Aluf Benn, Shmuel Rosner
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 28, 2007 - 4:14pm

1. If there is a need for proof that nothing changes in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the joint declaration should suffice - the one that was signed a few minutes before President George W. Bush went to the podium and only after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put a little pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. If proof is needed to show that much has changed, then the whispering between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas - a moment after Abbas finished his speech and Olmert took the floor - is proof of this.

The talks over the joint declaration, a total of only 437 words, lasted many weeks and reflected previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks. As always, the Palestinians announced each day that there was a "crisis," and until the last minute declared they were going to pass on the whole thing. As always, the Israelis said that things will be fine, and played down the disagreements. And as always, at the moment of truth, the two sides did not disappoint their American kindergarten teacher. At least they offered a bit of drama to the media on a diplomatic document that is quite dull.

2. The Americans insisted for many months, with a persistence that is reserved for officials convinced they are correct, that in Annapolis there will be a "gathering" and not a "summit." In the media and the rest of the world they ignored this precise terminology, but the U.S. administration did not give in. It was one of its ways of lowering expectations. Even Olmert, who has a compulsion for correcting mistakes, constantly reiterated that "this is not a conference, but a gathering." Still, in the joint declaration the two leaders expressed their thanks to the "participants in this international conference."

The joint declaration has other such delicate formulations that are understood only by legal experts and veterans of the peace industry. For example, on the question of what the declaration would be called, "declaration" was the Israelis' choice, "document" was the Palestinians' preference, and "understanding" was the American compromise accepted in the end.

Such distinctions may give cause for a giggle, but the declaration contains two elements that will serve the Israeli right wing in attacks it is expected to make on the prime minister. The first is the comparison the declaration makes between "terrorism and incitement that is perpetrated by Palestinians or Israelis." Translation: Olmert agreed that Israel too is responsible for terrorism and incitement against the Palestinians, and that America will decide in every case who is inciting and who is a terrorist.

No public relations spin will be able to erase that: The comments Ariel Sharon's government presented for the road map specifically rejected the requirement that Israel "cease the violence and the incitement against the Palestinians." Now Israel has given up on its opposition and a moral comparison has been established, which leaves Olmert with a lot of explaining to do.

The second problematic element, from Israel's point of view, is the commitment to "make every effort" to complete the agreement by the end of 2008. On this matter, the Palestinian demand for a timetable was accepted, and Israel's position, which proposed to leave the timing unspecified, was rejected.

3. Olmert did everything he could to sterilize the Annapolis declaration from any political booby traps. He had two problems. Avigdor Lieberman and Shas opposed any talk on the core issues, and Eli Yishai threatened that Shas would leave the coalition if "Jerusalem was mentioned at Annapolis." On the other hand, Olmert was faced with the objections of Ehud Barak and the defense establishment to any overly generous gestures of good will to Abbas.

The only issue on which there is no organized opposition was the timetable. No one will leave the cabinet because Israel has committed to reaching a final-status agreement in a year. In politics, a year is a lifetime. And in the Middle East, as Yitzhak Rabin said about the Oslo Accords, "no date is sacred." Therefore, it was convenient for Olmert to give in on this without taking a chance. 'Let the negotiations begin, then we'll see,' is the attitude.

Israel's main gain at Annapolis was in conditioning the implementation of the future agreement, if such is achieved, to the implementation of the obligations laid out in the road map and in rejecting the Palestinian demand that the road map be implemented in parallel with the final-status agreement. The Palestinians wanted Israel to have to evacuate an outpost or freeze a settlement in exchange for every one of their security-related operations. Israel insisted on separating the two, and succeeded.

4. The issue that threatened to disrupt the talks between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her lead-negotiating counterpart, former PA prime minister Ahmed Qureia, was over who would supervise the two sides and decide whether they are meeting their road map obligations. Experience in the Middle East suggests that the Israelis and the Palestinians are very good at blaming the other side, but they do not really like to keep their obligations. Had this been different the Palestinian terrorist groups and the outposts in the West Bank would have long gone. During the Oslo period there was no responsible adult around to ensure that the obligations were met. The road map sought to correct this and set a mechanism of monitoring under American control.

The Palestinians and the Americans proposed for the current negotiations to set up a tripartite committee that would discuss all issues and decide who was right and who needs to correct things. Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed this proposal, fearing that Israel will find itself in a minority position, and proposed instead that an American arbitrator would be assigned to decide. The final compromise is that a committee will be set up, but the decision maker will be U.S. General Jim Jones, the former NATO commander, who will take up his new duties in the coming days. Like other generals appointed by the White House for this thankless job, Jones will also probably go through a complicated breaking-in period in the Middle East.


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