Annapolis - new hope for peace and stability in the "Broader Middle East" ?
More than seven years have passed since the last major peace initiative between Israelis and Palestinians ran aground at Camp David. With the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000, the peace process became a distant utopian memory. After years of reciprocal violence and severe diplomatic paralysis, in July of this year a new initiative was proposed by President George W. Bush in the form of a regional conference, to be launched in Annapolis, Maryland towards the end of November.
Several significant regional developments have converged to make this opportunity possible. Unfortunately, the ramifications of these developments simultaneously have the potential to ruin the process which they set in motion. For this new proposal to yield positive results, the organizers and participants must be realistic about what can actually be achieved in the short term, consider how best to avoid the negative consequences of spoilers, and articulate a plan for the immediate future.
So far, the diplomacy necessary to reach such understandings has been sadly lacking. Should this continue, the initiative could grind to a halt completely before it has even officially begun. If the parties convene in Annapolis without a clear understanding of what to expect or without political direction to follow, further entrenchment, diplomatic neglect, and violence are real possibilities.
A new status quo
Of all recent changes, the new inter-Palestinian dynamic is certainly the most profound and problematic. When Hamas completed its military takeover of Gaza on 14 June by assaulting the Palestinian Authority (PA) security headquarters together with the Gaza City presidential compound, a political, ideological, and geographical rift between the factions was solidified. The fragile unity government created in February by the Mecca power sharing agreement finally collapsed, with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) dismissing the unity government in favour of an ‘emergency government’ led by former Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad. This move was immediately declared illegal by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on the grounds that the new government had not been ratified by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), in which Hamas holds a majority. Attempts to convene the PLC, however, have foundered as both factions have boycotted sessions called for by the other. Although he cannot dissolve the PLC during a state of emergency, President Abbas has effectively sidelined it, ruling by decree and using the institutions of the PLO instead, in which Hamas does not participate.
With Fatah dominating the West Bank and Hamas the Gaza Strip, Israel, the US and the EU have decided to further isolate Hamas, while supporting the Fayyad government in the West Bank. This is a continuation of earlier policy, whereby Hamas has been completely boycotted while Fatah has been bolstered by a steady stream of money, military training, and supplies, with a view to return them to power as soon as possible. Muriel Asseburg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs suggests that such a policy has actively undermined the unity government, and been instrumental in fuelling violent confrontation between the two factions which still continues in Gaza.
It is this divide and the de-facto creation of a new Palestinian partner which has provided the impetus for a renewed peace process, which is designed to strengthen Fatah. Together with a return to what Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have called the ‘political horizon’, other supportive measures include the promotion of economic development in the West Bank, a revival of security co-operation with Israel, the gradual transfer of millions of dollars in withheld Palestinian tax and customs revenues, and the release of Fatah prisoners from Israeli jails.
While this at a glance appears to be sound policy, in theory encouraging moderates and isolating extremists, it creates numerous pitfalls for the Annapolis peace initiative. First and foremost, Hamas is being completely excluded from the process by Israel and the US. Although their popularity has diminished since the 2006 elections which saw them win a majority, Hamas still represents a substantial part of the Palestinian population, and currently governs over a million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. As it stands, the Israelis will only be negotiating with one part of the Palestinian political system. Ignoring Hamas completely is irresponsible; expecting them to merely go along with a peace process from which they have been excluded, but which will affect them as Palestinians, is simply unrealistic. This dramatically increases the incentive for Hamas to thwart the process, should something positive appear to be resulting from Annapolis and its aftermath.
Second, unbridled support for Abbas, Fayyad, and Fatah is likely to have the opposite effect to that intended. Abbas and Fayyad run the risk of appearing to be puppets of Israel and the US, and collaborators with the continued Israeli occupation. Support should therefore focus on certain key areas, primarily the continued release of withheld funds with which to pay salaries, the dismantling of roadblocks and checkpoints together with a freeze in settlement activity, and encouraging sustained economic development. Without tangible improvements on the ground, this initiative can easily be dismissed as another set of false promises. Moreover, the continued isolation of the Gaza Strip, which stands only to intensify under new Israeli plans to further reduce fuel and electricity supplies in response to continued Qassam fire, appears tantamount to overlooking the misery of their own people for their own political gain. Such a perception could adversely affect popular support for Fatah, and drive people into the arms of Hamas.
