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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


IS IT THE REAL DEAL: Reflections on the Upcoming US Hosted Arab/Israeli Peace Conference

Judea Reform Congregation
November 4, 2007

Steve Masters
President, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom

Wonderful to be hosted by your Rabbi, John Friedman, one of Brit Tzedek’s board members and the chair of our growing Rabbinic Cabinet and to be speaking in the childhood synagogue of my cousin, Rabbi Max Weiss.

I’m a fourth generation Reform Jew raised in Temple Beth Israel in Chicago. The Reform movement instilled in me a deep passion for Israel and for social justice and peace. And it was a Hillel rabbi, one of the giants in the Reform movement, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who was there to provide inspiration and guidance as I refined and transformed my beliefs around Israel during my freshman year at Yale in 1977 - 78. In the course of that year, while President Carter was brokering the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, I evolved from the AIPAC campus representative who led the protest against the PLO speaker who came to campus that year to a progressive Zionist who deeply believed that it was essential to Israel’s survival that it talk with the PLO and negotiate a 2 state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

Tonight’s topic is the upcoming Annapolis peace conference – is it the real deal? In exploring this topic, I want us to go beyond the platitudes of support for peace and delve into the tachlis of peacemaking.

While many of us have never been caught up in an actual battle, thanks to 24/7 cable news networks, we all know what waging war looks like. The History Channel devotes much of its programming to documentaries on great battles. And of course, there are countless books on warfare spanning the entire history of humanity.

Peacemaking is another story. Much of takes place in private, often secret meetings and negotiations. There are no satellite images of deployments of negotiators or talking points. 

Peacemaking without question requires the mastery of many skills –  listening, dialogue, creative problem solving, trust building and risk assessment. None of these skills are visibly exciting – none lend themselves to captivating images.

In late 2003 I was privileged to be one of the few American observers present at the commitment ceremony for the architects of the Geneva Accord which took place in Geneva Switzerland. During that amazing ceremony, large screens on either side of the stage displayed video footage of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hard at work negotiating the Geneva Accord. I remember the body language of the negotiators, how this one seemed completely uncomfortable with what another was saying, how some displayed the signs of anger or frustration, how others looked around with a penetrating gaze. It was a reality TV view of peacemaking, it was not in any way ready for a prime time viewing audience.

There are times during peacemaking when something dramatic does upstage the private sessions. The handshake on the White House lawn that launched the public phase of the Oslo peace negotiations in September 1993 and the much heralded Camp David summit in the fall of 2000 both come to mind.

And of course we have been told that another grand peace event is set to take place sometime soon in Annapolis Maryland.

Who’s idea was this Annapolis conference and how was it proposed?

The origins of the peace conference can be traced back to a major speech President Bush delivered on July 16. The most significant passage in the speech for our purposes outlined his plans for a peace conference:

The world can do more to build the conditions for peace. So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians, and their neighbors in the region. Secretary Rice will chair the meeting. She and her counterparts will review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions. They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state.

Despite the passage of almost 4 months since that speech, surprisingly few details are known about the conference, except for the venue, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Now I don’t blame him for picking someplace other than Camp David – do you?

The guest list is still incomplete and the conference agenda seems to be in a constant state of flux. Saudia Arabia has not confirmed its participation as of yet. Judging by the fact that it waited until the last moment to accept an invitation to the Madrid Peace Conference, we cannot read very much into their current hedging. Syria originally was off the invitation list, then was invited as part of the Arab League committee charged with implementing the Arab League’s Peace Initiative. So while Syria may be present, it has so far not been invited to be a fully engaged participant in the conference.

What is behind the dramatic shift in Bush Administration policy? or more simply put, Why now?

It’s perfectly natural to ask what has caused the Bush Administration to shift from its seven year passive approach to an approach that finds Secretary Rice shuttling back and forth to the region every few weeks.

For the Palestinians, the violent Hamas take-over of Gaza has led to the formation of a national emergency government in the West Bank, led by two peace oriented moderates, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former executive with the International Monetary Fund and President Mahmoud Abbas. With Hamas out of the reins of government, the Israelis and Americans both now recognize the emergence of a “Partner in Ramallah”, in place of the previous Israeli mantra “there is no Palestinian partner for peace.”

For the Israelis, Prime Minister Olmert’s government has been reeling from the preliminary findings of the Wingrad Commission established to lay bare the grave errors of the Second War in Lebanon, with a second and far more damaging report that may name names due to be released before the end of the year. The Prime Minister himself is facing four separate criminal investigations by Attorney General Mazuz. His popularity rating has hit low single digits and his coalition seems to constantly verge on collapse. After winning his election on a platform which called for more unilateral withdrawals from Occupied Territory, the consolidation of power by Hamas in Gaza caused his Kadima party to repudiate unilateralism and search for a negotiated solution. Many political observers in Israel see Olmert’s strong interest in this peace initiative as his gambit to change his political fortune.

