Dialogue and Convergence: Not sequenced – only in Parallel
May 16, 2006
It seems that the possibility of materializing the convergence plan in the way that Prime Minister Olmert is presenting is quite slim; in order to implement that plan a change of the Palestinian positions towards it is required such that it is clear that the convergence plan is not in lieu of a permanent status agreement.
The Government of Israel (GOI) should remove its posturing of appearing to wait for the Hamas-led government to change its position and to immediately respond positively to Mahmoud Abbas’ call to relate to him as the legitimate political partner for negotiations.
Instead of working in sequence, the GOI should work in parallel: at the same time advancing the planning and implementation of the convergence and returning to the negotiating table at once.
Negotiations are the only possible mechanism for reaching a permanent status agreement including the determination of permanent borders and the end of the conflict.
The negotiations should include the possibilities of normalizing daily life in the West Bank and Gaza including mutual confidence building measures; coordination of the convergence plans, dealing with the threats facing the implementation of the plan and the possibilities for coordinating the convergence plan with the Palestinians, and the impacts of the convergence plans on permanent status negotiations. The most important focus of the negotiations should be on the permanent status issues.
On his side, President Abbas must continue his calls to Israel to conduct substantive permanent status negotiations as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. As he is currently doing, he must enlist the leaders of the international community to support the move towards permanent status negotiations and to apply appropriate pressure on Israel to sincerely cooperate in this direction.
The Hamas-led government must unequivocally restate the understanding that Mahmoud Abbas, as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO is fully authorized and legitimized to conduct negotiations with Israel. It must also restate its agreement to accept the decisions of the Palestinian people by referendum on recommendations that Abbas will present from the negotiations and that the decisions of the Palestinian people will be binding.
The leaders of the Quartet, individually and together, should launch a substantial campaign aligning their support behind Mahmoud Abbas as the partner for dialogue with Israel. The EU, UN, and Russia should rally the support of the United States for this policy in order to guarantee the support of the full Quartet.
In order to demonstrate their intentions, the Quartet should work to strengthen the apparatuses of the Office of the Palestinian President by transferring funds to the Palestinian public through it. The transference of payments directly to the Palestinian people through an accepted international mechanism can also work towards strengthening the trust of the public in Abbas.
The Proposed Model
Under the auspices of IPCRI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, on May 6, 2006 members of IPCRI’s STAT – Strategic Thinking and Analysis Team, composed of Israeli and Palestinian academics, media people, former high ranking security personnel and peace activists convened in Jerusalem. The meeting focused on assessing the political reality in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The intensive day-long deliberations presented a very bleak picture, but also brought up a number of insights and recommendations that are included in this document with the hope that they will make a contribution towards improving the situation.
In our comprehensive view of the situation, it seems that the chances of implementing the convergence plan as presented by Prime Minister Olmert are very slim. It may be possible to bring the plans towards implementation, however in order for that to happen; there must be a change in the way that the Palestinian side is related to.
The path of impassable obstacles that the convergence plan will face can be seen from every angle from which it is examined: Despite what may seem like a meeting of interests of the GOI and the Hamas, the unilateral nature emanating from the attitude that there is no partner is completely rejected by the Palestinian people. The GOI’s plan does not relate to what will happen on the “other side” of the convergence, but if the West Bank erupts into total internal chaos and violence towards Israel (that may drag Israel back into the area), the Israeli cabinet will have to be accountable to the public and therefore, it should reconsider the very concept of unilateralism once again.
The approach of the international community to the convergence plan is far from resembling their approach towards the disengagement from Gaza. The White House may be indicating its willingness to back Olmert, but the US Administration is not monolithic and there are other voices of support in the Administration for Mahmoud Abbas there as well. The international community is not only is not only composed of the United States. There are members of the International Community which embraced Israel’s disengagement from Gaza but are much more hesitant regarding the new convergence plans. There are certainly temptations (every square meter from which the label “occupation” can be removed will be supported), however some of the central anchors of the plan have raised significant concerns and fears such as: leaving large reinforced settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty, freedom of action for the IDF in areas that will be vacated, the Jordan Valley as a “security border”, and, of course, the unilateral determination of a permanent border. It is clear that the international community will not support all of this.
If, upon his departure to Washington, Prime Minister Olmert has given up on his idea of American acceptance of unilaterally setting the permanent borders and is willing to accept the concept of “security borders”, what then is the virtue of the entire plan? Strengthening the American acceptance of the idea of settlement blocs is not a sufficient enough product in exchange for the painful impacts of the plan that the nation will have to absorb. This is also a significant decrease in the target that the government presented to the public prior and even after the elections, something for which there may be a high internal political price to be paid – which should also be taken into account by Olmert.
