Heavy alternatives

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For weeks I have been warning that the Annapolis meeting was ill-conceived because it was built on weak Israeli, Palestinian and American leadership foundations and a weak Palestinian institutional infrastructure. But now that it’s happening, and with an impressive display of Arab support, we have to ask what should take place in the coming days and weeks in order for the US, Israel and the Palestinian leadership to take advantage of a dramatic but substantively empty beginning and turn it into an effective peace process.

First and foremost, as currently constituted neither the Olmert nor the Abbas government is structured for effective and prolonged peace-making. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be able to negotiate very far with a coalition that he put together to achieve political survival rather than a peace process. Sometime in the coming months, if indeed negotiations proceed and register progress, he will have to part ways with the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu and Shas parties. Taking into account likely right-wing defections within Kadima as well, Olmert will need the active support of Meretz-Yahad and the passive support of most of the 10 members of Knesset from Arab parties in order to survive politically. From past experience we know that this is not an easily-sustained arrangement.

One alternative–which in any case could be necessitated by the Winograd final report and a resultant Labor party defection–would be new elections. That would delay a peace process for months, bringing us to the end of the George W. Bush presidency (and the Mahmoud Abbas presidency in Palestine) and postponing the necessary American involvement until well into the term of Bush’s successor, in mid-2009. Another alternative, if Bush administration backing is forthcoming, could conceivably be for Olmert to opt to concentrate on the Syrian track. Here he might be able to hold onto a larger coalition, conceivably even including the Likud.

The weakness of the Olmert government is replicated in spades in Palestine, where the Fayyad government has no political base at all and Abbas and Fayyad rule over barely part of the West Bank and none of Hamas-led Gaza. In order to negotiate in the name of most Palestinians and to deliver on his roadmap phase I responsibilities, Abbas may have to seek some sort of accommodation with Hamas that is acceptable to Israel and the United States. The appearance of success at Annapolis could help, as could the launching at Annapolis of an Israeli-Syrian negotiations track that weakens Hamas at the Damascus-based leadership level.

But an Abbas-Hamas accommodation would be problematic at the substantive level because it would radically constrain Abbas’ freedom to negotiate on the core issues of a two-state solution. One alternative, which Israel has been postponing until after Annapolis out of consideration for Abbas’ weak position, is an Israeli military operation in Gaza that restores Fateh rule there. This could have problematic ramifications for the legitimacy of Abbas’ rule in Palestinian eyes. Nor could Israelis easily justify shedding the blood of IDF soldiers in such an endeavor.

Assuming productive negotiations do get under way, we now turn to substance. Israel and the Palestinian leadership ended up in Annapolis without the meaty joint declaration of principles that was originally envisioned. This reflects two simple facts. First, the two sides are farther apart today on the core issues of a settlement than they were at Camp David seven years ago. And second, the two governments are too weak to make the concessions necessary to narrow this gap.

Here the moderate Arab countries could be helpful: after demonstrating support at Annapolis, they must get involved in assisting the peace process. By rewarding the parties for concessions made, the Arabs can offer the Israeli and Palestinian publics incentives toward additional compromises. In this regard, one of the most significant statements to come out of the Annapolis process was the declaration by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Nov. 23 to Haaretz that the Arabs would take a step toward Arab-Israel normalization in response to every concession made by Israel. If this happens, it is the Arab peace initiative at its best.

Lest we forget, the original purpose of Annapolis was, in President Bush’s words of July 16, 2007, very modest: to "review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions". One of the less anticipated fruits of the ensuing dynamic has been the energizing of the Israeli-Syrian track. Now, of all the extremely convoluted possibilities for turning Annapolis into a successful peace process, the Syrian track is the most promising. It offers Israel and its Arab neighbors the biggest possible peace dividend (weakening Iran and the militant Islamist movements; stabilizing Lebanon), a relatively straightforward process with a partner capable of committing and delivering, and a better chance for the survival of the government of Israel during a peace process. If this happens, Annapolis will be remembered favorably, even if for the "wrong" reasons.

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