For the Bush Administration, its failed policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have destablized the region, encouraging Iran and Syria to seek greater regional power at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and prompting the Arab League to seek new ways to unify and counter the consolidation of power by Iran. A strong US initiative aimed at resolving the Israeli/Arab conflict could repair US relations with the Arab world and strengthen the hands of Arab allies of the US.

Secretary Rice has been the leading force in the Administration behind the initiative. Last week I heard former Deputy Prime Minister Naomi Hazan talk about a recent dinner she attended with Condeleeza Rice in Israel. Secretary Rice told those assembled that she views the changes taking place in the region like a realignment of planets which has opened up new possibilities and opportunities that have never existed before.

What are the expectations for this conference amongst the Israeli population?

A new Peace Index poll of Israelis reports some shocking results:

Some two-thirds of the Jewish public think that from Israel’s standpoint it is impossible to go on indefinitely in the current state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and a similar rate thinks that among the issues on its agenda, it is urgent that the Israeli government invest in attempting to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Yet a large majority of this public does not believe the Annapolis conference will significantly advance the chances of reaching a permanent Israeli- Palestinians peace, or even achieve a basic clarification of the differences between the two sides. Given these low expectations, it is no surprise that only a small minority reports steadily following the preparations for the conference.   

The low level of expectations for the conference is undoubtedly connected to the perception of a wide gap between the two sides’ positions. A considerable majority of the Jewish public opposes, even in exchange for a permanent peace agreement, transferring the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians so they can serve as the capital of Palestine. And on the refugee issue there is a wide, across-the-board consensus that Israel should not agree to the return of a single refugee to Israel itself.
It was also found that there are more opponents than supporters in the Jewish public of giving the United States, should the talks reach a dead-end, the arbitrating authority to determine what concessions each side should make to enable reaching an agreement. 

But most of all, it appears that the Jewish public does not trust its government.
Throughout the political spectrum, an overwhelming majority thinks Ehud Olmert and his government are not strong enough to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians in Israel’s name, assuming such an agreement would entail substantial concessions by Israel. Those are the main findings of the Peace Index that was carried out from Monday to Wednesday, 8-10 October.

Is the Annapolis designed to succeed or designed to fail? Or stated another way, is Israeli public opinion way off base here or are they correct in being cautious and afraid?

To answer that question, we have to first answer a different question - Why did past efforts fail?

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."

How do we define success? Or is a shared statement of understandings enough to guarantee success?

Here’s how the Israeli government is defining success – in today’s online edition of Yediot Achronot (November 4, 2007) there is a short story on a speech Deputy PM Haim Ramon this evening:

“The joint declaration at Annapolis won't solve all the problems, but we will try to create a declaration that will allow for the continuation of peace talks which will help solve the core issues.

“The Annapolis conference will work if both sides understand that it is possible to touch on the fundamental issues and draw a picture of a future solution without getting down to details.”

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians have a different definition of success at Annapolis. Today’s Ha’aretz reports on a statements made by Prime Minister Salam Fayad yesterday calling for concrete actions on Israel’s part as a prerequisite for a successful conference – specifically the release of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners and agreement on a concrete time table for easing restrictions on the West Bank and coming to an agreement over final status issues.

"We cannot expect to go to Annapolis and be told by the international community that these are good principles, 'now go back to your respective countries and mull these issues over, negotiate them, when you are done, let us know'," he said. "Something like this, I am sure, is not really going to be seen as sufficiently credible. Some reference to that is essential, when it comes to ending [concluding] negotiations."

"Settlement activity continues, land confiscation continues, illegal (settlement) outposts continue to be erected, rather than removed, and these are the types of issues we need to concern ourselves with," he said. "For all of these reasons, I believe, it should be eminently possible to agree on a time dimension, he added. I think it's necessary."

How can the US reconcile these two visions of success?
Recently two groups of distinguished foreign policy experts released papers that offer blueprints for success at Annapolis.

The first statement appeared in the New York Review of Books and is a joint initiative of the US/Middle East Project, Inc., the International Crisis Group, and the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program. Its authors are Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman and Co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, Carla Hills, former U.S. Trade Representative under President George H.W. Bush, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, former Senator, Thomas R. Pickering, former Under-Secretary of State, Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush
Theodore C. Sorensen, former Special Counsel and Adviser to President John F. Kennedy and Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System.

Here’s what these distinguished experts have to say about success:

There are three elements that are intertwined:

  1. An agreement on concrete steps to improve living conditions and security, including a mutual and comprehensive cease-fire in the West Bank and Gaza, an exchange of prisoners, prevention of weapons smuggling, cracking down on militias, greater Palestinian freedom of movement, the removal of unjustified checkpoints, dismantling of Israeli outposts, and other tangible measures to accelerate the process of ending the occupation.
  2. A freeze in Israeli settlement expansion. 
  3. Efforts also should focus on alleviating the situation in Gaza and allowing the resumption of its economic life.