Continued division between the factions is exacerbated by foreign involvement but is not its root cause. It remains a struggle for political and military power between moderate secularists and Islamists, West Bankers and Gazans, and a multitude of clans and families who wield greater influence, particularly noticeable in Gaza. Palestinian society suffers from severe political fragmentation marked by bitter enmity following reciprocal crimes and revenge killings in the fighting for Gaza. Any dialogue between the two factions has been dismissed by Abbas, unless Hamas agrees to relinquish control of Gaza and its security compounds; Hamas insists that control of the compounds must come as part of a deal, not as a precondition. Fatah has rejected Haniyeh’s calls for talks, insisting that the move is part of a ploy to increase popular support for a movement struggling to deal with the effects of blockade and isolation.
The electorate, in turn, are becoming increasingly disillusioned with all parties who promise much but deliver little. No reconciliation or political unification is realistic at this point. Any future peace agreement will be put to a public referendum but it is doubtful whether this is currently feasible, nor does effective implementation of an agreement seem likely given the weakness of Fatah. Their inability to crack down on terror groups, a condition of the first phase of the roadmap, is extremely problematic and illustrates this weakness. A new security plan for the policing of Nablus by PA troops is underway, the results of which will be an important demonstration of PA capabilities. The fact that full self-control was rejected by the PA, and that the IDF takes over security responsibilities at nightfall does, however, speak for itself.
Peace, or preserving power?
For Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, these new overtures towards Abbas and the Palestinians are a design to rescue and reinvent his shaky premiership. He has long been heavily criticized domestically for a variety of reasons, including accusations of corruption, but primarily for the conduct of the ‘Second Lebanon War’ in July 2006. The Winograd Commission, the scathing Israeli internal assessment of the war, slated not only Olmert but also Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Defence Minister Amir Peretz, both of whom resigned. Olmert alone survived, albeit with an approval rating as low as 7%, and now presides over a divided, recalcitrant government.
When Rice visited Israel in mid-October, Uzi Benziman of Haaretz observed that the Israeli position was not being presented in a unified fashion from Olmert or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but from a variety of government ministers offering their views. More than six months ago, in the May issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha noted that Israel appeared to be exhibiting “unusual indecision” without the leadership of a “heroic” figure. This observation unfortunately still remains true.
Israeli government ministers seem less than enamored by the thought of discussing final status issues. When it emerged in September that minister and vice premier Haim Ramon had penciled an initiative proposing the partition of Jerusalem and joint sovereignty over the holy sites, many Kadima ministers were disturbed if not outraged by the proposition. The four cabinet ministers of Shas, the religious party, were as expected unreservedly opposed to any compromise on Jerusalem. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, warned Secretary of State Rice that excessive US pressure on Olmert to make a statement regarding detailed final status issues would lead to the collapse of his government coalition.
While Olmert originally expected new Labour party leader, Defence Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to support any future negotiations with the Palestinians, this has not materialized. Barak has been an outspoken pessimist regarding future relations with the Palestinians, referring to the possibility of a peace deal within three years as a “fantasy”, rejecting the idea of withdrawal from the West Bank and the dismantling of roadblocks without a cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza. Rather than using his well respected security stature to protect Olmert from right-wing criticism regarding concessions to the Palestinians, Barak has positioned himself on the right side of the spectrum, standing in stark contrast to the former Labour platform of Peretz.
In order to preserve the new peace initiative and his coalition, Olmert will continue to be very careful about how much detail of the negotiations is disclosed. Each party remains weary of holding on to its own power, exercising its own interests, and can disrupt the balance of the coalition. This having been said, Olmert currently enjoys the support of 83 Knesset members, a much higher parliamentary majority than Barak had when he went to Camp David. Olmert can in theory still afford to lose more seats and still survive, but will have to choose his battles carefully.
