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Makovsky: Rice’s Efforts to Convene Israeli-Palestinian Conference Are ‘Iffy’

Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 1, 2007

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David Makovsky, a leading expert on Israeli politics and former executive editor for the Jerusalem Post, says the chances for success by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in putting together a substantive package that warrants holding a Middle East conference remain uncertain. “We think Rice has heard sufficient things on the issue of land and refugees to believe the leaders are not far apart. But the issue of Jerusalem could be the devil in these trade-offs… These are questions that are really very much left open, and I’m not here to predict if she will be successful or not.”

Back in July, President Bush announced the United States would host a Middle East conference to discuss Israel-Palestinian issues toward the end of the year. No exact date has been set but people are talking about December or late November in Annapolis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in the Middle East several times, but the Israelis and the Palestinians keep haggling. The Palestinians seem to want as much agreed upon in advance as possible, and the Israelis seem to want more of a document on principles than on details. Do you think there will be a conference?

Nothing has been formalized. She’s probably going to be making two more trips to the region, one next week to probably figure out when the conference should be held—maybe the week after Thanksgiving. But if she is not as successful, it might be pushed back further. There are different ways to go on this conference. The least likely is that she will be able to fashion together a declaration of principles that would basically prove to be the template for a peace treaty between the parties. This seems virtually impossible because there is not enough time.

Another approach is that they basically agree on using Annapolis as a venue for launching final status talks. A third approach is a middle ground between the two which acknowledges they cannot put together a framework agreement but they may be able to make conceptual leaps on the core issues of the final status questions that would give the negotiations a chance of success. I think that would be what she would like to do—make a conceptual leap on the issues of displaced Palestinian refugees and the land boundaries. The third area, which is more iffy, is Jerusalem. Those three have been the core issues along with the issue of security. If Rice can cut the Gordian knots on some or all of these core issues that have stymied negotiators in the past, it would be a major achievement for her.

Given the split among the Palestinians in Gaza living under Hamas rule and the Palestinians in the West Bank, is there a Palestinian government that is really able to negotiate for all the Palestinians?

If President Mahmoud Abbas—the Fatah leader—can make a diplomatic breakthrough he could hold an election that would try to shrink Hamas politically in the Gaza strip. The platform for his election campaign would be negotiations and not violence, assuming he could achieve the breakthrough.

There is another set of issues that revolve around day-to-day questions. For the Israelis it means focusing on security issues in a very genuine way. And the Palestinians will want to see that the Israelis are doing something about the outpost issues—where Jews are living illegally on West Bank lands which the Palestinians regard as their territories. Some people argue that if Rice is unsuccessful in making major strides on the core issues she will put more emphasis on these day-to-day questions.

Talk a bit about these day-to-day realities. What are you talking about?

Hamas has not been able to deliver anything on any economic promises—and Fayyad on the other hand—has and he is improving the economy.

Israel will be asked to take down some of the outpost settlements that are illegal under Israeli law. These are groupings of mobile homes and other structures on hilltops on the West Bank that are unauthorized. The Israelis will also be asked to dismantle more checkpoints on roads in the West Bank. The Israelis have taken down some, but there are a lot of checkpoints out there. Israel uses them primarily for security reasons, but if the security situation eases then there will be more questions asked on why they remain.

At the same time, Salam Fayad, the prime minister of the Fatah-led government in the West Bank, is making strides on the economic issues. What people say is that ultimately economics and security have to go hand in hand: Israel will take down checkpoints in places where the Palestinians show the capacity to take control of security. What Fayad is doing is a departure from what we have seen from previous Palestinian leaders. He has a PhD from the University of Texas in economics, and worked for fourteen years at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He very much wants to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian public. It’s not just words, as he is the first Palestinian prime minister in nearly two years that has been able to pay salaries, particularly after the international boycott in the wake of the Hamas electoral victory. And if you look at polls, Hamas’s popularity is dropping in both the West Bank and Gaza because Hamas isn’t seen as delivering the goods in terms of improving the quality of life. A lot of people originally voted for Hamas because Fatah, the mainstream party, was corrupt. But, what’s happened is that Hamas has not been able to deliver anything on any economic promises—and Fayyad on the other hand—has and he is improving the economy.