The second blueprint for success was issued by the Israel Policy Forum and authored by a distinguished list of former ambassadors to Israel and the Arab world and a few academics - Mr. Frederic C. Hof, Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr. , Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, Professor Steven L. Spiegel, Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr.

The IPF paper lists 7 points that are critical for success

  1. A Series of Meetings, not a One-Off – to reduce the burden of expectations on this one meeting.
  2. Details of the Statement: A successful Statement should include the following six elements: (1) the reaffirmation that the process will end in two independent and sovereign states; (2) borders between those two states based on the 1967 lines with  adjustments in territory between them as mutually agreed upon; (3) a just solution for the refugee question that is agreed by the two sides, and is consistent with the notion of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people; (4) agreement that there will be two capitals in Jerusalem, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty;, (5) special arrangements for the Holy basin that will guarantee access for all religions  and (6) security arrangements, including a non-militarized Palestinian state. It is possible that the two leaders could jointly declare either before or during the conference that they endorse the Blair mission and welcome international assistance to reach and implement a serious agreement.
  3. UNSC Endorsement: Whatever Statement of Understandings emerges from the international conference should be promptly endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.
  4. A Facilitating Agreement: Such an agreement would go beyond a declaration of principles to enhance the prospects for the broadening and deepening of the new opportunities created by the Statement of Understandings. This Facilitating Agreement would either be concluded at the conference, or more likely, an initial framework would be announced at the meeting, and the details concluded in the weeks that followed.  Negotiating such an agreement should be the focus of the United States and Quartet Middle East Envoy Tony Blair.
  5. Conference Participation: It is important that the representation at the meeting be as broad as possible. The administration should not allow the failure of any particular Arab country (beyond Palestine) to attend to be defined as the success or failure of the meeting, even as it seeks to engage as many states as possible.
  6. The Next Conference: The meeting should not end without an indication of a target date for its resumption. If there is a Facilitating Agreement then the prospects for the next meeting can be judged by the willingness and ability of the parties to fulfill their commitments. If there is no facilitating agreement, then success can be measured by how the parties progress in deepening the Statement of Understandings.
  7. Incentives: Certainly, Syria will have an incentive to desist from serving as a spoiler if the regime believes cooperation will bring it more through participation down the road.

It is not too early for Secretary Rice and Envoy Blair to begin to talk with the parties about a balanced process in which concrete Israeli acts as we envision in the Facilitating Agreement are met by substantive acts by Arab states.  Mini Israeli concessions followed by mini Arab steps toward normalization.  We recommend starting small but addressing critical issues that are important to Israel and Arab countries.

How do the authors of the IPF paper deal with the question of the role of Hamas?

Hamas now rules a third of the Palestinian populace in the territories and has the capacity, presumably violent, to attempt to undermine any meeting or agreement. Moreover, there are many reports that US and Israeli policy (to which Fatah now subscribes) enhances the credibility of Hamas and drives any moderates among them toward the hard line.

What to do to overcome this conundrum, which must be addressed and in considerable detail, if the initiative is to have any chance of success? 

First, the US might consider announcing that all parties attending will have to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, whatever Statement of Understandings is reached by Abbas and Olmert, and the principle of a Facilitating Agreement that will be on the conference agenda.  If Hamas were to take these steps, then it would in effect be accepting the three conditions set forth by the Quartet last year (recognition of Israel, no violence, acceptance of prior agreements), but instead of accepting an international diktat, it would be doing so along with other participants, and therefore technically not being singled out. 

Second, there could also be an agreement to leave the Hamas issue to the second conference, while making it clear to Hamas through an appropriate intermediary that the option of their attendance would be on the table in the second round as long as they similarly accepted the Abbas/Olmert Statement of Understandings, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the Facilitating Agreement.  This option might prevent Hamas from trying to torpedo the conference, and even encourage it to try to prevent Islamic Jihad from doing so.  Whatever combination of these or other alternatives the administration chooses to pursue, we urge it to plan carefully with our Mideast partners to formulate a workable strategy; simply saying no to Hamas without planning for the consequences is a likely ticket to new problems. 

Memorial for Yitzhak Rabin z”l           

Before I close, I want to include some words in memory of a truly great hero of peace – former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l - who was assassinated at the conclusion of a giant peace rally in what is now known as Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square, on the evening of November 4, 1995.

Yitzhak Rabin was not always a man of peace. One of Israel’s legendary war heroes, he was a career soldier, beginning in the pre-state Haganah, where he rose to chief operations officer during the War of Independence and continuing in the IDF which he led as Chief of Staff during the Six-Day War.

