Phase I won’t work

Not surprisingly, Israel and the Palestinian leadership will arrive in Annapolis without having reached any sort of preliminary Israeli-Palestinian agreement on final status issues and timetables. The Annapolis "event" (no longer a conference or even a meeting) now boils down to a reaffirmation of the roadmap, which many in the region and beyond had long considered a dead letter. The only significant difference between the old roadmap and the new is the adoption of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s proposal to negotiate phase III, final status, simultaneously with implementation of phase I. This innovation is intended to provide the necessary "political horizon" for the Palestinians to comply with phase I even as actual implementation of a final status agreement is postponed until phase I is completed.

Phase III is about borders, Jerusalem and refugees–issues that will prove extremely difficult to negotiate. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the past few months have reaffirmed that the years of intifada that followed the failure at Camp David in July 2000 have only deepened the chasm of disagreement over these issues. That leaves phase I, which is about security, confidence-building, settlements and generally returning to the pre-intifada territorial status quo of September 2000.

Is phase I "doable"? Can something good still emerge from Annapolis? To answer these questions in practical terms we must ask, first, who will monitor compliance with roadmap phase I, and how; and second, whether PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas are capable under current circumstances of delivering on their roadmap phase I commitments.

Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah have agreed tentatively that the US will monitor compliance with phase I. The roadmap, however, specifies monitoring by the Quartet, whose other three members (the UN, EU and Russia) have largely been left out of the Annapolis preparations by Washington. If the rest of the Quartet invokes the letter of the roadmap to insist on a role here this could complicate matters for Israel, which would undoubtedly prefer an exclusively American monitor.

Further, the monitoring issue could become critical for American-Israeli relations if, for example, the Olmert government is singled out for allowing further settlement expansion or not dismantling outposts. Then too, Israel has already tried to argue–in accordance with the controversial "14 points" that the Sharon government delivered to the US as its condition for accepting the roadmap–that the two sides’ phase I obligations are sequential rather than parallel and that Israel’s obligations begin only after the Palestinians deliver on theirs. The US is likely to insist, in accordance with the original roadmap that it recognizes (and not the 14 points) that Israeli and Palestinian obligations are indeed parallel and simultaneous, thereby risking a confrontation with Jerusalem.

This brings us to the issue of the capabilities of the two parties, Israel and Palestine, to fulfill their roadmap phase I conditions, even as they are presumably negotiating the more substantive final status issues in the aftermath of Annapolis.

Beginning with the Palestinians, a lot has changed since the roadmap was agreed and published on April 30, 2003. For example, the Palestinians long ago drafted a constitution as phase I demands and held "free, open and fair elections"–albeit elections that did not turn out the way the roadmap drafters expected. So some aspects of phase I that deal with Palestinian governance may be set aside. But this cannot be the case with regard to institution-building and security.

This points to the major potential drawback in any Palestinian attempt to conform with phase I: the Palestinian leadership cannot deliver on its commitments regarding Gaza. The controversy over this issue has already begun: Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) claims that the PA has already fulfilled all its phase I security requirements. True, it has consolidated Yasser Arafat’s 12 security organizations into three, disarmed some militants and taken steps against incitement, as demanded. But only in parts of the West Bank. Even if we assume that the Palestinian Authority is now fully in charge of security in the West Bank–and this is far from the reality–it is inconceivable that the Palestinians really want to negotiate a peace deal for the West Bank only and leave Gaza out of it. As long as Gaza is in Hamas’ hands and remains hostile, Israel and the US can argue that the PLO/PA has not fulfilled its roadmap phase I obligations.

Turning to Israeli compliance, fulfilling roadmap phase I demands will almost certainly require PM Ehud Olmert or his successor to form a different coalition than the current one or to opt for new elections. It is hard to imagine Shas and Yisrael Beitenu, and even parts of Kadima, agreeing to the reopening of Orient House in East Jerusalem and the removal of dozens of outposts. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anything resembling the current coalition dismantling the outposts and not collapsing.

To sum up, implanting roadmap phase I at the heart of the Annapolis process could conceivably give Olmert "cover" to proceed after Annapolis with genuine, substantive final status negotiations. He would reassure his doubtful coalition partners that in any case nothing would be implemented until Ramallah could deliver not only security in the West Bank but in Gaza as well. But those same doubtful coalition partners are liable to balk when confronted with the detailed demands of phase I, to say nothing of the concessions on issues of substance required by phase III and destined to be negotiated simultaneously.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the roadmap was thrown into the Annapolis pot at the last minute so that, in the anticipated absence of a serious new declaration of principles, Israel and the Palestinians would have something to agree on at their meeting in Maryland. But that does not mean they are anywhere near agreement on the modalities of its implementation.