Written by Aluf Benn
What was and was not Agreed On
May 21, 2008
INSS Insight No. 56,
At the Israeli Presidential Conference "Facing Tomorrow," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that real progress has been made in Israel's talks with the Palestinian Authority. According to Olmert, “understandings and agreements regarding highly important matters have been achieved, though some issues are still outstanding.”
The agreement is supposed to present the outline for the two-state solution while postponing its implementation for the future, in accordance with the roadmap. At its core will be the future borders between Israel and the Palestinian state and the delineation of security arrangements between the two countries. The question of Jerusalem is to be postponed, and the two sides are still at odds over the issue of the refugees.
Apparently the most important understanding achieved in the talks concerns the status of the settlements in the interim period, from the time the agreement is signed until its implementation. Determining an agreed-upon border in the West Bank will clarify which settlements are headed for future evacuation and the number of evacuees in question. Olmert made clear that once the border is determined, the government will begin procedures for “evacuation and compensation” legislation for residents of the settlements who choose to leave; furthermore, there will be a freeze on construction in the settlements slated for evacuation. In return, Israel will be free to build in the settlement blocs that are to remain within its borders.
The disagreement over the border focuses on the land to be annexed by Israel and the compensation in kind to the Palestinians. The Palestinian position during the talks was similar to the proposals presented during the Taba talks and what appears in the Geneva initiative, whereby Israel would retain some 3.5% of West Bank land. The Palestinian state would receive 2% in land exchanges, and another 1.5% in a Gaza to West Bank crossing. Olmert and Livni suggested that Israel hold on to a larger area of the West Bank, some 8-10%, and that the land exchange formula give extra weight to the crossing between the two Palestinian geographical areas because of its strategic importance to the Palestinians. In the prime minister’s opinion, it is possible to come up with a solution to the border dispute.
Olmert has also proposed that the agreement refer to the refugee question as well and include a general declaration about principles for a solution, even if the discussion over practical steps is postponed. Apparently the Palestinians are reluctant to concur, and prefer that the agreement cover only the issues of borders and settlements.
From Israel’s point of view, the main advantage of formulating the agreement lies in easing international pressures to end the occupation of the West Bank. Through its commitment to a future withdrawal from the vast majority of West Bank territory, to be accompanied by a building freeze in the settlements and a voluntary evacuation by the settlement residents, Israel will be signaling that it does not intend to perpetuate its rule over the Palestinians. The ratification of the agreement in an international forum such as the Security Council would lend authorized approval to the two-state solution and dampen the calls by hostile elements for a one-state solution.
Attaining the agreement will also be seen as a political achievement for outgoing US president George W. Bush. One may assume that in the prime minister’s view, proven progress in the Palestinian arena will make it easier for Bush to take a harsher stance with regard to Iran before the end of his term, perhaps even including a show of force. The link between the Palestinian question and the Iranian nuclear issue was manifested by the speeches of both leaders in the Knesset, which, in all probability, were discussed in advance between Jerusalem and Washington. Olmert promised that the agreement with the Palestinians would be approved in the Knesset by a wide majority, and Bush said that Iran can never be allowed to have nuclear weapons.
The weakness of the agreement lies in its being a “shelf” agreement, and its future need to match its conditions to the reality on the ground. It is hard to set up detailed security arrangements when the nature of the future Palestinian regime is still unclear. Israel will also have reason to be concerned if it achieves an agreement with Palestinian moderates but will have to implement it while a Hamas government is in power.
If an agreement is reached, the political challenge before Olmert will not be simple. He will have to recruit the Shas faction, as well as Knesset members from the right wing of Kadima who might well oppose an agreement with the Palestinians and an evacuation-compensation law. Without their support, there is no “large majority” in the Knesset to approve the agreement.
The main arguments Olmert will present in favor of the agreement are that it conforms to the basic principles of the government; that its implementation is postponed and conditional upon the Palestinians making a change in the conditions on the ground; that it contains the security arrangements vital to Israel; that it postpones dealing with the issue of Jerusalem; that it allows unrestricted construction in the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel, and that its signing will guarantee Israel unprecedented backing and support from the international community. It is safe to assume that selling the agreement will also be helped by declarations of friendship by President Bush, which will be reinforced with promises to upgrade the relations between the United States and Israel.
The coming weeks will be decisive, and by the end of the summer it will be clear whether an agreement has been reached or if the Annapolis process will join the list of the failures that preceded it.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.