Counterproductive

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An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas is not likely. The two leaders are weak, Olmert’s days as leader are numbered, Abbas too may not last long and the two sides are too far apart on the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees/right of return. But let’s assume they surprise us and produce an agreement "in principle" while they are both still in office, i.e., in the coming months and perhaps even weeks.

The agreement will probably describe in some detail the eventual border between Israel and a Palestinian state, with the exception of the Jerusalem area. Israel will pledge to remove all settlements in Palestinian territory beyond that border. General principles will be agreed regarding security, economic relations, water and electromagnetic rights issues. A statement about Jerusalem will postpone discussion but might conceivably imply that eventually most Arab neighborhoods will be Palestinian and will host a Palestinian capital. Something general will also be said about the refugee issue, possibly suggesting that few if any 1948 refugees will return to Israel.

Israel will celebrate the occasion by releasing some Palestinian prisoners, possibly including Marwan Barghouti. The Bush administration will promise generous aid. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders will declare, perhaps on the White House lawn, that the agreement will be implemented once it has been ratified by the two parliaments and when security conditions permit. This will be stating the obvious. Abbas and Fateh are the minority in the Palestinian parliament, many of whose members are in any case in Israeli jail, and Abbas does not control the Gaza Strip. As for Olmert, his fragile majority in the Knesset will disappear the moment he unveils the agreement and Shas, sensing new elections, leaves the coalition. Some members of Olmert’s own party, Kadima, will also reject the agreement. Many political opponents of both Olmert and Abbas will argue that they "do not have a mandate" to agree on anything.

This, then, would be the much-discussed "shelf agreement". Unlike, say, the Geneva accord that was negotiated in 2003 between prominent moderate politicians and figures on both sides (and which it may well resemble), it would aspire to official status, having been agreed between sovereign governments. The guiding idea behind it would be to provide a "political horizon" that justifies an ensuing intermediate stage in Israeli-Palestinian relations: tough Palestinian security measures, Israeli legislation encouraging the removal of settlements and political campaigns on both sides designed to garner strong majorities in favor of new governments dedicated to implementing the agreement. Conceivably, a similar document agreed with Syria at the indirect talks in Turkey would be added to the package on the Israeli side.

Would a shelf agreement reached in the very near future be good or bad for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace? I fear it would be bad. I hope I’m wrong.

On the Israeli side, the agreement would ensure that Olmert’s successor, once elected by Kadima and assuming he/she approved the agreement, would be unable to form a new government with a solid Knesset majority and would have to opt for new elections by early 2009. On the Palestinian side, Hamas would almost certainly reject the agreement insofar as it recognizes Israel and doesn’t guarantee the right of return for all refugees. Hamas would also reject the idea of new and early elections.

In the Israeli elections, the right wing–and even parts of the center if Shaul Mofaz is elected to lead Kadima–would attack the agreement as illegitimate, having been negotiated by a corrupt and non-credible leader (Olmert) with a "virtual" and non-credible leader (Abbas). The settler movement would mount a major campaign of opposition while Hamas and even Fateh dissidents might launch a new wave of terrorism. The Israeli left and moderate center would line up behind the agreement not because it is ideal or was reached through a logical process involving two strong leaders–but because that’s all there is and the clock is ticking on the two-state solution. Under these conditions, and given the paucity of leadership on both sides, neither would emerge with a government strong enough to even contemplate implementation; on the Israeli side, the new government might reject the agreement completely.

This is the legacy of the Bush, Olmert and Abbas governments that might well confront the next US administration–with its Middle East priorities anchored firmly in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. We recall that the American plan, spearheaded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, includes not only a negotiated shelf agreement but also outpost removal by Israel, dynamic training for Palestinian security forces and a menu of economic carrots (spearheaded in the West Bank by Tony Blair) and sticks (directed at Gaza) designed to encourage Palestinian moderation. The outposts are still there. Palestinian security training has registered a good if slow beginning but is nowhere near complete. And the economic carrots and sticks have failed miserably: the Palestinian Authority is once again nearing bankruptcy while Hamas is stronger than ever.

All in all, conditions are not ripe for unveiling a shelf agreement. Such an act could prove counterproductive.

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