The Annapolis test

The Washington summit scheduled for September 2 is reminiscent of the Annapolis summit that was held in late November 2007. Then, too, the American president (George W. Bush) invited leaders from the region (along with "spear-holders" from all over the world) to an Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations-launching ceremony. Then, too, the US administration dragged President Mahmoud Abbas kicking and screaming to the meeting. Then, too, it was agreed "to try to reach agreement within a year" (to be precise, by the end of 2008). Then as now, everyone undertook to implement earlier agreements.

Will the leaky ship of negotiations run aground on a sandbank this time too, there to remain until the next ceremony?

The Annapolis process generated a significant narrowing of the gaps separating the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. In the unofficial channel, PM Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a Palestinian state in 93.5 percent of the West Bank, and an additional 5.8 percent in territorial swaps with Israel and a "safe passage" linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Olmert also offered to divide the Latrun no-man’s land and to turn over to the Palestinians the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. He was even prepared to absorb several thousand Palestinian refugees in Israel. Due to the war in Gaza and elections in Israel, final status discussions ceased at the end of 2008 and have not been renewed to this day.

The change in government in Israel did not in any way change the Palestinian position regarding the core issues. The paper Abbas sent PM Binyamin Netanyahu through the good offices of George Mitchell repeats the very same proposals that were discussed with Olmert. From the Palestinians’ standpoint, the right-wing victory in Israel’s elections does not oblige them to update their principles in accordance with the will of the Israeli voter. Abbas is much more concerned with his rivals from Hamas, who present him as a "traitor" to the Palestinian cause, and even with his friends from the Fateh leadership who want him to fail, than with threats from the Israeli far right and pressure applied to Netanyahu by Likud hawks.

Actually, an Israeli right-wing government that has difficulty temporarily freezing settlement construction serves Palestinian interests better than a moderate government that supports peace but does very little to change the reality on the ground. The more extreme an Israeli government looks, the more dividends PM Salam Fayyad reaps from the international community in return for his effort to establish viable Palestinian government institutions and efficient security services. The Palestinian leadership is also aware that with the passage of time, there is growing fear among the Israeli public and even among the settlers that the Netanyahu government will turn Israel into a bi-national state.

Accordingly, Abbas is not likely to offer Netanyahu territorial and other concessions that Olmert did not receive from the Palestinian leader. Nor have Washington’s principled positions regarding final status changed since the Annapolis conference. President Obama embraced the roadmap presented to the sides seven years ago by his predecessor and adopted by the United Nations Security Council. Both administrations understood that a final status agreement will be a variation on the Clinton parameters, the Geneva initiative and the Olmert-Abbas understandings. Thus far, while demonstrating active involvement in the peace process, the current administration has not been prepared to present an Obama plan for Middle East peace.

Abbas and Olmert made impressive progress without having to fall back on the diplomatic good offices of the US. Given the opportunity to continue their contacts, they would have reached agreement. This time around, however, it’s doubtful the two sides can make progress without the help of a third party.

The US acquiesced in Netanyahu’s demand to renew negotiations without preconditions. Netanyahu refuses not only to resume negotiations where his predecessor left off; he does not agree that the terms of reference mention the June 4, 1967 lines as the basis for a permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state. This means ignoring understandings and even agreements reached in the past and beginning negotiations on the basis of new positions and maps presented by Israel. To this day, no one knows what map of a Palestinian state Netanyahu had in mind when he spoke more than a year ago at Bar Ilan University of two states for two peoples. Some of his confidants argue that the prime minister himself still doesn’t know what he really wants.

Even if the Washington summit ends up no more successful than its predecessor at Annapolis, perhaps the Israeli public and the rest of the world will finally know where Netanyahu is heading and how to deal with him.