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First Steps for Peace in the Middle East

Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle East Development, is a leading expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East. A longer version of this article recently appeared in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. (Photo courtesy of pbs.org)

The major possibility of success is a statement that gives each side some gains and disappointments, but just enough to proceed. Can it be done?


UCLA Today

By Steven Spiegel

NEXT MONTH, the Bush administration is scheduled to host an international conference on the Middle East in Annapolis, Md., aimed at discussing the terms for a Palestinian state and peace with Israel. It is generally anticipated that the meeting will kick off with a "Declaration of Principles" between Israelis and Palestinians. If the two parties can produce a suitable declaration, it will launch a new process in which a series of conferences could lead to a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a sense, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas started down this road themselves, and it will be more difficult to organize an Arab-Israeli conference if it does not begin with a declaration agreed upon beforehand.

So what kind of declaration is most appropriate under the circumstances? The Israelis, for understandable reasons, want a more tepid or preliminary declaration because, in most cases, they would be expected to make the tougher concessions. They have also emerged from the intifada and the Gaza withdrawal skeptical that the Palestinians can or will keep their commitments. The Israelis themselves do not have a robust government consensus in favor of a strong declaration.

The Palestinians are just as understandably anxious for as definitive a declaration as possible, which would immeasurably aid their leader Abbas in the Arab world and, more importantly, in Abbas' conflict with Hamas.

The major possibility of success is a statement that gives each side some gains and disappointments, but just enough to proceed. Can it be done? I think so, but only if the United States stands firm in insisting on such a declaration. It may be true that the Bush administration is running out of time, but neither Olmert nor Abbas may be able to wait until a new president either. The administration has to use this leverage to produce a deal, and, in this process, its ability to achieve diplomatic success will be tested as never before.

What should be the nature of a declaration? A successful joint Israeli-Palestinian statement should, among other things, deal with critical core issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees. This agenda for future discussion need not be detailed. One way to devise success is for each side to experience gain and pain, a trade-off in which both achieve a treasured objective while relinquishing one.

Just as an example, and only that, the Israelis could agree officially to the principle of dividing Jerusalem, with a capital for the Palestinians in the city's Arab neighborhoods, and the Palestinians could accept the notion, however politely camouflaged, that their refugees are going to return to the Palestinian, not the Jewish, state.

I recently had an opportunity to review all the documents of the major peace initiatives over the years, including the "roadmap" and the "Clinton parameters." To my surprise, the one that seemed most useful to what we need at the moment was the 2002 Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan, which made a brief, but comprehensive set of recommendations concerning the need for two states as well as for Jerusalem to be designated "an open city, the capital of two states"; borders based on the 1967 lines, with one-on-one swaps to take account of security, territorial contiguity and demographic considerations; and Palestinian refugees returning to their new state, and not to Israel.

I believe that a series of international conferences could successfully begin if the fundamental agenda presented in the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan, summarized too succinctly here and however reformulated by the parties, were to be concluded. That achievement ought to be possible under current circumstances, but it will require intense planning and activity from the Bush administration. The aim of getting a mutually acceptable declaration to kick-start a new process is now the ultimate challenge to the president's team in its approach to Arab-Israeli relations.