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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.

At this juncture, a two-state solution will fall far short of that. It has been stripped of what made it valuable. Palestinians will see it as the gift that was given rather than the right that was wrested. In their eyes, its three most enthusiastic backers are also viewed as the least legitimate: Israel, which, as the Israeli prime minister put it, will be “finished” without a Palestinian state; the US, which feverishly is trying to realize its president’s “vision”; and that narrow slice of the Palestinian parasitic elite that benefits mightily from the Palestinian Authority and expects no less from its putative successor.

The trappings of a shelf agreement can be improved and, with them, prospects for its success. The time it spends on the shelf, that costly interval between accord and implementation, might be shortened by accelerating the buildup and training of Palestinian security forces or by introducing an international force. Both sides could take steps to create a sense of palpable progress by carrying out a so-called action plan. Palestinians could beef up their security capacities and do more to stop attacks on Israel. Israel could release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, remove some roadblocks and settlement outposts, and pass a law providing compensation for settlers willing to voluntarily leave their homes. It may even redeploy some troops out of the West Bank and hand over additional territory to the Palestinians.

But these measures probably are neither adequate nor very likely. They don’t address the dilemma posed by Hamas, the shaky authority of the current Palestinian leadership, or the weakness of Israel’s political system. They assume Israeli willingness to offer not only political compromises, even though the Palestinians are in disarray, but also practical concessions, even though the Palestinian Authority is only partially in control. Notwithstanding its commitments, despite US prodding, and symbolic gestures aside, Israel balks at improving the situation in the West Bank. Its reasons for doing so are not about to evaporate, with or without a shelf agreement.

Of all these possible sources of support for a shelf agreement, the introduction of an international force is the most intriguing, for it could fill the gap between Israeli expectations and Palestinian performance. But it also may be the hardest to accomplish. One wonders whether Israel would trust international troops, especially after the experience of UN forces in Lebanon; and where they would be found, in view of the Iraq fiasco and the unfinished expedition in Afghanistan, and particularly if they are to confront a hostile environment with opposition from Hamas and other militant groups.

3.

Two alternative paths would improve the chances of a workable Israeli– Palestinian political agreement. The first is more modest. It starts with recognition that the tête-à-tête between Israel and the Palestinians is over. With Hamas’s intrusion, it has become a ménage-à-trois.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority cannot make real progress on a peace agreement if they are determined to keep Hamas out. The Islamists can turn to violence, mount a campaign to deny backing to Abbas and any accord he favors, or prevent a credible referendum from being held in Gaza, which they control, and in the West Bank, where they retain considerable influence. As long as Hamas is shunned, as long as peace talks are intended to further marginalize it, Hamas will perceive an alliance between Abbas and Israel as a mortal threat and react accordingly.

The first step ought to be a renewed compact between Fatah and Hamas involving the formation of a unified government over Gaza and the West Bank, the eventual inclusion of Hamas’s political wing into a reformed Palestine Liberation Organization, and integration of its armed wing into the Palestinian Authority’s security structure. Besides recognizing Abbas’s legitimacy as PLO chairman and PA president, a unity pact with Hamas would give him authority to negotiate, in the name of the Palestinian people, a cease-fire and a political agreement with Israel. Hamas would commit itself in advance to allow a popular referendum on any deal and abide by its outcome. Hamas may not be willing to recognize Israel, but it could accept coexistence with it.

Not only is Hamas capable of all this; it has, notwithstanding its often intransigent rhetoric, already declared that it is ready to do so. Not only should Abbas find all this acceptable; he should find it familiar. For this was his early intuition, the logic behind his acceptance that Hamas participate in the 2006 elections: to coax the Islamist movement to enter the political system, give it a stake in governance and a foot in the peace process, all under his leadership.

Negotiations on a mutual cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, an end to the Gaza siege, and a prisoner swap would follow. Because they would be conducted by Abbas as part of the agreement with Hamas, and because Hamas no longer would be in exclusive control of Gaza, concern that a deal would bolster the Islamists at his expense should be mitigated.

Finally, the third step should be accelerated peace negotiations between the Palestinian president and Israeli prime minister. With Palestinians divided and Hamas ostracized, the Islamist movement has every incentive to torpedo a deal and little restriction on how it manifests its hostility. In contrast, once part of the political system, Hamas would have something to lose by destabilizing it. The Islamists’ opposition to an agreement with Israel might be no less real but the means of expressing it would be more constrained. They would actively campaign for rejection but let the referendum go through and, however reluctantly, acquiesce in its results.

With Hamas’s mandate, Abbas would be less vulnerable and the legitimacy of negotiations would not be in dispute. The inclusion of Hamas in a more reconciled Palestinian political system also should give the Palestinian Authority greater capacity to deal with security challenges, thus improving the chances that the agreement would be implemented.

