U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that the Annapolis declaration will detail the principles of the permanent settlement, so yesterday's newspaper headlines proclaimed. Prior to her arrival in the region, her aides had said that the United States would not issue invitations to the peace conference before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas succeed in drafting a clear and mutually agreed upon document. In practice, this means that the peace summit initiated by President George W. Bush will not convene next month. Nor next year. Even if Olmert and Abbas want to, they are unable to come up with a document that will be detailed, mutually acceptable, clear and also keep them in office.
The most painful concessions the government of Israel is willing to offer Abbas are too far removed from the Palestinian consensus, as well as that of the Arab and Muslim world. The most generous compromise the Ramallah government will allow itself to offer Israel will not even be brought up for discussion within Kadima's Knesset faction. Yet, this dour political analysis does not mean the person who initiated this important diplomatic move should end his efforts.
On the contrary. Since the outbreak of the second intifada seven years ago Israelis and Palestinians have not been this close to a peace agreement. The failure of the violence and the disappointment with unilateralism have brought the two sides back to the negotiating table. Yet, like a suspicious, emotionally burdened couple wishing to split up through an agreement that will not impart too much damage on the children, Israelis and Palestinians are in need of an active mediator. The U.S. president is not only a counselor-mediator. He has a clear interest in seeing the process succeed, and he is holding carrots for the more flexible of the sides and a stick for the recalcitrant.
Without the active mediation of Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978, it is doubtful whether Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat would have signed a peace treaty. Had Bill Clinton listened to his advisers, who urged him to present his framework during Camp David in 2000, perhaps Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat would have returned from the U.S. with an agreement. Israeli and Arab leaders find it much easier to agree to the proposals of the American mediator than to "surrender" to each other's demands. Their public at home is more understanding with regard to "concessions" made to a friendly and powerful party, who is not part of the religious-nationalist blood feud laden with real estate questions.
In essence, Bush already formulated his mediating document three years ago. In April 2004 the president decided to assist Ariel Sharon in selling the disengagement to the Israeli public. He laid out the matters that touched directly on two "core issues" in any final settlement with the Palestinians: borders and refugees. Bush stated that there can be no expectation of a return to the 1949 cease-fire lines, and that when the two sides renew negotiations, the U.S. position will be that the presence of Jewish population centers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will need to be taken into account.
Sharon and his aides, including those in charge of today's diplomatic talks, actively promoted this point, as well as the principle established by the president, that a solution to the problem of the refugees will be reached by settling them in the Palestinian state, not in Israel.
However, the letter also stated that the U.S. supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is "viable and contiguous... so the Palestinian people will be able to build a future for itself that is in line with my vision of June 2002, and in the way established by the road map." It is well known that the road map was based, among other things, on the Arab-Saudi peace initiative, which demands, in return for a normalization of relations, Israel's withdrawal from the territories and the resolution of the refugee question on the basis of an agreed-upon solution.
All that Bush must do now is to add a short paragraph to his letter: "Israel will give the Palestinians a suitable territorial equivalent in return for the settlement blocs; the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be part of Palestine; the two sides will reach a detailed agreement on the exchange of territories; a special regime will be established in Jerusalem's Old City; a detailed agreement on all these issues, including the question of the refugees, will be reached with the help of the United States by the end of 2008." He should wrap this up nicely with an international aid package that includes economic and security assurances and add a few words about the kind of treatment that awaits the side that refuses to sign the letter-document. If Bush is not willing to put such a document on the table, then it is truly best that he not send out invitations to Annapolis.
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