Taking Another Look at the Geneva Initiative

IPF’s weekly update has a good analysis of current Administration efforts to reengage in the region.  Rice’s date to head back to the region is discussed, as well as an analysis of her strategy in the coming weeks.

Rice’s Political Horizon
IPF Focus
By David Dreilinger and IPF Staff.

According to reports from Ben Caspit in Maariv, it appears that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, against all the conventional wisdom, is taking the latest phase of the Middle East peace process seriously. After traveling to the region last month, assembling the “Quartet” for strategic discussions in the United States last week, she will reportedly personally oversee direct, top-level Israeli-Palestinian discussions in Jerusalem on February 19th.

And, as Caspit reports, as a result of a series of secret contacts between the parties and some Sunni Arab states, these talks could be more consequential than anyone expected. “Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are supposed to be resumed after secret talks that have been under way between the parties for a while.” Furthermore, “The initiative is… to be regional, under American patronage, and will also include upgrading relations between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries in the region.”

Caspit says that the negotiations are not designed to immediately end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. Rice believes that the situation, especially on the Palestinian side, is too unstable for that. Therefore “the talks will be theoretical negotiations, an attempt to discuss all of the issues on the agenda between the two parties, without reaching the implementation stage… this initiative is geared to… plot out the problems and to try to bridge the gaps on issues of principle between the parties.”

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has reportedly spearheaded the Israeli side of the initiative (though not without causing some friction with Prime Minister Olmert). She realizes that the Palestinian Authority, hampered by factional strife, is in no position to meet the first condition of the Roadmap, which calls for the disarmament of the non-governmental militias (Israel, for domestic political reasons, is not in a hurry to take on its responsibility under the first phase of the roadmap – a settlement freeze and the removal of illegal outposts – either). Therefore discussions on the basis of a “political horizon,” not directly tied to the Roadmap, are useful and maybe even necessary. If progress can be made, Fatah head Abbas would be sure to benefit at Hamas’s expense.

What exactly are informal negotiations? According to Caspit, Rice has renewed her interest in the Geneva Accords, the hypothetical peace settlement negotiated informally by Israeli and Palestinian politicians and retired military in Geneva in 2003. In this exercise, the negotiators came up with an agreed framework for a final-status resolution of the conflict. For instance, in their plan Israel would keep some of its larger settlements in the West Bank but compensate the Palestinians with an equivalent land swap. The vast majority of Palestinian refugees would have the right of return to a new Palestinian state, with only a symbolic number returning to Israel.

Obviously anything worked out between the parties themselves will look a little different (if not, why didn’t they run with the original Geneva plan in 2003?). Some favor an interim solution that would create a Palestinian state in provisional borders, though the Palestinian leadership has been very skeptical of temporary arrangements, fearing they could very easily become permanent. The idea is to come away with a political horizon that Abbas can show to his people as proof that his moderate approach can deliver political results, and that the two-state solution is alive and well.

Israel could gain doubly if such a negotiating process is carried out. Upgraded relations with Sunni Arab states would be a great boon to Israel, not only as it tries to balance against growing Iranian power and influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, but as it seeks to solidify its place in the region. Recognition – and eventually peace – from Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia has always been an Israeli strategic interest. Negotiations with the Palestinians within this larger framework is a way to warm relations with other regional players at a time when cooperation is essential to meet the challenges of Islamic radicalism and a growing threat from Iran, not to mention assist the United States assemble the coalitions it needs to be effective in the region.

Nevertheless, not everyone is optimistic about the upcoming round of talks. Aluf Benn in Haaretz suggested that neither Olmert nor President Bush is really committed to the negotiations – believing that no real progress can be made – and that Rice’s initiative is merely a tactic to appease wary Sunni Arab states and critics of Bush’s administration as he focuses his efforts on trying to salvage the situation in Iraq.

And there is the presence of Hamas. Even if a Palestinian unity government is formed, the negotiations will not add up to much, critics charge, as Hamas will still refuse to meet the Quartet’s conditions for legitimacy and will blow up any progress toward peace.

But, according to most reports, in any unity government that is formed, regardless of Hamas’s role, Abbas will have the authority to negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. That means that if Israel and Abbas should, at some point, come up with a workable formula for peace, Hamas has already been bypassed; Abbas will take his plan directly to the Palestinian people or parliament. Poll after poll consistently shows that the majority of Palestinians favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, despite Hamas, Abbas has the power to negotiate the terms.

Hamas as a political force is not going to go away, and the civil war that is brewing in the Palestinian territories – if it erupts in full force – will not make it disappear. Full-scale hostilities will only make the situation worse and draw Israel even deeper into Palestinian affairs. Just this week military commanders and politicians discussed how Israel should respond to increased levels of fighting in Gaza if the situation threatens to get out of hand, and it appears that military intervention in Gaza is the most likely outcome. Heading a peacekeeping mission to separate the warring parties in Gaza is not what Israel had in mind when it withdrew from the territory two summers ago.

A Palestinian unity government, then, is an option for moving the process forward, and it would not be helpful to use Hamas’s presence in the government as an excuse for delaying diplomatic action. No one, especially Israel or the United States, should recognize or aid Hamas until it recognizes Israel, abides by previously signed agreements, and forswears terrorism. But a realistic assessment of the situation shows that Hamas would have a very difficult time standing in the way of a two-state solution.

Rice’s approach to these negotiations is one of caution, and there are more than enough reasons to justify her wariness. But the upcoming talks, overseen by the American Secretary of State and reportedly including other Arab states, have the potential to pay off if policymakers here and in the Middle East see this as a serious opportunity for progress. Let’s hope they do.

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