Much of this already is being tried. Egypt has recently been mediating between Israel and Hamas in pursuit of a cease-fire. Yemen has hosted talks between Fatah and Hamas on a possible reconciliation agreement. So far, neither intervention has worked. Some of these efforts have been halfhearted. US and Israeli opposition to Palestinian unity has been intransigent; and differences between the parties remain real. Success will require recognition by the US, Israel, and Palestinians that divisions between Fatah and Hamas are not a prerequisite for a peace deal. They are a debilitating obstacle on the path toward one.

4.

If coopting Hamas would be the more modest alternative, incorporating Syria would be the ambitious one. In the past, working simultaneously on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks was viewed as impractical and hazardous. Many argued that Israel cannot simultaneously handle both negotiations, and others cautioned that negotiations with Syria would only detract from more important talks with the Palestinians. Arafat persisted in believing that an agreement between Israel and Syria inevitably would come at the Palestinians’ expense. But is that still the case?

An Israeli–Palestinian peace process that ignores Syria will face considerable hurdles. First, in view of the Arab world’s insistence on a comprehensive peace, Syria’s absence will make it impossible for Israel to achieve normal relations with its neighbors. Israel has other motivations for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. It wants to end the violence and address the threat that Arabs may in the future outnumber Jews in a greater Israel that comprises Gaza and the West Bank. But few Israelis believe that a deal with the Palestinians alone will bring sustained stability. As for the demographic argument, it may be real and valid but, for some years at least, will remain highly abstract. It is not likely to induce Israelis to take the very concrete and costly step of withdrawing from territory, uprooting tens of thousands of settlers, and risking domestic upheaval. By contrast, because it promises to deliver so much more, a comprehensive peace that includes Syria could justify taking those risks and making those concessions.

Second, Syria’s influence over militant groups could make it impossible for Palestinians to deliver genuine security, without which Israel will be hard pressed to surrender more territory.

Third, Syria can deny the Palestinian leadership necessary backing from other Arabs. Some decisions Palestinians cannot make alone: a deal on Jerusalem and its holy sites is one, a solution to the refugee issue is another. Arab and Muslim imprimatur is required for the former and cooperation from Arab countries with large numbers of Palestinians is necessary for the latter. The weaker the Palestinian polity, the greater the need for Arab and in particular Syrian support.

Focusing on Syria’s role at this time might seem odd. After all, its regime appears isolated regionally and internationally, faces a difficult economic situation, sits atop a precarious sectarian divide, and has turbulent relations with members of the so-called “moderate” Arab bloc comprising Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. If any Arab party is to play a dominant role in the region and help promote an Israeli–Palestinian agreement, many argue, surely it must be this bloc.

But this is only a partial picture. Members of the “moderate” Arab bloc have not formulated a coherent or meaningful strategy toward Iran. They are virtually absent in Iraq. They have not managed to have their way in Lebanon. They have proved incapable of using their influence over Palestinian politics in order to bring about either reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas or victory for their preferred party. And the future of the Annapolis diplomatic process that they back remains uncertain. Meanwhile, Syria at least has a clear strategy of alliance with Iran; has good relations with Iraq’s government, opposition and insurgents alike; supports the more powerful forces on the ground in Lebanon; provides help to Palestinian opposition and Islamist forces without breaking with Abbas; and has little to lose if the current peace process fails. Its problems notwithstanding, and whether as spoiler of efforts by others or promoter of its own interests, Syria is more directly present in more ways and on more fronts than Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.

The debate over whether to pursue an Israeli–Syrian agreement has generated misconceptions. Advocates say that as part of a deal in which it recovered the Golan Heights, Damascus would break ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Critics counter that because Syria will not take those steps, a deal has no purpose. Both are off the mark. Syria is unlikely to sever its thirty-year relationship with Tehran, cut off its principal Lebanese ally and main source of influence in that country, or abandon its Palestinian partners in the PLO and among the Islamists. These connections, built over years, have supported Syrian strategic and political interests on a host of regional issues—Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf, as well as economic and intelligence matters—of which the conflict with Israel is only one. Syria will not sacrifice its influence in the region for the sake of a newly minted agreement with Israel or the uncertain prospects of resumed contacts with the US.

But should that be the test of whether an agreement is worth pursuing? After its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt preserved its ties to the then much-reviled PLO; the PLO broke with it, not the other way around. Three years later, when Arafat was expelled from Beirut in 1982, he first went to Cairo. At the height of the intifada of the late 1980s, Egypt provided political and diplomatic support to the PLO and the then much-loathed Arafat. After establishing relations with Israel in 1994, Jordan retained—some might say upgraded—its links to Hamas, and hosted its leaders at the height of the suicide bombing campaign in the mid-1990s. Few remember that King Hussein saved the life of Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s current leader, or that he insisted that Israel release its imprisoned founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.

