by Steven J. Rosen
The opening of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, rumored for weeks, is likely to put the spotlight back on U.S. President Barack Obama's
No president has ever raised expectations so high with promises to transform the region through personal involvement and fresh ideas. Obama won the office partly by feeding the belief that the Middle East problem could be solved if only Americans had a president like himself who was ready to make a commitment, not one like George W. Bush who, Obama asserted, had ignored the problem.
Almost no one in the region shares Obama's audacity of hope. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enters the talks as the reluctant dragon who wishes he did not have to be there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to take some significant steps to achieve a more stable relationship with
Can Obama scale back his objectives to more limited steps that can be achieved but fall short of ending the conflict forever and transforming the region? Netanyahu is coming to the talks with ideas that can measurably improve the lives of the Palestinian people and move them toward their objective of a sovereign Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. But under the circumstances that exist today, the zone of the attainable for Obama will fall short of the "Clinton Parameters" that Yasir Arafat rejected in 2000 at
The Palestinians deeply distrust interim arrangements, and they have frequently asserted that they will not enter another interim agreement. For example, Abbas told then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Aug. 31, 2008, that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than a complete settlement. "Either we agree on all issues, or no agreement at all." His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, reiterated the point three times in December 2009: "We strenuously reject ... solutions involving interim arrangements ... We have no intention of continuing with the formula of interim arrangement...We will reject every attempt to once again enter ... long-term interim arrangements."
But the Palestinian Authority might not hew to this uncreative position if intelligent American mediation led the way. Abbas accepted the Quartet's Middle East Roadmap in 2003 knowing that it called very clearly and explicitly for an interim arrangement with a Palestinian state having "provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty ... as a way station to a permanent status settlement." The Roadmap made this interim Palestinian state Phase II of the process, after Phase I ("Ending Terror and Violence, Normalizing Palestinian Life, and Building Palestinian Institutions") and before Phase III ("Permanent Status Agreement and the End of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.") During Phase II, the Quartet members are to "promote international recognition" of the provisional state, "including possible U.N. membership." And during this period of the Palestinian state with provisional borders, the Arab states are to "restore pre-intifada links to
Will Obama build on this recorded agreement to pass through an interim stage, or will he throw it away in a headlong rush to the dream of a millennial rearrangement?
The Roadmap that the Palestinians accepted is the only document providing a pathway to a Palestinian state ever accepted by all the parties involved in
Obama could construct an interim agreement on the "bottom up" approach of Salim Fayyad, who is building the institutions of Palestinian statehood in the
The Security Council could also play a role if either Abbas or Netanyahu were to face internal political obstacles to an interim agreement.
Will Obama take the advice of the pressure-on-Israel enthusiasts who twice led him into the cul-de-sac of the "freeze on natural growth" of settlements? If he does, we are headed for another nasty squall with no constructive outcome. He has another choice, staring right at him in the Roadmap. Does the Roadmap's provenance in the hated Bush administration make it so repulsive to this administration that miss the opportunity Bush left him?
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign policy director of AIPAC. He now heads the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.
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