Galia Golan
October 9, 2007 - 2:38pm

Few are particularly excited by the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian conference; most may believe it will not or should not even take place. Yet this could be the most important and promising opportunity for a genuine peace process since the ill-fated Camp David II conference in July 2000. This optimism derives from both the unique constellation of circumstances in the region and the cumulative effect of developments within the Israeli and Palestinian publics.

For various reasons of their own, primarily concern over the radicalization of their publics and the growing strength of Iran, the Arab regimes are acutely interested in getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its politically mobilizing effect, out of the way. The entire Arab world has signed on to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, originally proposed by Saudi Arabia and reconfirmed unanimously by the Arab League as recently as March 2007. In an unprecedented manner, this peace plan offers that which Israel has sought, or claims to have sought, from its inception: the end of the Arab-Israel conflict, normal relations and security.

The Arab peace initiative even refines the traditional refugee solution, avoiding direct mention of the "right of return" in favor of a new formulation: an "agreed upon" resolution of the problem. Designed to accommodate Israeli sensitivities, the initiative provides a commitment from the entire Arab world that would render resistance from recalcitrant Palestinian elements such as Hamas difficult if not impossible should actual Israeli agreement be reached to end the occupation.

This is basically what the Arab world is providing Israel today as an incentive to make the November conference the opening of serious and expeditious negotiations for a final status agreement with the Palestinians (and hopefully, over time, with the Syrians). The Arab peace incentive, along with Saudi attendance at the conference symbolically representing the Arab League, depend of course on just this: that the conference open a clear, delineated and time-limited negotiating process on all the final status issues, to culminate in the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories equivalent to the 1967 borders.

Can or will the Palestinians and Israelis realize the potential this opportunity provides? Clearly the Palestinian leadership is weak, and neither Fateh nor Israel has done much of significance to bolster the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) vis-a-vis Hamas. Yet the Palestinian public, for all its disillusionment with Oslo, Fateh and "peace processes", continues to support a negotiated, two-state solution. If indeed negotiations bring an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, it is hard to believe that a significant part of the Palestinian public would remain with Hamas.

Repeated polling has demonstrated that events and developments of the past years have made the Palestinians justifiably skeptical but still pragmatic, willing to accept a mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza, with equivalent land swaps if necessary and possibly some kind of compromise on the refugee issue. Similarly, an accumulation of events and developments has also rendered Israelis no less skeptical or disillusioned but also no less pragmatic. What were once exceptional concepts for Israelis, such as "the Palestinian people", a Palestinian state and "occupied territories" are today openly acknowledged and even accepted by the majority of the public, including the center--many members of which have in fact gravitated from the right. To this one may add the idea of land swaps and even possibly acknowledgement of the de facto division of Jerusalem, along with juridical, psychological and political recognition of the green line 1967 border as an over-all guideline, with international involvement in its protection.

With the exception of a minority (albeit a highly vocal and wealthy one), Israelis are "finished" with the conflict, with the territories and with the settlements. Few see any of these as contributing to their security or prosperity.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is not one of those few. It was Olmert who raised the idea of Israeli withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank and it is Olmert who desperately needs an "agenda" to salvage both his political career and his party, Kadima. Indeed it is these two factors--Olmert's political career and Kadima--that hold the key to the conference and thus to peace. The success of the conference, perhaps its very convening, depends upon Olmert's willingness, courage and political calculation to move from his proclaimed insistence on a conference that does no more than produce a vague, general declaration of "interests" to the more specific "framework agreement" with a timetable that is advocated by Abu Mazen (and perhaps by Condoleezza Rice, though not necessarily by President George W. Bush).

Olmert's decision will ultimately depend upon the political alignments within Kadima, about which we can only second-guess. One might cynically say that given his generally bleak political future at present, Olmert has little to lose and very much to gain if he were to take the risk of a government reduced in size but determined to reach a peace agreement. If Olmert and his colleagues in Kadima understand the extraordinary opportunity awaiting Israel, the upcoming conference could, indeed should, mark the beginning of the end of the conflict.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017