Try a limited Phase III

In recent weeks, we have revisited phases I and II of the roadmap. In my assessment of the two sides’ performance in Phase I, Israel was found most wanting, particularly on the issue of settlements and outposts, with the Palestinians having made a far more serious effort to fulfill their commitments regarding security and institution-building. Phase II was understood, upon reassessment, to comprise important components of US President Barack Obama’s appeal to the Arab world to offer Israel incentives for freezing settlement construction. Even the much-maligned Phase II "Palestinian state with provisional borders" was seen to have some merit when viewed retrospectively.

But if phases I and II were not fulfilled, where is the logic of Phase III? The Annapolis formula sought to respond by ignoring Phase II and suggesting that Phase III negotiations seek to achieve a "shelf agreement" whose implementation would be postponed until both sides’ Phase I obligations had been fulfilled.

Here we recall that the most significant Phase I obligation remaining unfulfilled concerns Israel and the settlements. PM Ehud Olmert demonstrated rather effectively last year that it is possible for an Israeli leader to negotiate Phase III final status down to considerable detail while failing completely to stop settlement spread. Then again, Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas failed to reach final status agreement, apparently because internal politics on both sides rendered it impossible to make the necessary concessions.

Phase III contains provisions like a "second international conference" and a "comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace"–all to have been achieved by 2005–that appear today and appeared even then to be seriously divorced from reality. More to the point, the Olmert-Abbas failure raises the question whether even a "final and comprehensive permanent status agreement that ends the Israel-Palestinian conflict" is a realistic proposition.

True, Abbas’ political position was strengthened by the recent Sixth Fateh General Convention in Bethlehem, and Obama appears far more determined than his predecessor, George W. Bush. But Abbas still doesn’t control the Gaza Strip and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu does not appear likely to offer Abbas anything near what Olmert offered–which Abbas, by his own admission, rejected because "the gaps were large".

Yet it is too early to scrap the roadmap as a dead letter, even if the Obama administration understandably avoids adopting the terminology of its predecessor’s failed initiative. The list of confidence-building measures in Phase I is the right one, and it’s about time an American administration held Israel to it, especially in view of Palestinian compliance. Fulfillment of the Arab gestures toward Israel mentioned in Phase II–renewal of low-level relations and multilateral talks–could be a vital incentive for the Netanyahu government to move forward and Obama is right to focus on this issue. Yet even if we cannot complete these phases, a limited renewal of Phase III final status talks is called for.

Limited, because Phase III is worth trying again only if we apply the principal final status lesson learned from the failures of Oslo, Camp David and Annapolis: comprehensive final status talks that insist on solving all the core issues are doomed to failure. The more the two sides have delved into the "existential" issues of refugees and the disposition of the Jerusalem Holy Basin (the Old City, City of David and Mount of Olives area), the more obvious the gap between their respective narratives has become. On the other hand, significant progress has been made in narrowing the territorial gap in both the West Bank and Jerusalem.

If there is any chance at all to renew Phase III of the roadmap and move toward agreement, this is where it should be focused. Agreement on all or even most of the territorial issues would generate a border–in view of the lack of finality on other issues, it might even be considered an armistice line–that by definition "solves" the Phase I settlements issue and determines which settlements are inside Israel and can be expanded and which are outside and must be dismantled.

A committed Obama administration can reassure both sides with side-letters that their remaining final status concerns will not be mortgaged to this effort at limited but very significant progress. It can also then insist with greater moral authority that the Arab states at least begin to make good on their Arab Peace Initiative and roadmap Phase II normalization commitments.