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An Israel-Palestinian peace deal remains elusive

Khalil is a Times staff writer.

As Condoleezza Rice completes what likely will be her final swing through the Middle East as America’s top diplomat, she leaves behind an unfinished peace process and a lingering debate about whether the Bush administration brought the region any closer to a lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord.

The secretary of State’s regional tour, her 19th in two years, included a stop Sunday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik for an update on the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations launched under U.S. guidance nearly a year ago in Annapolis, Md.

Along the way, she has acknowledged the failure of the talks to reach their stated goal of a lasting peace agreement by the end of the Bush administration. But Rice has also defended the Annapolis process as having created a solid foundation for a future deal.

“While we may not yet be at the finish line, I am quite certain that if Palestinians and Israelis stay on the Annapolis course, they are going to cross that finish line and can do so relatively soon,” she said. “We have an international strategy now to finally establish the two-state solution.”

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Israelis and Palestinians were a little less forgiving regarding the ultimate legacy of the Bush initiative.

“It’s dead and they don’t want to admit the failure,” said Hani Masri, a Palestinian analyst and columnist. “All it produced was a model for negotiations until the end of time.”

Menachem Klein, a professor of political science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said there had been no tangible progress in negotiations while the situation on the ground actually moved backward in the last year. Core hurdles such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora remain just as stalemated as they were in 2001, when the last set of serious negotiations broke down.

Meanwhile, Klein said, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- having staked his political future on a negotiated solution -- is weaker than ever.

“There’s been no breakthrough, no movement, nothing,” said Klein, author of “The Jerusalem Problem: The Struggle for the Permanent Solution.” “The two sides are stuck.”

Skepticism surrounded the Bush administration initiative since well before the Nov. 27, 2007, curtain-raising summit. After years of relative inaction, Bush’s ambitious goal of a deal for an independent Palestinian state by January was called unrealistic on both sides.

Rice, however, seemingly popped up weekly in Jerusalem and Ramallah to prod each side back to the table.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chose Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to lead the negotiations, but both regularly stated that the process couldn’t be rushed. Klein said Olmert and Livni succeeded in slowing what were meant to be fast-track talks down to a crawl.

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Livni, who is now seeking to replace Olmert as prime minister with a promise to continue negotiations, huddled regularly with top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei amid occasional reports that the two were making significant progress. But nothing of substance ever seemed to surface.

By summer, Israeli officials were no longer talking about a peace deal, but rather a “shelf agreement” that could be finalized and then put away for use at a more appropriate time.

Meanwhile, the militant group Hamas solidified its grip on the Gaza Strip; Abbas, whose Fatah faction controls the West Bank, struggled with plummeting popularity as Palestinians largely dismissed the talks as pointless.

Palestinian officials regularly complained that Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank and expansion of Israeli settlements around Jerusalem were killing the credibility of the process -- and Abbas’ personal credibility -- in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

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A poll earlier this year showed the overwhelming majority of Palestinians favored an immediate end to the Annapolis talks. Tellingly, most of those polled also favored a negotiated two-state solution -- meaning they weren’t against negotiations but had no faith in the current process.

Olmert’s July resignation in the face of multiple corruption investigations seemed to signal the final blow to the initiative.

“The minute it was clear that Olmert wasn’t going to stay prime minister, and even before then, everybody on the Israeli side was just going through the motions,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University political science professor.

At Sunday’s summit in Sharm el Sheik, Israeli and Palestinian representatives announced their intention to continue direct negotiations under the principles established at Annapolis.

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Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said Abbas had staked his political survival on a negotiated solution.

“Annapolis did not build anything solid for the Palestinians. But regardless of the results so far, the Palestinian leadership does not have many choices,” Khatib said.

There are two main wild cards that will influence the future of Israeli-Palestinian talks: the results of Israel’s national elections in February and the extent to which incoming U.S. President Barack Obama focuses on the issue.

Few here expect Obama to directly tackle the conflict in the short term.

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Nevertheless, Palestinian officials and Middle East envoy Tony Blair have encouraged the next U.S. administration to keep the heat on the process.

The Kadima party’s Livni is neck-and-neck in the polls with right-wing Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly states that the time is not right for a lasting peace deal. A victory for Livni could give her the popular mandate to engage in serious talks.

--

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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