Rafi Dajani
The Orlando Sentinel (Special Report)
November 27, 2007 - 1:29pm

Few events in Mideast peacemaking history have been subjected to as much cynicism as today's Annapolis meeting. This is due to the perceived lack of planning in the lead-up to the meeting, mismanagement of expectations, and the reported gaps between Israelis and Palestinians over the text of a joint declaration at the meeting's conclusion.

A closer look however reveals that prospects for the meeting may not be so bleak. Following six and a half years of aversion in getting involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, the U.S. is now seriously engaged. Just as important is the unprecedented tying in of Palestinian statehood with American interests. Speaking in Ramallah on Oct. 15, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unequivocally stated that a Palestinian state was an American national interest.

Another first is the mutual trust by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the sincerity of the other in wanting peace. Finally, there is the changed Mideast political environment, one that is close to the tipping point in terms of the spread of violent radicalism. This has focused minds in the U.S., Israel and among moderate Arab states. All of these dots have connected to make reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in all parties' interests.

The question, then, becomes how to take these factors and leverage them into making the Annapolis meeting and what follows it a success. The first step in doing so is establishing a definition of success that is realistic and achievable in the general context of steady progress in concluding a final peace settlement and laying the foundations of a Palestinian state. It was clear from the beginning that there was insufficient time to reach agreement on a joint document that addresses the "core" final status issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees by the time of the Annapolis meeting. Instead there will be a document re-launching final status negotiations leading to a peace agreement.

The other Palestinian demand was attaching a timeline to the negotiations, and here the U.S. adopted the Palestinian position. Rice has stated that the objective is to conclude Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on Palestinian statehood by the end of the Bush presidency. Fourteen months of serious and sincere negotiations are realistic and achievable for reaching a final settlement.

With realism and achievability as the contexts in which success is defined, two tracks must progress in tandem. The first track is the initiation of a serious process of negotiations between the parties leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on internationally accepted parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative. This is the much-mentioned "political horizon" that is so critical to re-establishing Palestinians' faith in their ability to achieve statehood through political negotiations. Progress on this track will result in increased Arab involvement in the process, particularly from Saudi Arabia. Arab participation is critical in both reassuring a skeptical Israeli public and giving Palestinians the political support to make the necessary tough political decisions. The role of the U.S. must be to closely oversee, monitor and shepherd the process with accountability and consequences for recalcitrant action by either side.

Equally important is the second track, which is a visible and marked improvement of conditions on the ground. Internally, Palestinians are primarily concerned with establishing law and order. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has taken significant steps toward re-establishing security with the recent deployment of thousands of Palestinian police across the West Bank, most notably in Nablus.

Parallel to that must be Israeli actions that demonstrate Israel's sincere commitment to a two-state solution, most critically a settlement freeze and the removal of illegal outposts. On this issue, the U.S. has become increasingly engaged. Last month, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, speaking at an American Task Force on Palestine event, stated: "Israel should halt settlement expansion, remove unauthorized outposts, and reduce its footprint in the West Bank." The announced partial Israeli settlement freeze and removal of outposts is a step in the right direction and needs to be implemented fully. In addition, Palestinian prisoners could be released in steady batches. Palestinian movement of people and goods throughout the West Bank and in and out of Gaza in order to resuscitate the devastated economy must be facilitated.

Can all of this be accomplished without Palestinian unity and the continued exclusion of Hamas?

Initially, yes. As the chairman of the PLO, it is within Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' mandate to negotiate with Israel. Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza has decreased its support among Palestinians, reducing its spoiler ability. Future progress on the political track coupled with improvements on the ground will further weaken Hamas, allowing Abbas to negotiate the inevitable agreement with them for national unity from a position of strength and based on acceptable conditions.

Conversely, a failure in the post-Annapolis process coupled with no improvements in Palestinian daily life will strengthen Hamas, weaken Abbas and likely result in increased violence. The larger consequence will be the death of two-state-solution prospects for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and the Middle East at large will all suffer the consequences of that.


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