These issues may also become convoluted in the internal Israeli arena. Amir Peretz has called to negotiate with Abbas as a legitimate partner in a sincere dialogue with the goal of reaching agreements (and not as a form of lip-service which would enable the abandonment of the dialogue in order to jump within 6 -18 months to the implementations of the convergence plan). Peretz and his colleagues in the Labour party are signaling a completely different political strategy than the official program presented by Olmert. If, as can be expected, Shas will desert the government at the moment of truth, and the Arab parties will refuse to support the approval of the convergence plans (and one should not expect a different decision on their part), the convergence plan will have no chance to gain a majority support of the Government and the Knesset. Add to this the possible dramatic developments in the Palestinian arena (a possible humanitarian disaster, moving towards civil war, the possible fall of the Hamas-led government, the possible disappearance of Abbas from the arena). Additionally there are other factors within the Israeli arena (escalation of terrorism, violence surrounding the removal of outposts and settlements) or in the international arena (further deterioration in Iraq, crisis in Iran, further weakening of the Bush Presidency after the Congressional elections), with all this, the convergence plan may be left in the drawers unimplemented and unfulfilled.
What should be done?
The Government of Israel:
The Government of Israel must give up the idea of theoretically waiting for the Hamas-led government until it changes its “skin” and adheres to the three international and Israeli conditions – that is unlikely to occur.
The GOI must answer the call of Mahmoud Abbas as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO to view him as the legitimate partner for negotiations. It should be remembered that the Hamas-led government agreed to Abbas holding negotiations with Israel towards reaching an agreement. When an agreement is reached, its details will be presented to the Palestinian public in a referendum. The Palestinian people will be the body that will judge if their interests are met in the agreement reached. In other words, The Hamas-led government has signaled that neither it nor the Palestinian Parliament will be an intermediate body with the potential to annoy or damage the process that will be between Abbas and the people. It is not a secret that despite the support for the Hamas-led government (during the elections and today) that the majority of the Palestinian people are interested in a settlement with Israel. If a reasonable settlement will be reached by Abbas, it is reasonable to expect that it will receive the support of the public.
Instead of sequencing the process – first a less than real attempt to hold negotiations and then implementing the convergence plan, the process should be built to convene a real sincere attempt for negotiations and at the same time in parallel, to plan and advance the convergence plan.
The negotiations should include investigating real measures to create normalcy in the daily life in the West Bank and Gaza and mutual confidence building measures, coordinating the convergence plan with Abbas and the possible impacts of the convergence plan on the permanent status agreement. The main focus of the negotiations should be on reaching a permanent status agreement –based on the Road Map, the Clinton parameters, Taba understandings, and the Arab League Peace Initiative. The talks could begin with discrete professional working groups which would report directly to Olmert and Abbas only, until real progress is achieved.
Mahmoud Abbas must continue his call to the GOI to hold concrete negotiations with him as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. As he is currently doing, Abbas must continue to enlist international support for these negotiations with pressure being aimed at the GOI to cooperate fully towards the convening of the negotiations.
The Hamas-led government must restate their readiness for Abbas to conduct negotiations with Israel and to allow the Palestinian people to decide in a referendum whether or not the results achieved in negotiations are acceptable to them. The support of other Palestinian factions for Abbas to lead the negotiations would also help to empower his position which would strengthen the Presidency in the eyes of the public.
The Palestinian government and the security forces must do everything possible to keep security calm even in response to Israeli actions in the territories during these days.
The leaders of the Quartet, together and individually, should launch a campaign that encourages their support for Abbas as a partner to negotiations with Israel. The EU, UN and Russia should try to influence the United States to support the chance of serious negotiations between Israel and Abbas.
In order to convince everyone of the seriousness of their efforts, the Quartet should seek to strengthen the apparatuses of the Palestinian Presidency by transferring financial aid to the Palestinian people through the office of the President. Even if an international funding mechanism is established, it can also contribute significantly to strengthening public trust and support of the Palestinian public in Abbas.
The Quartet should work with the Government of Israel to implement a mechanism that will enable the release of Palestinian tax money collected and held by Israel.
This proposed model has significant benefits.
For the Government of Israel: the GOI will not be accused of paying only “lip-service” to a bilateral political process; it will win international support for a fair attitude towards its neighbors (especially if it goes in this direction by its own initiative and not by the pressure of world leaders); it will reduce the dangers involved in Palestinian reactions to Israeli unilateralism; it will strengthen the internal consensus within the Israeli coalition and will win the support of the Arab political parties in the Knesset. Most important, Israel will be able to go forward with the immediate planning and implementation of the convergence plans (and even forgo the six month waiting period); moreover, if the negotiations conducted in good faith become deadlocked or lead to nowhere, Israel will be able to return to its unilateral plans without any bad conscience and without doubt, and with the significant support of the outside players.
For the Palestinians, this model enables them to re-emerge as a partner, after years of feeling discrimination and humiliation. This model enables them to swallow the sour taste of the convergence plan, especially if it is fully incorporated as part of a permanent status agreement. The model puts forth the chance of reaching a bilateral agreement that will provide significant backing of the people for the President and another opportunity to reach internal agreement and a permanent status agreement that perhaps this time will not be missed.