Although his personal commitment to a peaceful solution appears genuine, it is doubtful if Olmert has the charisma or capacity to win over moderate skeptics, let alone challenge the more right-wing. The perpetual Israeli concern, particularly after the Second Lebanon War, is security. The performance of the IDF in Lebanon was a shock to a nation that has faith in its military and readily looks to it for policy solutions. Barak has repeatedly spoken of the need for a “broad [military] operation” in Gaza which appears to creep ever closer, but militarism has previously failed, most recently in June and July 2006, and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, a clear political solution is not readily available either. Serious doubt seems to exist whether the political or a stronger military option is the answer, not just with the Palestinians, but with concerns such as Syria and Iran also.
Condoleezza Rice: a diplomatic juggernaut?
The Bush administration has until now shown little interest in the peace process, and this move presents a significant change from prior policy. Reeling from the quagmire that is Iraq and suffering from a tarnished regional reputation, the Bush administration has one year left to save some face in the area. Without success in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, Iraq will define the administrations legacy. In addition to salvaging something positive from a rocky eight years in office, this initiative is designed to woo the moderate Sunni Arab states with whom the US has a shared interest, namely containing Shi’ite Iran, and galvanize them to do their utmost to support the peace process. A reduction in violence between the Israelis and Palestinians would certainly benefit that cause.
Rice is adamant that the she has “better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op,” but to prevent this effort from turning into just that, intense amounts of diplomatic legwork is required. After a period of inactivity following the announcement of the conference, Rice has been increasingly active in the region, meeting with Palestinian, Israeli, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials, including other Arab League members, in order to build support for Annapolis, ensure wide attendance, and increase participation. The general message emanating from Arab officials, particularly the Saudis, is that Annapolis must deal with substantive issues, or else there is no point in attending. Arab presence is important in that they can pressure or protect Palestinian negotiators from criticism, but also entice Israel with incentives such as normalisation along the lines of the Arab League plan of March 2002. An air of support marked with skepticism lingers throughout the Arab capitals.
As it stands, this skepticism is warranted, given the existing gaps in the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The two parties are still trying to develop understandings prior to the conference, but have very different ideas of what these should consist of. Israel insists on a more general document, something more akin to a declaration of principles without delving into details on the contentious final status issues, while the Palestinians prefer a detailed preliminary agreement, including a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state. After a series of tête-à-tête meetings between Olmert and Abbas, the leaders and their negotiating teams continue to search for a mutually agreed text.
While Rice has accelerated her diplomatic initiatives, her sporadic trips to the region still appear to be insufficient. Other envoys, for example Quartet envoy Tony Blair, should be on site in her absence, if not all the time, to help overcome impasses if necessary and support the bilateral process. The fundamental importance of producing understandings between the Israelis and Palestinians makes this a necessity. The International Herald Tribune recently reported that a new verb has been coined in Israeli government circles: to “lecondel.” Based on Rice’s first name, it means to attend meetings that produce few results. In the event of a standstill, Rice needs to have prepared bridging proposals to produce a meaningful document and to avoid such unfortunate labels sticking to her.
Flexible, or just unclear?
Many key figures, including chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Egyptian and Jordanian officials, and Rice herself, have called for a postponement of Annapolis if no agreement has been achieved beforehand. The importance of preparation cannot be over exaggerated. At Camp David, for example, the rigid timetable dictated by Barak and Clinton was followed, despite persistent Palestinian pleas that more detailed preparatory discussions were required before heading to a summit. The secret back-channel convened in Sweden was producing significant results, but was cut short due to a leak and escalating violence on the ground. Academics and analysts alike bemoan the lack of preparation ahead of Camp David and cite it as one of many reasons for its failure. Annapolis cannot fall prey to such a fundamental error, thus flexibility regarding the timing of Annapolis is important.
