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Into the Lion’s Den

1.

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?

2.

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 enterprise. Yet, coming when it did as it did, it was largely acknowledged in the West Bank and Gaza as one of Yasser Arafat’s historic achievements. Content matters. But so too, and perhaps more so, does context.

Today’s context—political, practical, and most of all psychological—may be what is pushing Abbas and Olmert toward a solution, but it also is what may doom it. Olmert and Abbas almost certainly lack the requisite authority and backing to negotiate a historic compromise. Olmert has been tarnished by the 2006 war in Lebanon and the January 2008 Winograd report on his government’s conduct of the war. He may have survived, but he is politically battered and likely lacks the support needed for an agreement to divide Jerusalem or withdraw from most of the West Bank. Abbas has been damaged by the disintegration of his Fatah party, the split between Fatah and Hamas, his loss of control over Gaza since Hamas took it over in June 2007, and accusations that he is doing America’s and Israel’s bidding in their fight against the Islamists. He speaks as president of a hollow Palestinian Authority and chairman of a ghostly Palestine Liberation Organization. The exalted titles barely conceal his diminished power. He too will find it hard to compromise on the refugees’ right of return or on Jerusalem.

The fate of the negotiations will remain, to a large extent, bound up in Hamas’s decisions. By continuing its path of “resistance” and escalating its rocket attacks against Israeli targets, it can disrupt the talks, as it has already demonstrated in recent weeks. Olmert will come under pressure to halt negotiations if Abbas is unable to stem rising violence. Large-scale Israeli retaliation, with its inevitable civilian casualties, will increasingly make Abbas’s position untenable and expose him to vehement criticism. How long will it be before the negotiations collapse in the face of Israeli and Palestinian bloodshed? Nor, as Hamas showed with its breach of the wall separating Gaza from Egypt, is violence its only option.

Even if we assume Abbas and Olmert can overcome political infirmity, overlook Hamas’s provocations, and sign an agreement, what then? To most Israelis and Palestinians, the shelf agreement will find its place alongside the series of meaningless, unimplemented deals beginning with Oslo and stretching all the way to the roadmap. For Israelis, signing the accord will be tantamount to making concessions to a Palestinian Authority that is unable to control its territory, speak for the entirety of its people, restrain violent militants, or halt rocket fire. Palestinians will see it as relinquishing their most sacred rights in return for promises made all the more suspect because their fulfillment depends on their adversary’s goodwill. In both instances, contrast between lofty words and harsh reality—rocket attacks, military incursions, settlement activity, and the like—will feed deepening skepticism and cynicism.

Worse, a deal that remains on paper could end up weakening support for the worthy ideas it embodies. Critics of the agreement will have ample targets at which to take aim, since the concessions will be clear for all to see; supporters will have precious little to point to, since implementation will be postponed. Because losses will appear to be more tangible than gains, on both sides it will be far easier to galvanize opposition than to mobilize backers.

The Bush administration and other supporters of a shelf agreement seem not to worry about the prospect that a referendum on such a deal might fail among Palestinians, Israelis, or both. Maybe they should. On the Palestinian side, opposition would come inevitably from Islamist groups, likely from left-wing organizations and rejectionist forces within the PLO, and quite possibly from large segments within Fatah and independents. A less formidable coalition helped bring Hamas to power in 2006. Israelis may react negatively in the face of continuing Palestinian violence and lack of faith in their counterparts’ ability to carry out the deal. In both cases, the political circumstances surrounding an agreement rather than its actual content would have led to its rejection, but so what? The goal of achieving a two-state solution would collapse all the same. Ultimately, the most damaging blow to a sustainable, lasting two-state agreement could be a hurried, expedient one.

Timing is another complication. Any agreement will come close to new elections, possibly in both Israel and Palestine, almost certainly in one. Should a new leadership take over on either side, it is not clear that it will feel bound by the commitments of its predecessor. In Israel, practically every change in government has resulted in challenges to, and renegotiation of, earlier agreements with the Palestinians. Upon assuming office, Prime Minister Shimon Peres did not withdraw from Hebron as agreed by Yitzhak Rabin; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu questioned the Oslo Accords and negotiated the Wye agreement; Prime Minster Barak relitigated Wye; and Prime Minister Sharon exhibited scant loyalty to previous understandings.

The Palestinians’ case is different, but that is not cause for comfort. They do not share the experience of repeatedly changing their positions because they do not share the experience of regularly changing leaders. This may no longer be the case. With the fluidity and precariousness of their politics, Palestinians may choose leaders prone to question a prior agreement, especially if it touches upon deeply held beliefs, is controversial, and does not enjoy consensual backing. With a shelf agreement, the urge to challenge the deal would be all the greater because the exercise is more theoretical than real, highlighting historic concessions and concealing concrete gains.

In today’s climate, Israelis will also doubt that the deal reflects Palestinians’ collective feelings. A move designed to placate their US ally, save their Palestinian partner, and resuscitate their prime minister will smack of political opportunism. What they want, and under these circumstances will not get, is Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s existence within the 1967 borders that is not tactical and reversible but strategic and permanent. Why should Israelis commit themselves to give up material assets in return for promises that may later prove to be spurious?

Palestinians will see the deal more as a letdown than as an achievement. They know how weak and divided they are and how reliant on foreign goodwill their national movement has become—on the US for security assistance, on the Israel Defense Forces for maintaining the rule of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and on the rest of the globe for sustenance. They hear it in Bush’s voice when he urges a solution as a favor to “reformed” Palestinians and a means of defeating Hamas and curbing radical forces in the region. They sense it in Olmert’s attitude when he embraces Palestinian statehood as a solution to Israel’s demographic problem rather than the realization of Palestinian political aspirations. They see it in both men’s condescending attitude, lacking respect for a national movement that has lost self-respect, that lives at the mercy of its foreign backers and in the shadow of its departed founder.

Full of bluster and bravado, Yasser Arafat could make Palestinian setbacks such as the Oslo compromises taste like victory. Defeated and dejected, the current Palestinian leadership is liable to make even an achievement such as the birth of a state look like a loss. The content of an agreement, again, is largely an afterthought. What counts is how the outcome is experienced: as the triumph of the freedom fighter or as the consolation for the defeated.

For many Palestinians, a state was never the ultimate goal, let alone a venerated prize. Acceptance of the two-state solution came belatedly, reluctantly, and only after Arafat, through a long and arduous political process, somehow convinced his people that it was an accomplishment worth applauding. It took Arafat fifteen years, from 1973, when the two-state solution was first mooted among Palestinians, to 1988, when it was approved in a Palestinian National Council resolution in Algiers, to legitimize the idea and shift its status from an act of treason to the ultimate culmination of the Palestinian national movement. Even then, statehood was always a proxy for something more elusive and ethereal—liberation, self-determination, dignity, and respect.

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