Now, what about the Israeli side? I keep reading that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not have much support from within his coalition government for any real concessions, is that right?

This is a major question, because for the most part what has happened is that Olmert’s popularity after the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 was only about 3 percent. Then it shot up to 35 percent in the wake of Israel’s raid against a facility in northeastern Syria, described to the media in hush-hush terms as a facility where North Korea was allegedly assisting Syria in gaining some sort of nuclear capability. Suddenly, Olmert got more credit by not taking credit publicly for something that the public liked.

What is fascinating is what didn’t happen. As long as Israel didn’t claim responsibility, the Arab states which have been very suspicious of Syria’s relationship with the Iranians didn’t condemn Israel, which is remarkable in the Middle East. Here, Israel didn’t take responsibility and the Arabs didn’t condemn. No Israeli wants a war, so it will be interesting to see how that raid plays out.

As long as Israel didn’t claim responsibility, the Arab states which have been very suspicious of Syria’s relationship with the Iranians didn’t condemn Israel, which is remarkable in the Middle East.

Now, Olmert has just taken a second boost in the polls—due to sympathy more than anything else—given the announcement this week that he has prostate cancer. Now he’s at about 41 percent. He is still not exactly where George H.W. Bush was after the Gulf War of 1991, but compared to where he was in 2006, he is now in a much more normal range. Olmert’s view is that the public likes the idea of trying to make peace with the Palestinians, and if he can avoid certain hot-button issues regarding religious sites and other parts of Jerusalem, then he feels that the public will be supportive of him. But he needs the support of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by a Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, and the Shas party, which is a party of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are opposed to any breakup of Jerusalem. If he loses these twenty-three seats his majority would be jeopardized and Olmert would be left with only 55 out of 120 seats in the Knesset [parliament].

So can he go to a conference without doing something about Jerusalem?

Well, that’s the question. Can he deal with the Jerusalem issue in a way that would demonstrate he is willing to discuss it as the capital of both peoples? The greater specificity he gets into about Jerusalem, the more political hot water he will find himself with his coalition partners. Olmert has demonstrated some bravery in the past in broaching issues that have been taboo. If Rice has come this far in her talks, she basically believes that she has heard enough between Abbas and Olmert to believe their differences on the issues of land and refugees are not earth-shattering. The question is, are there cabinet ministers or associates in both Olmert’s and Abbas’s camps that, instead of bringing them together, are bringing them apart? That is something Rice is trying to explore at this time. She has been meeting with the associates of the leaders not just with the leaders themselves. She is also going to try to do some conditioning of the societal landscape in both communities with the idea that the differences are not insurmountable.

But it’s hard to know for sure whether she will succeed or not. The conventional wisdom is that she will fail, that she has come to this too late in the game, and that she doesn’t have the diplomatic experience to pull this off. Her counter would probably be, “Forget the past for the moment. If we don’t resolve the conflict it will be transformed in front of our very eyes from a national struggle, which while difficult to compromise, may still be amenable to solution with mutual concessions, into a religious conflict that will be colored in absolutes and will defy any form of peace.”

What do you think? What are the odds that she will get the meeting?

What makes Annapolis different from Camp David [where President Clinton met with Palestinians and Israelis in 2000] is that the idea of the conference is not one where they shuttle between cabins and behind closed doors to hammer out a document. It’s more the idea of a document being worked out in advance of the event so she will know beforehand whether she has indeed advanced toward a solution. She doesn’t want to be accused of simply organizing a photo op. She has insisted that the conference be substantive. She will know in advance what she has. Therefore if she doesn’t have a document, you have to believe that there is a chance it will be postponed in order to give her more time to grapple with these issues, even though it is towards the end of the Bush presidency.

So it’s an iffy question right now?

Yes. We don’t know for sure. We think Rice has heard sufficient things on the issue of land and refugees to believe the leaders are not far apart. But the issue of Jerusalem could be the devil in these trade-offs, and ultimately there will be Palestinians to say, “Don’t make a trade-off for refugees,” and you will get Israelis saying, “Without a concession on refugees, [we] can’t move at all.” So, these are questions that are really very much left open, and I’m not here to predict if she will be successful or not.

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