Annapolis gains momentum
There is great public skepticism regarding the outcome of the Annapolis meeting. Many of the skeptics state that at the end of the day, it was little more than a photo-op for the principals - Bush, Olmert and Abbas - and that it produced no real substance.
The failure of the parties to produce a joint statement that contained any content on the principles for resolving the core issues for permanent status, for some, points to the Annapolis meeting as a failure.
In fact, the main strategic aim of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas from Annapolis was to survive the meeting politically. That aim was achieved. Perhaps too little for some, however there is a new negotiating process under way, and it is the only game in town.
The meeting did also buy for Olmert and Abbas a year of domestic political freedom that can now be used to arrive at the permanent status agreement.
The process did set up a formal mechanism for carrying out negotiations and has produced an American commitment to monitor, and for the first time, to judge, the parallel implementation of the road map phase I obligations of both sides. The negotiating mechanism established contains two main elements: the continuation of the biweekly Olmert-Abbas meetings and the establishment of a steering committee that will devise further mechanisms for negotiating permanent status.
THE PROCESS set forth has several severe limitations. For one, in the absence of the framework agreement or the "package deal" that will include the principles for dealing with the hard core issues (Jerusalem, boundaries, settlements, refugees and security) the steering committee and its sub-committees will be limited in their ability to proceed with many of the non-core permanent status issues. Nevertheless, there are a whole set of issues, mainly technical in nature, that can be confronted and negotiated without regard to the final location of the border or the determination of how the refugee and Jerusalem issues will be dealt with and agreed upon.
The main negotiations on the core issues will have to be dealt with by the Olmert-Abbas track, supported by their confidants and advisers. This must be done under a complete "news blackout" and can only be successful if dealt with as a package, and not by negotiating each issue separately from the others.
The steering committee and its sub-committees will be, by nature, a more public process and as such will be subject to use and abuse by both sides through media leaks - both intentional and unintentional - as part of the process of providing information and disinformation as a tool of creating pressure on the negotiators. This is only one of the potentially dysfunctional aspects of the negotiations process under the work of the steering committee. It also seems apparent that the heads of the steering committee - Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei - lack the very basic good chemistry that has characterized the relationship of Olmert and Abbas.
THE INCLUSION of the US monitoring mechanism that allows for "judging" is a new and positive development that will assist the parties in the parallel implementation of their road map obligations. This mechanism should include a clear definition of what those obligations are.
Additionally, the monitors should create a tri-lateral committee - Israelis, Palestinians and Americans - aimed at assisting and facilitating the implementation. When problems arise or when breaches of obligations are committed, the tri-lateral committee should attempt to work out agreements on resolving the difficulties prior to reporting on them in the formal confidential and public mechanisms for reporting that will be established.
It should be clear that much progress can be made in the realm of implementing road map obligations, economic development projects in the West Bank (and even in Gaza) and on the technical negotiations not connected to the core issues.
Once Olmert and Abbas do produce a draft framework agreement on core issue principles, and it is presented to the public, the Israeli coalition government will cease to exist and Israel will enter a new period of early elections. The elections will serve as a referendum on the draft agreement and will determine if the negotiations for permanent status will continue and if there will be something to implement subsequently.
There is no possibility of reaching the agreement on the core issues in a public process or through several sub-committees of the steering committee. This must be done in the Olmert-Abbas track.
The work of the steering committee is important and must be more than a smoke-screen for the hard core-issue negotiations at the Olmert-Abbas level. The steering committee's work must deal with substance and will also be the more public face of the process.
One of the functions of the steering committee will be, by definition, a mechanism that will influence public opinion. Therefore, the heads of the steering committee should be very cautious in their public statements and the influence that these will have in setting the public mood.
Skepticism may remain high because the public will be largely excluded at this point from the core negotiations. There will be huge speculation in the media about the nature of the compromises and concessions that the leaders will be making. This will lead to public debate and perhaps even more to the issuing of threats by leaders of various political factions and groups on both sides.
With the understanding that Israel will have to go to elections following the publication of the draft agreement and that the Palestinians too will engage in some process of public referendum, Olmert and Abbas must proceed with determination to reach an agreement regardless of the domestic political concerns.
The work of the steering committee and its sub-committees may be more influenced by day-today realities on the ground and domestic political concerns, but the Olmert-Abbas track must be insulated from external influences. Without this, the core-issue negotiations may be easily side-tracked and derailed. With all of the skepticism, it should be realized that the very future of the viability of the two-state solution is at stake. The Annapolis process has taken off. It must now succeed.
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