As Defense Minister during the first intifada, it was Yitzhak Rabin who created the policy of “force, might and beatings” in response to the stone throwing Palestinian youth confronting Israeli troops in the occupied territories.

From those very dark days, he underwent a radical transformation in his thinking and I believe in his heart. I think of him as one of the forerunners of Combatants for Peace and have always understood his profound change in terms of teshuvah, the inward turning and repentance that we are called upon to undertake around the High Holidays.

For me his transformation into a peacemaker continues to fill me with great hope.

His legacy refutes the lie that peace is only for the weak, that peace is only for those too timid to fight. He showed Israelis and Palestinians that a great man of war, a man whose life work demanded that he dehumanize and demonize his enemy in order to achieve his objectives, that such a man could transform himself into a fighter for peace.

Our work for peace will always draw strength and courage from the life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. So I will close with the traditional salutation - Hazak v’Amatz – for the sake of Israel, may we all have the strength and courage to carry on.


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

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.

Daniel Levy:

Somehow, during the course of the hot August days, a presidential address which seemed to promise rather little has become an effort in Middle East peace summitry that is beginning to raise expectations and is the first of its kind in almost seven years. Three developments have seemed to converge to create this new apparent moment of hope.

First, with the entrenchment of the West Bank-Gaza divide, efforts towards the political horizon long called for by President Abbas were embraced as part of the support for the "new partner in Ramallah." Second, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, plagued by political weakness, has decided to reinvent his premiership, and an overture to the Palestinians sits nicely with this makeover. Third, the US administration, or (to be more precise) Secretary Rice and the State Department are belatedly ready to get engaged and invest some capital on the Israel-Palestine front.

So a certain expectation is developing in the region, though it is not yet felt in Washington (and it is perhaps unlikely to be, given Iraq's dominance of the agenda post-Labor Day), that Israeli-Palestinian political issues may be fast-tracked toward an outcome in November. Olmert and Abbas have twice held preliminary discussions on permanent status issues in four eyes, and are due to meet again soon. After that a decision is expected to be taken on establishing teams to possibly begin a drafting process. The US has approached the Arab states and Saudi Arabia in particular to secure their buy-in for November. Ehud Olmert has polled his own public and discovered that they support such an effort (see posting below). Issues such as future borders, division of Jerusalem and refugee resettlement are being aired for the first time in seven years, and there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity.

I just spent ten days back in the region to get a sense of where things are at -- meeting with very senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, and catching up with old acquaintances, analysts, and policy wonks.

This piece is an attempt to address ten questions about the prospective November summit. At the outset I should state that such an effort could be very encouraging if it is done right, but could also be rather dangerous if it's part of a more-of-the-same policy.

1. What are the key actors hoping to achieve in November? It would seem that the broad approach would be to produce a paper setting out a horizon for an end of conflict, two-state solution, that boosts all the so-called moderates in the region, and improves America's standing and the overall regional atmosphere.

The question of what is the primary driving motivation behind this exercise is an important one. Is this principally about advancing a realistic, decent sustainable Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or is it more an ideological and pedagogical effort to prove that the good guys will get carrots while the bad guys get bushwhacked (punish Hamas, further isolate Syria, etc.). But trying to achieve the latter would likely come at the expense of the former and could actually be a recipe for instability and for further undermining a realizable two-state solution.

And then there is a third interpretation: that this entire effort is a chimera and an exercise in snake-oil salesmanship. It can't be done, and the entire build-up to November is actually about exposing either the Palestinian unwillingness or inability to deliver. Israel is cast as the side most wanting peace, while the US is the promoter of peaceful solutions and cannot be blamed for the failings of local actors. I think that some of the inside spoilers (the neocons still active in the administration, etc.) are playing along and are not particularly worried as they assume this outcome. I do not, however, think that this is either the motivation or the desire of the US Secretary of State, or of the Israeli leadership. But absent smart handling, it may well be the outcome.

2. What is supposed to happen next? Olmert and Abbas will continue meeting and at some stage, probably the second half of September, a decision will have to be taken on whether to start drafting a document, and, if so, who will do that drafting, and what kind of paper will they draft?  Currently, there is no consensus regarding what type of document is to be negotiated -- a short Memorandum Of Understanding, a Declaration Of Principles, or a somewhat longer, more detailed Framework Agreement (FAPS).

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch is due in the region in the first week of September, to be followed by Condoleeza Rice ten days after that. The parties are expecting some clarifications regarding the goals for November during those visits.