Syria will not break ties with its allies but might act in more subtle ways. Neither Hamas, Hezbollah, or Islamic Jihad is a Syrian proxy. But they depend on vital support from Damascus and can read the regional map. Today, they feel winds in their sails. They sense a rejectionist popular mood and believe that with Syrian and Iranian help they can steer it toward their goals. A resumption of Israeli–Syrian talks and an eventual agreement would send unmistakable signals that those winds are shifting, the map changing, and their strategic depth narrowing. In the event of a peace agreement, Damascus knows it will have to rein in its militant allies and stop supporting their military activities. Inevitably, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad will reconsider their options. They are unlikely to modify their ideology. But they could be forced to alter their behavior, a result more practical and, one would think, of greater import.

What applies to them also applies to Iran. Having consistently said it would accept whatever deal Syria entered into, Tehran would need to adjust its relationship with Damascus and its approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict. It might choose to pursue its conflict with Israel but would have to do so by different means. Supporting military confrontation through other parties would become difficult because Syria could not allow it and because Iran could not afford to alienate Syria on so critical a matter. The two countries have much at stake, and so their alliance will likely endure. Yet like the militant groups it supports, Tehran would be compelled to adapt to new circumstances. Instead of Iran radicalizing Syria, Syria could moderate Iran. Rather than being suppressed, tensions between the two—over the future of Iraq, for example, or of Lebanon—could be accentuated, as the primacy of the Israeli–Syrian conflict recedes. That may not be ideal. Still, all told, Iran’s influence in Syria after an Israeli deal will be far less than its influence in Iraq after the American war.

If such a prospect sounds far-fetched, consider the precedents. After concluding peace with Israel, Jordan maintained close ties to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—indeed, arguably closer than any other Arab country. This was no innocuous dalliance: Saddam was suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction; had threatened to “burn” Israel; and only a few years before had fired missiles into Israel. Israelis may not think of Bashar Assad as another King Hussein. But Arab states can both make peace with Israel and maintain apparently inconsistent relations with its sworn enemies. Ultimately, raisons d’état can prove as dependable as trust.

If Israel and Syria were to reach a peace agreement, regional alliances would not change dramatically or overnight. Threats to Israel would not disappear, any more than they did following the Egyptian or Jordanian accords or than they would in the aftermath of a Palestinian one. Many would battle against the changes, but the changes would be noteworthy nonetheless and arguably broader than in those other cases. Syria would have to reassess its posture, which would oblige Iran to do likewise, both of which would compel Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups to do the same. There is no guaranteed outcome. But out of this combined reassessment might emerge a collective and noticeable shift away from violence and military confrontation.

5.

At present it is not just that neither Israelis nor Palestinians believe an agreement will be reached; it is that they hardly care. They have become familiar almost to the point of indifference with the possible solutions, endlessly promised, endlessly deferred. A Palestinian state, final and recognized borders, a divided Jerusalem: these are prospects that no longer elicit much excitement, whether in favor or against, but rather a skeptical yawn. There is something far worse than to lose faith in a two-state solution. It is to lose the yearning for it.

Instead, the focus is turning to matters domestic and regional. Deeply fractured, a one-time rebel with a long-forgotten cause, the Palestinian national movement lacks cohesion, a political program, and a legitimate center of power. What preoccupies Palestinians is domestic conflicts, whether within Fatah or between Fatah and Hamas. Wholly disillusioned with the Palestinians and increasingly convinced that little good will come of them, Israelis grapple with their own domestic demons—the efficacy of decision-making at the highest level, the future of the military, the religious/secular divide, and the question of how to cohabit with a gradually more assertive Arab minority.

At the same time, regional factors loom. Palestinian politics have become more vulnerable to the efforts of foreign powers to fund, arm, and influence local groups. The battle between so-called radicals and moderates weighs heavily. The threat to Israel, real or perceived, from Iran and Hezbollah supersedes much else. Caught between local and regional politics, the importance and centrality of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict has diminished. It has become difficult, without rebuilding the Palestinian national movement or reconfiguring the regional balance of power, to imagine reaching a workable and a sustainable settlement.

There are choices. Regional and international actors can acknowledge that without a Palestinian consensus, the quest for peace is an illusion. They can face the fact that without Syria, the hunt for a stable endgame will remain elusive. Or they can compound wishful thinking with wishful thinking and hope that Olmert and Abbas somehow will find strength amid their frailty; that a peace agreement somehow will be reached; that violent opposition somehow will not torpedo it; that the regional polarization somehow will not interfere; that popular support somehow will be mustered; and that the deal somehow will be implemented. In that case, they would not be following a strategy. They would be pursuing a perilous chimera.

—April 3, 2008

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