On borrowed time

No peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors will be signed before the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s term of office. The most far-reaching move imaginable would be some sort of agreements in principle between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Syrians. The chances of that happening don’t appear very good, but it’s not impossible.

Should those who seek peace aspire to this sort of achievement? Would such agreements, sealed at the last minute, be seen as legitimate? Would the fact that they are signed by leaders deemed "lame ducks" not weaken support for the agreements themselves? These are not easy questions. I can certainly understand the doubters within the peace camp and the dilemma they would confront.

(Opponents of peace, on the other hand, will always find good reasons to reject agreements: no one has the authority to forego territory in the Land of Israel; the agreement was not approved by a referendum; the referendum lacked a weighted majority, allowing Arab citizens of Israel to determine the outcome; the referendum questions were manipulative; etc.)

I live with a sense of borrowed time. I fear the current quiet will not last long without a significant political horizon. At present there is a constellation whereby Israel has a leadership that is seriously interested in agreements, there is a similar situation on the Palestinian side and the president of Syria is making an exceptional effort to talk to Israel and achieve peace even at the cost of tensions with Iran. The American president wants to reach peace agreements in the Middle East and seeks the success of the Annapolis process that he launched last year after first making every possible mistake, and the Arab League has reiterated its commitment to the Arab peace initiative that offers full normalization between Israel and all Arab states once there is peace with Palestine and Syria. I fear this constellation is terribly temporary.

I am concerned lest once again we miss the opportunity that awaits us for reasons that are irrelevant to the political situation. Then we’ll ask ourselves how it happened that when it was still possible we decided not to take the necessary step; how we thought we had all the time in the world and that waiting would benefit us politically or personally.

An agreement between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should form the basis for continued negotiations over final status to be achieved in 2009 by Israel’s next prime minister and the Palestinian president. The complete agreement will not be carried out immediately; that will depend on the capacity of the two sides, mainly the Palestinians, to implement it on the ground, perhaps in stages. I do not anticipate a "shelf agreement" that is signed and then locked in a desk drawer until the situation changes. Yet it’s clear to everyone that "safe passage" will not be opened between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as long as the two parts of the Palestinian Authority remain severed and Hamas continues to rule Gaza and oppose an agreement with Israel.

A near-term Israeli-Syrian agreement will have to refer to Yitzhak Rabin’s famous "deposit" and the 1967 line as a permanent border, alongside the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, freedom for Israelis to circle the Sea of Galilee without a visa and normalized relations between Syria and Israel. It can be achieved by means of joint signatures, separate declarations by the two sides or even a third party declaration that is ratified immediately by Syria and Israel. Following such an agreement, negotiations will have to address the location of the 1967 border. Since this border was never demarcated, these will be complex talks and will take months. Nearly all the other issues were already agreed at Shepherdstown in January 2000 and need not be reopened. Israel’s demands regarding Syrian alliances and links with elements hostile to Israel will undoubtedly constitute a precondition for agreeing to sign a peace treaty.

In its agreements with both Palestine and Syria, Israel will give up territories it annexed unilaterally. If a referendum law is passed in Israel before these agreements are signed, it will be necessary to present them for popular approval. If there is no such legislation, an absolute Knesset majority will be required for ratification. I believe that all this will come to pass if Ehud Olmert achieves agreements in principle with the Syrians and the Palestinians and that the ensuing negotiations will generate comprehensive agreements that are approved by the Knesset and the people of Israel.