The donor countries to the Palestinians known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) are due to meet in New York on September 24 in the margins of the UN General Assembly. This will undoubtedly be an occasion for lots of corridor meetings between the various actors who should be involved in November. Palestinian president Abbas actually disclosed earlier this week (look up story, 3 days ago, Abbas saying don't know who's invited, what it's to be.) Indeed the terms of reference have not been defined, but there are hints that a summit, if it is to occur, will actually be hosted by President Bush, and the effort will be to ensure maximum Arab state attendance.

3. How engaged is the US? The answer at the moment seems a little troubling. The administration's engagement on the issue appears to have transitioned from "don't want to do that" to "don't know how to do that." November is just around the corner, and yet there are precious few signs that heavy diplomatic lifting is really going on. Sporadic visits by the Secretary of State and her team hardly suggest the kind of day-to-day management that a successful outcome demands. No dedicated point person has been drafted in for this effort, and so far, the new Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, is not being given a clear political mandate. In addition, the Iraq debate will be sucking up most of the Washington oxygen in the intervening period.

The possibility of the US presenting a paper to the parties with its suggested parameters is being discussed in some quarters. The impression received in talking to certain involved Palestinians is that some of the Palestinian leadership might actually be holding out for a US position paper.

4. Where do the Arab states stand? Involving the Arab States in the November effort and building on the Saudi Initiative (which was endorsed by the Arab League) is now considered to be an important part of any process. Arab participation, preferably as broad as possible, would help confer legitimacy for a Palestinian sign-off on the compromises that any agreement would entail. This was one of the missing ingredients at Camp David in 2000. Likewise, the beginnings of a normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel would all translate into a major selling point for any agreement with the Israeli public. It would be very helpful to develop a roadmap outlining the reciprocal steps that would be taken between the Arab states and Israel as a process moves along. This might include mutual recognition, exchange of Ambassadors, security guarantees, and an architecture for regional cooperation.

Thus far there is insufficient evidence that such a roadmap is being seriously worked on. Secretary Rice's last visit to the region which included a meeting with the GCC + 2 Arab foreign ministers and a bilateral with the Saudis, marked a beginning, but this has yet to be followed up in a concerted way. Key will be Saudi Arabia. In fact, the degree of emphasis that has been placed on a possible public Israeli-Saudi interaction is such that anything short of high-level Saudi representation will be deemed a disappointment.

On the flipside it also seems that the Arab states themselves have not developed a coordinated and coherent negotiating position that could maximize the leverage they have in advance of November. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in a press availability with Secretary Rice in Jeddah on August 1, stated that

    On the peace conference, I said before that we are interested in a peace conference to deal with the substantive matter of peace, the issues of real substance and not form or non-substantive issues. If that does so, it becomes of great interest for Saudi Arabia.

When it appeared that the US administration took this to be something of a Saudi commitment to be on board with the conference, the Saudis moved quickly to send clarificatory messages that the Foreign Minister's statement should be read carefully, and that the Saudi conditions for engagement should not be dismissed. There may be a US effort to use the proposed new US multi-billion dollar arms sale to the Saudis and the difficulty that may face in Congress as leverage to soften the Saudi conditions for attendance.

And finally Syria. Syria has thus far been frozen out of any preparatory discussions for the conference, and as things stand, is unlikely to be seriously approached. Amongst many in the region, the Syrian spoiler capacity is well understood, and non-engagement with the Syrians is seen as unhelpful and even irresponsible. Better to have the Syrians on the inside was a refrain that I frequently heard from senior officials. In fact, what is remarkable is that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership would seem to prefer an inclusive approach with the Syrians, and it is the US that is digging in on this issue, and unwilling to cede any ground. This approach is all the more fraught with danger given the fragile situation in Lebanon. Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had this to say in a recent YNet op-ed:

    Bush's strategy is consistently lacking on several fundamental points. The international conferences basic rules do not include radical participants -- Syria and Hamas -- and thus encourage them to continue in their role of spoiling the fun. It's an illusion to believe that peace can be achieved without the participation of these forces. As long as Hamas and Syria remain outside of the peace process, they are destined to proceed on the Iranian track.

5. Are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders politically in a position to carry this off?

Ehud Olmert's political position has somewhat stabilized over the summer, although that could change when the Knesset reconvenes after the Jewish holidays. Barak's replacement of Amir Peretz as Defense Minister and Labor leader, the weakening of potential challenges to Olmert within his own Kadima Party, and the likely smooth passage of the annual budget lead most analysts to conclude that elections will not be for a year rather than in a few months.

