Sidetracked by the roadmap

The sudden reference by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to the roadmap, drafted years ago in an attempt to rescue the parties from the quicksand of violence and recriminations, was a bit confusing for analysts on both sides. The shift seemed inconsistent with the major political issues that require sorting out through negotiations, particularly the final status issues. In addition, Palestinians and Israelis have already tried the roadmap–and failed to navigate it.

The political investments that are approaching fruition at the end of this month in Annapolis began when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with the encouragement of US Secretary of State Rice, tried to narrow the existing political gaps between the two sides. No doubt, these talks sparked a unique political discussion on issues such as Jerusalem, settlements and borders. Over time, however, everyone involved came to realize that it would not be easy to make progress on these issues. Hence we are now returning to implementing the roadmap.

And so it is appropriate to ask, why was it that the parties failed to make progress on the basis of the roadmap when it was presented in 2003? It was the first phase, in particular, where progress stalled. According to that phase (which the two parties are now re-committing themselves to implement) Palestinians are required to make convincing security efforts to combat violence against Israelis, including collecting arms and dismantling the "infrastructure of terrorism", as well as taking practical steps towards reforming the Palestinian Authority and improving its performance. Israelis, on the other hand, are required by the first stage of the roadmap to stop all settlement activities, including settlement growth related to natural population increase, and dismantle outposts. (These "outposts" are settlements built without official license and considered illegal by the Israeli government itself.)

Israel is also supposed to remove checkpoints in the West Bank and withdraw from areas A (regions placed under sole Palestinian Authority control under the Oslo accords), thereby returning conditions to those prevalent before September 28, 2000, the Palestinian uprising and Israel’s crackdown. Finally, Israel is to allow the reopening of Palestinian institutions that have been closed by Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem, in particular Orient House and the Arab Studies Society (previously headed by the late Faisal Husseini).

But these steps never got underway. Israel argued that these actions were to take place one after the other, so that in fact Israel’s compliance depended on its satisfaction with Palestinians’ fulfillment of their obligations. The Palestinian understanding, on the other hand, was that the two sides should proceed simultaneously with their obligations. And because US officials were not clear in mediating these understandings, the result was mutual finger-pointing by Palestinians and Israelis that the other side was not in compliance.

It’s interesting (and ominous), then, that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a statement after meeting with Secretary Rice that attaining security for Israel is a prerequisite to any progress in the current political effort. Observing the parallel Palestinian rhetoric, we see many statements by Palestinian politicians promising the public that there will be no political progress without an Israeli halt to settlement activities and release of Palestinian prisoners.

These recent statements reflect obvious Palestinian frustration and pessimism. At the same time, there is little American effort to bridge the gaps, which puts this political process in dire straits. Reaching agreement seems to be difficult, and Palestinians are being pressured–as usual–to offer concessions in order to create progress. But even the granting of concessions is not easy now; the current Palestinian leadership is relatively weak and much less able to deliver its public than the leadership that went to Camp David in 2000, for example.

But a failure to agree is no less dangerous. It will strengthen the Palestinian opposition, backfiring on attempts to build a constituency for negotiations.

The only way out is to seek realistic targets from this meeting of the kind that will prevent outright failure, promising continuity and keeping alive a small flame of hope for political progress. These targets should include: an agreement for both sides to start serious negotiations on final political issues (which means a renewal of the commitment to negotiate these issues instead of deciding them unilaterally) including solutions for Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc. Second, the parties should agree on specific terms of reference, including the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council, the roadmap and the Arab initiative that promises peace with the Arab states in exchange for Israel’s full territorial withdrawal from occupied lands and a solution for the refugee problem. Finally, the two parties should agree to stop practices prejudicial to these negotiations, essentially committing to their respective security and settlement-related obligations.