Yesterday, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, met for the fifth time in talks intended to lay the groundwork for the November peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. After the meeting, Olmert and Abbas gave their respective negotiating teams guidelines for preparing a joint statement to be released before the Annapolis conference that will set the parameters of the final-status dealmaking.
The upcoming weeks of negotiations will be tumultuous and hard-fought, and already there is a controversy brewing that portends serious danger for Israel. The Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are divided over how detailed their joint statement will be; the Palestinians want a “declaration of principles” that includes a great deal of specifics and timelines, and the Israelis, wary of the lack of Palestinian progress on the ground and the Abbas government’s ability to deliver, want a vaguer “declaration of interests.” Abbas has already said that he is “disappointed” by Israel’s apparent lack of seriousness about a settlement.
The risk is that if and when the peace conference fails — these events do not exactly have a promising track record — Israel will have set itself up to be blamed for the debacle, and we will then witness a reversal of the paradigm that has been dominant during the past seven years, since the failure of the Clinton-Arafat-Barak negotiations at Camp David in 2000. That summit was certainly a failure in delivering a peace agreement, but in historic and diplomatic terms it was actually something of a victory — it demonstrated to every fair-minded observer that Yasser Arafat and his minions were not actually serious about peace. For American policymakers, the conflict was thus cast in a stark light, and Israel thereafter enjoyed a great deal of latitude in defeating the terror war that the Palestinians launched in 2000, and more generally in achieving for Israel the perception — a correct one, I think — that it had made an unprecedented and genuinely good-faith attempt at ending the conflict.
America, Israel, and the Palestinians have just set out on the most ambitious peacemaking project since Camp David in 2000, and Palestinian strategists are well aware of what has come into play — namely, the ability to chip away at the idea that Israel is a constructive partner for negotiations. Israel’s reluctance to agree to timelines and specifics that it knows the Palestinians cannot fulfill will thus be portrayed as Israeli bad faith, and if not played correctly Israel could suffer a serious diplomatic and public relations defeat.