There is one caveat, and that is the looming threat of the publication of the final report from the Winograd Committee investigating last summer's war. The schedule for publication is towards year's end (unless a court appeal procedure that is being used by army officers threatened by the report's findings causes a long delay). The Winograd's findings will be harsh and could set in motion a political unraveling, if Barak makes good on his commitment to take Labor out of the coalition. The current assessment is that this is unlikely. Olmert appears to have a parliamentary majority for a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians. Even if Avigdor Lieberman's right wing "Our Homeland Party" quits over progress with the Palestinians, Olmert can still have a majority and may even be strengthened by demonstrating resolve. It is also worth noting that Olmert is considered by many inside Israel, and among the Palestinian Ramallah leadership, to be the best option available for a peace process right now, given that the alternatives are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

On the Palestinian side, the division between the West Bank and Gaza presents problems of its own. The general perception, even in the West Bank, is that this effort is unlikely to deliver any meaningful results. That assessment is only partially shared by the Ramallah leadership, among whom there are differences in nuance but the basic position is to give this effort a chance while maintaining an understandable skepticism. Were there to be some kind of agreement, then President Abbas would have no problem getting the support of the government in Ramallah. Beyond that things get tricky. Parliamentary approval would have to depend on the absence of Hamas PLC members (which is facilitated by over forty of them being in Israeli jails). Use of a referendum or new elections as a means of legitimizing any deal with the public is considered probably unfeasible in the current circumstances, especially regarding Gaza. A referendum raises the additional question of whether Palestinians outside of the territories would be able to participate. Currently, there is no real plan as to how Gaza could be reintegrated into the Ramallah-led Palestinian Authority, nor is there much appetite in Ramallah for the renewal of any dialogue with Hamas.

The Palestinian public reaction to any deal will be greatly influenced by the substantive content of what is agreed, and also by whether or not there is any improvement to the daily situation on the ground. The refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and even Jordan could become a magnet for opposition.

6. And Hamas, what is happening with them?

Readings at the moment suggest that the Hamas leadership does not feel particularly threatened by the November process. The working assumption in both Damascus and Gaza is that this does not lead anywhere, or at least not anywhere that worries Hamas. Of much greater concern is the day to day situation in Gaza, and, for Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, a sense of potentially becoming the “mayor of Gaza in exile.”

Paradoxically, the November process, when at all considered, could be viewed by Hamas leaders as presenting something of an opportunity. If that process either goes nowhere, or is easy to discredit, due to its substance, or the realities on the ground, then Hamas would be in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fatah. Under this scenario, either President Abbas moves to resume some kind of unity talks with Hamas (as they have advocated), and/or Hamas is boosted and regains the popularity it has recently lost. Hamas is also confident regarding Fatah's inability to internally reform itself and gain momentum.

If the November process begins to look like it might deliver results for the Ramallah government then the Hamas calculation might change, and resorting to violence to torpedo things would likely be considered. And those who do take the conference seriously, and are planning for it are doing nothing to address up front how Hamas might be brought on board and disincentivized from collapsing the process. In fact, the current approach is quite the opposite.

7. How is the situation on the ground?

In two words, not good. There is no recognizable improvement in the West Bank (nor, of course, in Gaza), and that fuels the Palestinian sense of the futility of the current process. The one major improvement has been the payment of salaries by the Ramallah government, and this obviously has given a boost to the West Bank economy; but, so far, precious little else has changed. There has been no progress on closure and freedom of movement issues. In fact, the new/old Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be positioning himself as something of a spoiler on this front. Barak was quoted extensively in the Israeli media a couple of weeks ago as opposing any withdrawal on the West Bank in the next three to five years. A new plan is being touted that would see permanent checkpoints being replaced by " mobile checks," but this, too, would take time to implement and offers little hope. Nothing has been done on the longstanding Israeli government commitment to outpost removal, there is no settlement freeze, and the route of the separation barrier being constructed continues to meander deep into Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to make the most of this bleak situation by focusing on those areas where his own government can have the most impact. His main emphasis is on security and bringing internal law and order to Palestinian cities which would indeed be a significant improvement for the residents. In Ramallah at least, the situation has visibly improved and Fayyad would like to repeat this in other cities, but even this requires Israeli cooperation which has not yet been forthcoming. The impact of July's prisoner release is long forgotten, and no further releases are planned although an Israeli gesture on this during Ramadan is an option.

The situation in Gaza continues to decline with damage being done to the Gazan economy that will take years to reverse. Under siege, Hamas is increasingly using strong-arm tactics to impose its will in Gaza. There is also a sense that the Ramallah leadership is encouraging this siege on Gaza, and the mutual recrimination in the Palestinian media between Fatah and Hamas serves to feed a public sense of despair and frustration at all political actors.

If a political process does emerge, then the IDF will have another justification for maintaining the tight restrictions on movement in the West Bank. Namely, that a fragile process threatened by spoilers could be undone overnight in the event of a serious security breach, and that circumstances therefore require heightened security caution.