Flexibility, however, is simultaneously responsible for the many problems and question marks which surround Annapolis. Although the merit is to keep options open depending on which direction the political wind is blowing, it reflects a fundamental lack of vision and leaves US intentions unclear. This, in turn, leaves the door open for Israelis and Palestinians to develop skewed expectations, dramatically increasing the costs of failure.
Which parties are to be invited? Who will attend? Is there a prepared agenda? What type of event is Annapolis to be? There does not even appear to be a consensus on what to call Annapolis; what started out as a “conference” has now become a “meeting”. Is it to be a crowning event or more reminiscent of the Madrid Conference in 1991? What kind of agreement is being sought? Will it be: a stabilization plan in an attempt to curb violence, which has been tried and continues to fail; a comprehensive armistice or long term hudna (ceasefire); or a set of permanent status negotiations? What does a future timetable look like, if it exists? The whole endeavour remains shrouded in mystery.
Although positive, the current situation is characterized by instability and vulnerability. While the exclusion of Hamas has opened the door to Annapolis, the weakness of Fatah and disunity among Palestinians threatens their ability to deliver a deal. Israel, however, has signaled that in the event of renewed talks on a unity government, they will abandon the diplomatic process. Continued escalation between Israel and Hamas (and Fatah loyalists) in the Gaza Strip is perhaps the most serious threat to the political avenue, and a full scale Israeli move into Gaza could derail the whole process. After all, whatever their differences, nothing unites Palestinians like Israeli military incursions. This is the explosiveness of Hamas’ spoiler potential.
Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) has warned of the capacity for violence, predicting “a third and much more severe intifada” should Annapolis fail to deliver anything. The second intifada followed the collapse of Camp David in 2000, when expectations were built up and failure made frustration turn violent. Camp David was one make-or-break summit with an “all-or-nothing” mentality attached to it. Such a scenario must be avoided by making clear exactly what the coming process seeks to achieve, but unfortunately no one appears ready to do this.
The Palestinians are looking for a further commitment to help their process of state-building, and want to see a timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state. A crowning event where the Quartet (the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia) and the major Arab states meet with the parties to endorse and legitimize a joint agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would help show that Abbas and Fayyad can deliver what Hamas cannot.
Olmert, meanwhile, would benefit from the development of a greater framework for future meetings in order to keep the process going, avoid too many sweeping concessions at once, and try to remain in power. Combining these two aspects at Annapolis could therefore help to satisfy both parties, and try to steer a course between their two positions.
The US would be looking to pursue something more groundbreaking akin to a final status agreement within a year, but this is unrealistic. Acute political weakness on all sides means progress will be slow, but such a set up with a crowning agreement and a vision for future negotiations can be promising.
- Annapolis cannot be an isolated event. Rice and the US should make it clear that this is not a one-off affair, and should be the first of many meetings to promote agreements between Israel and the Arabs. As progress on a joint declaration becomes clearer, firm dates and an agenda need to be set; clarity is key. A further schedule of follow up meetings should be agreed upon.
- Initial failure to address concerns or parties such as Hamas or Syria (specifically the return of the Golan Heights) should not negate them from the entire process, nor any of the other Arab states, should they not be present at Annapolis. Options should be created to include them at various stages of the peace process.
- Hamas cannot be completely ignored, but formal talks are not possible without seriously undermining Abbas and undoing all previous work to strengthen him. Mechanisms need to be devised to address this problem, whether it be a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, or perhaps giving Hamas the opportunity to accept the joint declaration.
- The US should carefully maintain pressure on Israel to evacuate illegal outposts and settlements, and dismantle roadblocks to create greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians. Such positive changes on the ground can perhaps help to increase Palestinian flexibility regarding the details of a joint declaration prior to Annapolis.
- Extended diplomacy needs to be undertaken to ascertain what it will take to ensure the participation and support of the Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular. Regional participation will confer wider legitimacy on the process, particularly on issues like Jerusalem, something which was glaringly lacking at Camp David.