Since President Bush declared his intention a few months ago to convene a Middle East peace conference, experts on the region and government officials have proposed specific agenda items that should be addressed to insure its success. Key suggestions include a declaration of principle, the creation of an ongoing negotiation process, broad-based regional representation, and endorsement of international bodies, agreement on future conferences, and the inclusion of Syria. Whereas all these ideas are necessary to reach an agreement I do believe, however, that the conference will be another missed opportunity unless the Israelis and the Palestinians agree on three critical components: an agreement in principle, enter immediately into negotiations to sort out the details, and most importantly, undertake immediate, continuous and concurrent confidence-building measures (CBM) to keep up the momentum and to offer a real hope for eventual agreement.
An agreement in principle on the issues of borders, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem can be brokered, but it will have to be both general and constructively ambiguous. Such an agreement will allow both sides the flexibility they need over time to mobilize their constituencies, while neutralizing opposing factions back home, to support the necessary concessions that each must make to reach an accord. Neither President Mahmoud Abbas nor Prime Minister Olmert is in a position to make these concessions at this juncture and hope to stay in power to deliver them.
Once such an agreement in principle is achieved the two parties must enter immediately into negotiations to hammer out a final accord. These negotiations will be hard, painstaking and at time will appear hopeless. Both sides, however, must remain vigilant, relentless and purposeful with unshakable commitment to stay the course under any circumstances. Otherwise extreme elements on both sides, who do not wish to reach mutual accommodation, will resort to any means to torpedo the negotiations. In addition, both parties must agree, as part of the commitment that all the means used to achieve this goal must be peaceful. No agreement at Annapolis will be worth the paper it is written on if it does not rule out, once and for all, the use of violence by either side to achieve their political objectives.
The third element and probably the most critical is rebuilding the trust between both parties that was completely shattered in the wake of the second Intifadah. Nothing engenders lasting trust more than the joint undertaking of immediate, continuous and concurrent to the negotiations of a wide range of confidence building measures that yield immediate benefits for both peoples. But for CBM to be effective and generate the desirable outcome of trust, they must meet three criteria:
First, the measures must be unilateral and not be held captive to a rigid timetable. Let me explain: the basic fault in CBM behavior is that it is conditional and based on the notion that if one party makes a good-faith gesture, the other party must respond, usually quickly, with its own. Sometimes this is impossible, and yet because there is an expectation of it being possible, the whole cooperative structure can break down. In order to overcome this problem, I suggest that measures taken by one side should not be conditional on a direct reciprocal action by the other. Thus, each can gauge the other’s commitment on a long-term rather than on a reciprocal basis (or quid-pro-quo) and perhaps even more importantly not be subject to outside disruptive elements seeking to undermine the process.
The second requirement for CBM to succeed involves Israel sending a clear message to the Palestinians that it is committed to ending the occupation. Such a message will represent the first (and most important) tangible expression of Israel’s commitment to establishing a Palestinian state and should augment trust by a) making it abundantly clear that the government will not tolerate building any more illegal outposts and will dismantle all existing ones, b) ending the expansion of existing settlements (other than those being incorporated into Israel proper by mutual agreement), c) providing economic incentives and sustainable development projects to Palestinian communities that do not engage in violent activity, d) removing all roadblocks that are not absolutely critical to Israel‘s security, e) allowing Palestinians to legitimately build, plant, and develop their land with no undue restrictions, f) forsaking any form of collective punishment and, finally, g) releasing all Palestinian prisoners, except those who wantonly killed Israelis. With or without the support of the Palestinian Authority and regardless of the Authority’s political convictions, Israel must make positive inroads into the Palestinian community to engender a lasting trust between the peoples.
The third requirement for rebuilding trust is for the Palestinians to realize that for trust to endure it must be mutual. To that end, the Palestinians must demonstrate that accepting Israel’s right to exist means ending all incitements against Israel now, not some time in the future, it means ending all acts of violence against Israel, it means educating Palestinian children about the reality of Israel and of the importance of cultivating brotherly relations, and it means using the media to promote the ideas of a common future, neighborly relations, and a shared destiny with the Israelis.
The commitment toward a two-state solution must not be left to the whims of extremists on either side. It must be translated to action on the ground now. This must be the outcome of this conference. Otherwise, it will be just another missed opportunity that tragically crowded the annals of Israeli-Palestinian relations.