Making November Conference a Success
The past month or so has been filled with a mixture of hope and skepticism: hope because of the upcoming peace conference that the United States has proposed for November, but skepticism because of fears that the three leaders (President Bush, Prime Minister Olmert, and President Abbas) are too weak to achieve anything.
Meanwhile, these months leading up to the conference are seeing periodic meetings between the two Middle Eastern leaders. Their goal is to hammer out a final status agreement in time for the conference. The issues on which they are focusing include determining the borders for a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, and the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.
As these discussions continue, Israeli diplomats are working to come up with a strategy for the peace process. They are recommending:
1) bilateral talks with the Palestinians and the achievement of a boycott on Hamas;
2) gradual rapprochement with the Arab League;
3) additional financial support for Abbas and his followers.
But many analysts also have their own ideas about what must occur in order for the November conference and the peace process as a whole to succeed where the last failed. Below are a number of these suggestions:
* Focusing on the statement of principles itself, Akiva Eldar writes that “the key [to its acceptance by both sides] is constructive ambiguity.” In other words, to word it in a way that will allow both sides their own interpretation.
* Kenneth W. Stein offers more general requirements for the conference to be a success. Looking back at history, he writes that the three most successful ones – Geneva in 1973, Camp David in 1978 and Madrid in 1991 – were not themselves the end, but rather means to an end. He continues by emphasizing the importance of detailed pre-negotiations and concludes telling both Israel and Palestine to “keep your eyes on the prize” since there are sure to be stumbling blocks.
* Ghassan Katib has advice for the Palestinians. Taking into account internal divisions on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, he advises writes that the conference will not be successful without the reform of Fatah and dialogue between Fatah and Hamas.
* Writing about the format of the conference, Elie Podeh advocates “multi-bilateral negotiations.” He explains that the parties should not focus on one track at the exclusion of the others. More specifically, there should be Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria, and Israel-Lebanon talks all at the same time.
* Gershon Baskin focuses on the peace process in general. Like Stein, he recommends learning from history’s failures. In a series of several articles, he offers explanations of why the Oslo process failed and how not to repeat its mistakes in the current peace process. In the most recent, Baskin has a series of suggestions: 1) the nurturing of the Palestinian economy; 2) the centrality of an unbiased, third-party mediator; 3) demilitarization; 4) the cultivation of personal relationships; 5) ongoing contact between the leaders; 6) peace education; and 7) a bottom-up strategy – necessary in order to reach the grassroots on both sides.
* Danny Rubinstein [Yes, that Danny Rubinstein, who recently entered the “apartheid” controversy – ed.] concurs in particular with Baskin’s final point. In a Haaretz, opinion piece, he writes that Palestinian public opinion has become more extreme in recent years. Israel must, thus, “persuade the [Palestinian] people” that an agreement is necessary.
Although some are skeptical, none of these analysts believe the November conference’s failure a given. And some commentators are even arguing that the weakness of Bush, Olmert, and Abbas will have a positive effect. For instance, Akiva Eldar, writes that this perceived weakness is one reason the Israeli media is paying little attention to the talks between Olmert and Abbas – something that could actually bode well! It will be easier to make process when the right wing and the settlers are distracted.
Similarly, Roger Cohen writes for the New York Times that “low expectations are a diplomat’s ally.” There is an exhaustion of fighting in the region that may pave the way for peace. And, with so much already gone bad, the weakened leaders have little left to lose.
Gadi Baltiansky (director general of the Geneva Initiative) observed last Friday, that history has happened in November every thirty years, since 1917: November 1917 saw the publication of the Balfour Declaration, November 1947, the UN partition plan, and November 1977, Sadat’s break-through visit to Israel. Hopefully he’s right, and November 2007 will be an auspicious time for the conference.
In other news:
* Israel has come under fire for turning away Sudanese refugees trying to get into the country. An article in the JTA explores the moral and practical dilemmas Israel faces. (Also read Meretz USA’s recent statement on the issue.)
* An Israeli officer’s rescue by Palestinian security forces after he accidentally drove into Jenin this week has made big news. Many are touting the incident as a positive sign of cooperation between Israel and Fatah.
* And the closed Gaza border is becoming of great concern for many. The United Nations Conference for Trade and Development released a report on the issue on Thursday.