Into the Lion’s Den

In its final year in office and the first year of its Israeli–Palestinian diplomacy, the Bush administration has introduced the latest and in some respects oddest idea for achieving peace, the shelf agreement. Its logic is straightforward. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas should conclude a final peace treaty by the end of 2008. The Israeli and Palestinian people subsequently would ratify it in near-simultaneous referenda or elections. And then, once approved, the treaty ought simply to be put aside (on the aforementioned shelf) until circumstances permit it to be carried out. No agreement can be fully put into effect immediately upon signature. But whereas a phased agreement includes an approved schedule, with starting date and endpoint, implementation of a shelf agreement would depend on an assessment by the parties that specified conditions have been met.

The concept is no coincidence. It is tailor-made to fit Abbas’s and Olmert’s peculiar situation: both politically fragile, both in desperate need of renewed mandates, both presumably enjoying broad popular majorities in favor of a peace accord and yet neither capable at this time of translating the contemplated deal into concrete reality. Add to that President Bush’s desire for an achievement by the end of his term and the concept’s genesis comes into sharper focus. Olmert can shore up his authority, Abbas his relevance, and Bush his legacy.

To the many who are persuaded that the clock is ticking on a two-state solution, that something must be done to salvage the secular expression of Palestinian nationalism against its religious manifestation, and that peace camps on both sides must be made once again to believe an accord is possible, this appears the best way forward. Frail as they may be, Abbas and Olmert retain the ability to sign a piece of paper. Difficult as the situation is, both peoples still yearn for a fair compromise. However long it may take before the agreement can be put into practice, reaching it—and having it endorsed at local, regional, and international levels—at least will mean securing and enhancing the parameters of a deal.

Can the stratagem work? And if it works, what would it be worth? Bush, Abbas, and Olmert will continue their quest for a shelf agreement and may, who knows, even achieve their goal. But what happens if an agreement is signed and nobody takes notice?

The content of Israeli–Palestinian agreements is an important factor in determining the popular reaction on both sides but hardly a sufficient one. The 1947 UN partition plan gave the Palestinians much more than any current proposal. Yet they rejected it because at the time they formed a majority in and controlled most of Mandatory Palestine. The 1993 Oslo Accords, most Palestinians will concede, was at best a mediocre deal and one that many would now reject. It never mentioned statehood or independence. It did not define boundaries or the fate of Jerusalem. And it did nothing to halt the settlement …

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