintain security in this universally historic and religious city, the U.S. believes that the parties must both feel comfortable with the precise delineation of the solution.

On the problem of the Palestinian refugees, Bush has refrained from outlining the contours of a possible solution. In contrast to Clinton, who listed five potential venues as "final homes" for the refugees, the current president has only stated that refugees should not be allowed to return to Israel. As he styled it in his letter to Sharon: "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

Assuming this remains a fundamental principle pertaining to any solution of the refugee problem, Bush could at least articulate a more positive version of the same in the following way: Once established, the Palestinian state will be recognized by the Palestinians and by the world at large as the Palestinian homeland, and a key element in resolving the problem of the Palestinian refugees will be set in place.

These statements - on territory, Jerusalem and refugees - are modest, undoubtedly too modest for some. But inasmuch as they consist of exact reproductions - or variations - of language that Bush has employed in public statements over the past seven years, they are available to be used without delay.

It is important to remember that if Madrid succeeded in launching a decade-long peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it was not by dint of any diplomatic breakthrough that took place during the three-day conference. Rather, it was thanks to the letter of invitation that bound the participants to a common agenda. It is precisely such a joint Israeli-Palestinian-American commitment to that sort of agenda that is missing right now. By issuing a letter of invitation a la Madrid, Bush would thus not only save Annapolis from near-certain failure, he would actively embed these principles in American policy. If Israel and the Palestinians are about to launch formal negotiations on a final status agreement, the articulation of a clear American policy could go a long way in steering the course in the months to come.

Yonatan Touval is a policy analyst with the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), a Tel Aviv-based think tank.

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