8. What is the best case scenario for November?

First, that the leaders agree to a document that actually spells out -- in a meaningful way -- parameters for an endgame permanent status including reference to the '67 lines, Jerusalem division, and refugees. This could perhaps be enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution. A roadmap for relations between Israel and the Arab states that would be built in stages, as the Palestinian process proceeds, would also be helpful. The potential spoilers, especially Hamas and Syria, are given there own roadmaps or political horizons, and they perceive their own interests in acquiescing to, rather than derailing the November process.

All this bolsters the local public acceptance of the process on both sides. It also has a knock-on effect in the region that serves to limit irredentism and mobilization of opposition to the deal in public discourse, on Al Jazeera, and in the refugee camps. Positive visible moves are witnessed on the ground and security holds up, thereby increasing public belief in the process (this might include evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank). The US would then lead an effort to translate the agreed parameters for a deal into a detailed implementable treaty. In this context, should the Palestinians begin to reintegrate politically and resume Fatah-Hamas dialogue, then the US and Israel, this time, do not intervene to undermine such moves.

Having spelt it out like this, I should add to this uber-optimistic scenario, that Manchester United, Chelsea, and Spurs all get relegated, Arsenal do the treble, Tim Henman wins the US open, and England retains the Rugby World Cup.

9. What if that doesn't happen, what are the pitfalls?

As we've mentioned, Abbas, Fayyad and the Ramallah government would be further weakened by failed efforts. The same could happen to Ehud Olmert, paving the way for a more right-wing government in Israel. The belief in a peace process on both sides would be further eroded.

It could, however, be much worse. Fatah, shorn of political hope, might do a repeat run of 2000 -- directing a round of violence against Israel as a way of seizing the initiative from Hamas. A half-baked effort would create ideal circumstances for a Hamas- and Syrian-led pushback, and irredentism throughout the region, de-legitimizing negotiation efforts with a long-term negative effect for the prospects of a two-state solution. In an extreme, though not totally unrealistic version of this scenario, opposition is mobilized in the refugee camps (especially in an already tense Lebanon), Iran is emboldened, US allies are undermined again, and the region is further destabilized with possible spillover effects being felt even in Iraq. The regional atmosphere is crucial and it makes the lack of an attempt to engage (even indirectly) with Syria and Hamas even more stunningly negligent.

The last time the peace process collapsed it led to seven lean years. If that were to be repeated it is highly questionable whether the two-state solution can be salvaged. If the prevailing ethos is limited diplomatic capacity and ideological stubbornness, then it would be better not to attempt a November home run. At the very least -- and learning from the Camp David experience -- fallback plans should be developed.

10. So what to do?

November could still be an opportunity, or at least a moment from which something positive can be salvaged. Of course, the entire issue could become a moot point at any moment should a security or political crisis engulf the scene.

The three key components that are likely to determine the outcome of this effort are as follows:

• The substance of any agreement.
• Getting positive traction on the ground.
• Diffusing the potential risks and addressing the spoilers.

Mishandling any of these three, let alone all of them, may do enough damage to derail the efforts.

Substance matters. This is a moment of choice, and if the leaders are not ready on either side to make the tough choices, then they shouldn't go in for deception that attempts to paper over the gaps. That means a border based on '67 with 1:1 land swaps, a divided Jerusalem, and a refugee arrangement that provides compensation, rehabilitation, and understanding, but no right of return to Israel. The US and Quartet should be ready to table a plan.

Even such a paper would still only be a photo of a carrot for the Palestinians, and if the gap between that photo and the reality on the ground is stretched to snapping point, then expect consequences for security and the entire process. In that respect, the US needs to push harder, especially with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to secure improvements in the situation in the territories.
Finally, all who are involved must take the regional dimension seriously, and especially those actors whose exclusion is both unnecessary and threatening. This is either about building a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace or ideological point-scoring. It's either-or. It should not be both. One should be de-fanging, rather than sharpening the fangs of the potential opponents to a deal. Incentives for cooperation should be created, even indirectly via, for instance, back channels led by European states or Turkey. A helpful November outcome requires dramatically stepping up the diplomatic engagement and water-carrying, and doing so very soon.


Below is the full text of a letter just released to President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of an effort supported by the U.S./Middle East Project, Inc., the International Crisis Group, and the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program. The letter is signed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee H. Hamilton, Carla Hills , Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas R. Pickering, Brent Scowcroft, Theodore C. Sorensen and Paul Volcker. It is an initiative that I am very involved with and keen to encourage. The statement correctly identifies that after seven lean years of disengagement from peace efforts, the November conference creates both opportunity and risks. The administration is finally showing some political will to move on Middle East peacemaking. It must now combine that with political skill to achieve positive results and a good place to start would be a listening to the wise and experienced counsel of the letter’s signatories.

