A Recipe for Successful Peacemaking
By Steven David Masters, President-Elect

Surprisingly, the violent military takeover of Gaza by Hamas in early June and the formation of a national emergency government in the West Bank, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has led many in Israel and the US to see a new "window of opportunity" for peace amidst the upheaval. Government officials and concerned citizens in both countries are beginning to focus on a proposal made by President Bush in his July 16th speech, calling for a peace "conference" or "meeting" among the stake holders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, scheduled for this fall in Washington, DC.

A Growing Chorus of Skeptics
Many associated with past peace initiatives have already begun to question the thinking behind President Bush's peace plan. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently criticized the new initiative as "air," "atmosphere" and "souffle." Others have been even less charitable. Shlomo Ben-Ami a former Israeli foreign minister, wrote in the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, that Bush’s plan is “flawed...the current American initiative sounds reasonable, but it is essentially unrealistic." Henry Siegman, who served nearly 20 years as Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, titled his recent article in the London Review of Books "The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam."

Sadly, Barak, Ben-Ami and Siegman are essentially right. The Bush Administration’s call for a peace "conference" this fall, which has since been downgraded to a "meeting," is built upon several flawed assumptions, ranging from which parties should and should not be invited to the limited agenda and goals for the conference. At the same time, we must also acknowledge the positive aspects of the initiative, in order to begin a serious campaign to transform it into a plan with the promise of actually moving the region closer to peace.

With the familiar posturing that accompanies the prospect of negotiations, too little attention is being given to learning from the mistakes of the past as the parties try to forge ahead toward a new future.

The best time to assess the potential promises or pitfalls behind a peace initiative is before the parties take their seats at the negotiating table, in order to discover what steps each side could take in advance to increase the likelihood for success. By identifying and advocating for necessary course corrections now, we can have an impact over the conference’s fate, providing a recipe for successful peacemaking.

First, the Good News
In his speech of July 16th, President Bush continued to issue the most powerful statements ever to emerge from the White House in support of Palestinian statehood. He also called for an end to Palestinian corruption, and pledged that the US would help "show the world what a Palestinian state would look like – and act like. We can help them prove to the world, the region, and Israel that a Palestinian state would be a partner – not a danger." The President further called for international involvement to create the diplomatic momentum necessary to "move forward on a successful plan to a Palestinian state."

For the first time, President Bush also came close to President’s Clinton’s parameters for peace when he stated that an agreement must be based on "the borders of the past, the realities of the present, and with agreed changes," and he expressed support for the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative, re-introduced at an Arab League summit this year, saying "re-launching the Arab League initiative was a welcome first step. Now Arab nations should build on this initiative."

But...The Guest List is Incomplete
Yet without wishing to deny these important, positive aspects, the very ground rules the President presented for the peace conference/meeting appear to doom his initiative to failure.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, for instance, does not appear to be on the guest list, despite the fact that he has frequently extended peace feelers in recent years, and of course, the Bush Administration has reaffirmed its policy to diplomatically isolate Hamas, thereby ensuring that Hamas can play no role in the talks.

Thus, two of the most central players in this conflict are to be excluded from its resolution. As Ben-Ami wrote, "It is a fantasy to believe that peace can be concluded without the radicals’ participation. As long as Hamas and Syria are left out of the US-led peace process, they are condemned to remaining in Iran’s orbit."

And The Conference Goals Are Designed for Failure
The aim of the meeting – "to review progress toward building Palestinian institutions, look for ways to support further reforms, and support the effort going on between the parties" – is equally problematic. The assumption is that Palestinian society must first achieve a certain level of state building before its leaders can sit down with Israeli leaders and negotiate the final contours of a peace agreement.

Unfortunately, there is no basis to believe that the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking can be laid at the feet of weak Palestinian institutions. Instead, a failure on all sides to spell out in sufficient detail the broad principles for resolving final status issues seems to be the factor which has doomed every prior peace initiative.

Gershon Baskin, Israeli director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information wrote in the Jerusalem Post that the chief flaw in the Oslo agreement was both sides' failure to sufficiently clarify their vision for solving the problems of borders, Palestinian sovereignty or statehood, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and water early in the process. In the absence of such a shared statement of principles, "each side was free to develop among their own constituencies disparate understandings of what the final outcome would be. Rather than coming closer together on most of the core issues, the gaps in understandings grew throughout the years."

The Missing Ingredient: A Jointly Negotiated Vision for Resolving the Conflict

The good news is that during the second Intifada, attempts were made in a variety of unofficial settings to achieve such a statement – from the Geneva Accord to the Peoples Voice Initiative, to the One Voice Movement – involving important segments of Israeli and Palestinian society, coming together to negotiate a joint vision for resolving the conflict. Thus, much of the groundwork has been laid.

Remarkably, one key architect of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy has embraced this thinking: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Understanding the importance of such a framework, Secretary Rice has embarked on an effort to facilitate the negotiation of a statement of principles relating to final status issues, one she refers to as a "shelf agreement."

Before this past week, reports out of Israel indicated that Prime Minister Olmert had consistently resisted Secretary Rice’s approach, preferring instead to restrict his discussions with President Abbas to issues of Palestinian institution building. Last week, news reports [1, 2, 3] for the first time confirmed that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have indeed been hard at work negotiating a statement on the core issues of the conflict.

If indeed Prime Minister Olmert has moved past his past rejection of negotiating a shelf agreement, then there is reason for hope in the upcoming peace "conference." 

Saudi Arabia, whose participation is critical to the meeting’s success, has reportedly conditioned its participation on the ability of Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to work out the details of this shelf agreement. The stated aims of the conference would also necessarily shift if such an agreement were worked out. Instead of assisting in the strengthening of Palestinian civic institutions and state building, the conference would now focus on implementing the shelf agreement.

A New and Creative Bridging Proposal
Terje Roed-Larsen, a senior United Nations official immersed in the region for decades, has just penned a document entitled "Two Steps in One Go," setting out a blueprint for achieving Rice and Ben-Ami's vision. It seeks to bridge the Palestinians' rejection of past negotiations’ gradualism, and the Israelis' lack of willingness to go to final status talks with Palestinian interlocutors  they do not trust.

The document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders, followed by state-to-state negotiations on final status issues, using principles agreed upon prior to the establishment of the Palestinian state. Larsen is hoping that the parties could take up this idea prior to the US sponsored peace "conference" in November, creating a greater likelihood for the participation by states, such as Saudi Arabia, that are hinging their participation on the condition that the gathering deals with "the substance of peace."

There is Still Time to Alter the Recipe for this Peace Initiative
The US must work feverishly over the next few months with the Israelis and Palestinians to hammer out a statement on final status issues. If the parties are successful in arriving at a joint vision, the conference this November could hold much promise. If they are not, I fear that come November, we will not see the beginning of a viable peace process, but rather the foundations for another horrific turn toward violence in the region. Neither Israelis, Palestinians nor the US can afford the repercussions of another failed peace initiative.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206


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