27 November 2007 - An agreement to agree
The Annapolis peace process has begun. With a joint document agreed to by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and read by President George W. Bush, the two sides did not make history, but perhaps made history possible. Annapolis itself was symbolic; the real drama lay behind the scenes. A more intense drama now lies ahead, as negotiators race to meet their self-imposed deadline of “the end of 2008.”
Nothing of substance has changed, but there are key procedural changes that could have a profound impact on the eventual outcome. One is the deadline, which coincides with Bush’s lame-duck days. Another is that the United States is to be the sole judge of progress on the Middle East road map—which, let us recall, was proposed by the U.S. in the first place. Peace is now America’s responsibility.
It is a heavy burden—and one that the Bush Administration may not be ready for. When W came into office, the core of his foreign policy was in essence to do the opposite of what Clinton had done. Bush’s advisers viewed Clinton’s active involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with particular disdain. Now they’re hanging his legacy on the same fragile hope. It’s quite a striking irony.
This time, it might actually work—and the reason is simple: Israel can now impose a unilateral settlement anyway. Not a solution entirely to its liking, and certainly not great from a Palestinian point of view, but a solution nonetheless, at least in the near term. This is an alternative to negotiation Israel didn’t have before, and it takes away the Palestinian option of violence as a means of wresting concessions.
Beyond the real challenges of compromises on Jerusalem and refugees—more a challenge in terms of the internal politics on both sides than in terms of the relations between the two—there is the fundamental problem of the Palestinian failure to build the institutions of a self-governing and successful society. That’s where new Palestinian leaders have to step in. If they don’t, unilateralism is it.