The text provides reasonable, meaningful and sufficiently detailed suggested language for an agreement that could be announced at the conference. It suggests that if the parties cannot reach this bilaterally, then the international Quartet, led by the US, should step in with bridging proposals along these lines. The authors explain that to invite Syria to attend the conference is a useful, but insufficient step that needs to be backed up by “genuine engagement.” Likewise, dialogue with Hamas (led by others, not the US) is preferable to isolation and should begin with a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel (as advocated here on ProspectsforPeace). Most importantly, the statement conveys an understanding of how the different issues are inter-related and connects the dots for the administration on a process that deals with substance, is inclusive, and delivers visible improvements on the ground for both sides. A diplomatic gauntlet has been placed at the door of the administration. Now, they must rise to the occasion.

The full text follows:


The following letter on the Middle East peace conference scheduled for Annapolis, Maryland in late November, was addressed by its signatories to President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  The statement is a joint initiative of the U.S./Middle East Project, Inc., the International Crisis Group, and the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace conference announced by President Bush and scheduled for November presents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a two-state solution. The Middle East remains mired in its worst crisis in years, and a positive outcome of the conference could play a critical role in stemming the rising tide of instability and violence. Because failure risks devastating consequences in the region and beyond, it is critically important that the conference succeed.

Bearing in mind the lessons of the last attempt at Camp David seven years ago at dealing with the fundamental political issues that divide the two sides, we believe that in order to be successful, the outcome of the conference must be substantive, inclusive and relevant to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians:

The international conference should deal with the substance of a permanent peace: Because a comprehensive peace accord is unattainable by November, the conference should focus on the endgame and endorse the contours of a permanent peace, which in turn should be enshrined in a Security Council resolution. Israeli and Palestinian leaders should strive to reach such an agreement. If they cannot, the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN Secretary General)—under whose aegis the conference ought to be held— should put forward its own outline, based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the 2003 Roadmap. It should reflect the following:

    • Two states, based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor, reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications as expressed in a 1:1 land swap;

    • Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty;

    • Special arrangements for the Old City, providing each side control of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community to them;

    • A solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the two-state solution, addresses the Palestinian refugees’ deep sense of injustice as well as provides them with meaningful financial compensation and resettlement assistance;

    • Security mechanisms that address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.

The conference should not be a one-time affair. It should set in motion credible and sustained permanent status negotiations under international supervision and with a timetable for their completion, so that both a two-state solution and the Arab peace initiative’s full potential (normal, peaceful relations between Israel and all Arab states) can be realized.

The international conference should be inclusive:

    • In order to enhance Israel’s confidence in the process, Arab states that currently do not enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel should attend the conference.

    • We commend the administration for its decision to invite Syria to the conference; it should be followed by genuine engagement.

    A breakthrough on this track could profoundly alter the regional landscape. At a minimum, the conference should launch Israeli-Syrian talks under international auspices.

    • As to Hamas, we believe that a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation; it could be conducted, for example, by the UN and Quartet Middle East envoys.

Promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point.

The international conference should produce results relevant to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians: Too often in the past, progress has been stymied by the gap between lofty political statements and dire realities on the ground. The conference therefore should also result in agreement on concrete steps to improve living conditions and security, including a mutual and comprehensive cease-fire in the West Bank and Gaza, an exchange of prisoners, prevention of weapons smuggling, cracking down on militias, greater Palestinian freedom of movement, the removal of unjustified checkpoints, dismantling of Israeli outposts, and other tangible measures to accelerate the process of ending the occupation.

Of utmost importance, if the conference is to have any credibility, it must coincide with a freeze in Israeli settlement expansion.  It is impossible to conduct a serious discussion on ending the occupation while settlement construction proceeds apace. Efforts also should focus on alleviating the situation in Gaza and allowing the resumption of its economic life.

These three elements are closely interconnected; one cannot occur in the absence of the others. Unless the conference yields substantive results on permanent status, neither side will have the motivation or public support to take difficult steps on the ground. If Syria or Hamas are ostracized, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically. This could take the shape of escalating violence from the West Bank or from Gaza, either of which would overwhelm any political achievement, increase the political cost of compromises for both sides and negate Israel’s willingness or capacity to relax security restrictions. By the same token, a comprehensive cease-fire or prisoner exchange is not possible without Hamas’s cooperation. And unless both sides see concrete improvements in their lives, political agreements are likely to be dismissed as mere rhetoric, further undercutting support for a two-state solution.

The fact that the parties and the international community appear—after a long, costly seven-year hiatus—to be thinking of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is welcome news. Because the stakes are so important, it is crucial to get it right. That means having the ambition as well as the courage to chart new ground and take bold steps.


Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter
Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman and Co-chair of the Iraq Study Group
Carla Hills, former U.S. Trade Representative under President George H.W. Bush
Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, former Senator
Thomas R. Pickering, former Under-Secretary of State
Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush
Theodore C. Sorensen, former Special Counsel and Adviser to President John F. Kennedy
Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System


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