Obama is deep into phase II

The roadmap seemed to have been stillborn in 2003 when it was introduced by the Quartet after extensive negotiations with Israel and the PLO. The principal obstacle to implementing it back then was leadership on all sides: US, Israel and the PLO.

Today, the leadership situation is somewhat more encouraging: US President Barack Obama is spearheading renewed and reinvigorated American involvement in the peace process and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas emerged from the Sixth Fateh General Conference with a stronger leadership profile. Still, Abbas does not control the Gaza Strip and his rejection of the peace terms offered by Ehud Olmert in 2008 is deeply disappointing. As for Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, he is a doubtful candidate for a serious peace process.

This is where roadmap phase II may become useful. Until now, phase II has been the forgotten phase of the roadmap because it is best known for "the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty". Both Yasser Arafat in his day and Abbas today have made it clear that they reject this option. Hence phase II tends to be neglected whenever anyone brings up the roadmap. The George W. Bush administration even tried at Annapolis in late 2008 to merge phases I and III and ignore phase II.

This is to be regretted. What really is unique about phase II of the roadmap is not only a state with provisional borders but also provisions for an international conference and a series of Arab confidence-building gestures toward Israel. And precisely because these elements of the roadmap are multilateral in nature, they are emerging as key concepts of US President Barack Obama’s approach to the conflict, which seeks to integrate an Israeli-Palestinian solution with other crucial developments in US-Arab-Israel relations.

Roadmap phase II was originally championed by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Today, as president of Israel, Peres continues to pursue these ideas in his contacts with the Arab world. For their part, Obama administration officials do not openly link their emerging ideas to any phase of the roadmap, evidently in order to avoid being identified with what is seen as a failed initiative of the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the administration is quietly following the roadmap formula. It is demanding Netanyahu government compliance with roadmap phase I requirements regarding settlements precisely in order to address the Palestinians–who have by and large carried out their phase I obligations–and other Arabs and try to bring all of us into phase II, which in turn will usher in phase III final-status negotiations.

When the Obama administration asks Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Tunisia to undertake to again exchange diplomatic or commercial interest sections with Israel–all on condition that Netanyahu undertake a settlement freeze–this is phase II: "Arab states restore pre-intifada links to Israel". When Moscow talks about holding a Madrid-style international conference to kick off a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, this is phase II: "International conference convened by the Quartet. . . to launch a process". When Israeli officials and others suggest renewing the Madrid multilateral talks, this is also phase II: "Revival of multilateral engagement on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees and arms control issues". If Netanyahu can be brought to accept a settlement freeze, then these phase II gestures on the part of the Arab world could constitute an important incentive for his government to work with Obama’s plan for a peace process.

There remains the phase II "option" of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. Despite understandable Palestinian objections, we’re not as far away as it may seem from some variation on this option. One possibility is that US peace emissary George Mitchell will succeed in persuading Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas to limit their negotiations for now to a discussion only of borders. This reverses the "option" and gives us a provisional state with permanent borders.

Another possibility is that, as Abbas suggested in his Fateh congress speech two weeks ago, the PLO might opt to declare a state unilaterally. While it would seek international recognition of that state within the 1967 borders, in practical terms its borders would at least temporarily be defined by Oslo areas A and B and be provisional.

To sum up, if you’re interested in what hopefully might soon transpire in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, go back and reread roadmap phase II.