Moshe Amirav
The Financial Times (Opinion)
October 18, 2007 - 5:40pm

Next month the US president George W. Bush proposes to host an international conference in Annapolis, near Washington, in the hope of advancing a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. The failure of previous attempts – in Madrid in 1991, in Oslo in 1993 and at Camp David in 2000 – highlights the difficulties. What have we learnt from these failures so that the same errors in judgment do not recur?

The conflict is no longer simply about territories. Israel was ready, in secret negotiations with Syria in the 1990s, to return the Golan Heights. At Camp David in 2000 Israel agreed to a Palestinian state and was prepared to offer the Palestinians 92 per cent of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but no peace agreement was reached. So if the territories and acceptance of a Palestinian state are not the main problem, what still divides Israelis and Arabs?

At the psychological level, the main requirements for Israelis are security and recognition, while those of the Palestinians and Syrians remain justice and equality. Academic literature dealing with conflict resolution emphasises that simplistic principles of justice, equality and security do not sufficiently define tangible interests, but are purely subjective. An issue such as security is difficult to define. Can territorial compromise promise security? It was clear to me at Camp David that the Palestinians were more interested in the elusive ideas of justice and equality than in definable interests. Agreement was reached on all the concrete issues, including territories and settlements, and even on the thorny issue of Jerusalem. The two main obstacles, the refugee problem and the political status of the Temple Mount, were more symbolic than concrete.

Today Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have developed new insights. Israel’s important realisation is that giving up territories does not guarantee security and that security can never be absolute. The Palestinians have come to a similarly realistic conclusion regarding their ideal of justice. In parallel with the collapse of the idea of a Greater Israel, the Palestinians have woken up from any former dream of a Greater Palestine. Likewise with the idea of achieving justice on the refugee issue, as defined by the simplistic slogan “right of return”: most Palestinians today accept that they will not be able to return to their former homes in Israel. These are significant steps on the long road to peace.

What happened at Camp David? I do not accept the thesis offered by Bill Clinton, former US president, and Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, that the responsibility for failure was all former Palestinian leader Yassir Ar­afat’s. I would like to analyse the main sticking points as objectively as I can, without pointing the finger of blame. Only in this way can we avoid similar mistakes in the next peace conference.

There are four lessons. The first is that we must be more aware of the specific minefields the negotiators will be walking into. The only questions not prepared for in advance of Camp David were those concerning the Temple Mount and the refugee problem. They were such hot potatoes it was thought advisable not to bring them up until all other problems had been resolved. But they jumped to the head of the queue. The other issues – borders, territories, settlements and even Jerusalem – had been all but solved. Today we hear that Mr Bush and Ehud Olmert, Israel’s current prime minister, have agreed the Temple Mount and the refugee problem will not even be on the table in November. But without preparing creative approaches to these subjects, I believe, the summit will again fail.

The second lesson highlights the need for new United Nations resolutions on Jerusalem and the refugees, taking into account the new realities. The holy places, as well as Jerusalem itself, are supposed to be internationalised according to resolution 181, which was passed in 1947 and is still considered binding. Resolution 194, passed in 1949, speaks of the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. But even the Arab League modified this in 2002, with a new resolution proposing “a just solution which must also be accepted by Israel”.

Third, Israel and the Palestinians on their own are clearly not capable of reaching peace. But the US can no longer be considered an honest broker for all the protagonists. A suitable arbitrator must be ready not only to reward the two sides for any concessions, but also to bang their heads together. The US has no real tools with which to press either side. Clearly, a fourth party needs to wield its influence and, in my opinion, any arm-twisting that is to be applied to the Palestinian side can come only from the Arab League.

Fourth, we cannot separate the ­Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Israeli-Arab conflict as a whole. For years we have been told that solving the first will bring peace with the Arab world. It should be the other way round: first Israel must achieve peace with the Arab world. Peace with Syria, despite recent events, is, in some ways, more achievable. Israel makes just two demands in return for the Golan: first, that it have full control of the Sea of Galilee so any new agreed border be at least 50m from the water line; second, that monitoring stations be permitted on a demilitarised Golan. Peace with Syria, in my opinion, is even more important and urgent than peace with the Palestinians. Ending the dispute between Israel and the Arab states would make it much easier to find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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