Another Late-Term Push for Mideast Peace

The to-do list of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for this week includes another short trip to the Middle East in pursuit of the goal set at last winter’s Annapolis meeting — a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of 2008. Few people may think that this is a realistic goal, but the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is actually based on the idea that it is worthwhile to try to reach an agreement even if it will be difficult to implement all of it anytime in the near future. Such a “shelf agreement” may be a rather odd idea for achieving peace, as Hussein Agha and Robert Malley argued in a superb analysis earlier this year, but it is by no means clear that the idea has no merit.

While published reports allow few conclusions about any progress in the negotiations, some recent developments would seem to indicate that there is some hard bargaining going on behind the scenes: Earlier this month, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) announced that the Palestinians might demand “one state, a binational state” if the current negotiations with Israel failed to produce satisfactory results soon; and a day later the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Palestinians had “rejected an Israeli peace proposal.”

The proposal envisaged that Israel would return to the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, and all of the Gaza Strip, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) regains control over the territory that is currently ruled by Hamas. In exchange for West Bank land that Israel would keep, the Palestinians would be compensated with a 5.5 percent land swap that would add territory to the Gaza Strip. In addition, there would be arrangements to allow for a passage between Gaza and the West Bank that would connect the two parts of the Palestinian state — a connection that did not exist before 1967 and that Palestinians would be able to use without undergoing any security checks. Since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had explicitly stated in the run-up to the Annapolis meeting that the Palestinians are open to border adjustments as long as they would end up with an equivalent of the “6,205 square kilometers” of territory that make up the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, this proposal might come very close to fulfilling the Palestinians’ territorial demands.

Whether Condoleezza Rice will be able to push the sides to compromise remains to be seen. A commentary in today’s Haaretz suggests rather pessimistically that Rice will not only have to bridge the still substantial differences between Israelis and Palestinians, but also must convince some of the key figures on the Israeli side that a “shelf agreement” is indeed desirable. Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that Rice’s Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, expressed concerns last week that the current situation is all too reminiscent of events eight years ago, when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David, brokered by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, collapsed and the second Palestinian intifada ensued.