An American policymaker’s guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a case study of the Annapolis process
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(Summary by Rebecca Bornstein)
Decades of American facilitation have not produced a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, despite Washington’s basic interest in peace and robust diplomatic toolkit. In 2016, we are far from achieving a negotiated two-state solution: the peace process has broken down entirely, and many policymakers are focused on de-escalation measures designed to preserve the possibility of future talks. Others are focused on what steps the Obama administration might take during its final months in office, and how a new president should approach the conflict. The discussion is focused on both the content and structure of any potential action.
"The Annapolis Process: Negotiations and its Discontents" by former IDF liaison to the talks Lieut. Col. (ret.) Omer Zanany, offers a view into these issues, and provides a field guide for American policymakers focused on future talks. Zanany’s book, published by Molad and The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at the Tel Aviv University, is a comprehensive analysis of the achievements and failures of the round of talks that came closest to achieving a two-state solution. From his broad work, it is possible to extract a policymaker’s roadmap of how to conduct successful peace processes, including the issues that will lead to the success or failure of future American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The ‘Annapolis process’ refers to dual-track Israeli-Palestinian negotiations held in 2007 and 2008. These negotiations marked the second official attempt to finalize a final-status, two-state solution with close US assistance, and were held at the end of President George W. Bush’s term under the direction of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Zanany's analysis of the Annapolis process reveals that it failed not because of irreconcilable positions, but because of its flawed structure and lack of overarching political direction. As American policymakers examine future involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they would do well to consider the following lessons drawn from Zanany’s book:
- To begin, successful talks include an agreed-upon end goal and a common understanding of the structure and content of talks. This political direction allows negotiators to work on the difficult process of implementation, and frees them from unnecessary confusion and diversion over longstanding disagreements. Without this framework, as seen in Annapolis, delegations clash over diplomacy’s footnotes: terms of reference, the scope and order of issues under negotiation, the roles of specific committee members, and other technicalities.
- Even in times of conflict, the initiation of talks should not be seen as a legitimate end goal. In the case of Annapolis, the US allowed direct negotiations to be a goal in and of themselves, instead of the means by which to achieve a final-status solution. In the absence of genuine motivations, and without a clear framework, an emphasis on process over peace allows the sides to exploit talks for political gains. In addition, every failed round of talks adds another layer of distrust and animosity to an already volatile situation.
- Structural and procedural issues are as important as policy positions. During the Annapolis process, structural flaws included faulty preparation, inadequate and unclear management, and problematic (vague or contradictory) guidelines. These issues can doom peace talks from the start, regardless of the two sides’ positions and flexibility. They also feed into an ongoing cycle of mutual suspicion that undermines faith in the negotiations.
- Talks must include the provision or facilitation of an Updated terms of reference. In the absence of such guidelines during the Annapolis process, Israelis and Palestinians adopted conflicting terms. Israel relied on the Road Map, as well as UN resolutions 242 and 338. Zanany notes that these resolutions were “sufficiently ambiguous and open to interpretation to lend each party support for their claims while preventing movement towards the accepted international and Palestinian interpretation.” The Palestinians, on the other hand, advocated for international law as the anchor for discussing an independent, sovereign state, in addition to relations with Israel over security and refugees. The two sides wasted time and goodwill arguing over the terms of reference to use, instead of making headway on final status issues.
- “Conceptual confusion” between the sides can doom talks. Prior to US-facilitated negotiations, Americans should meet with each side to clarify relevant issues. During the Annapolis process, the flames of mistrust were fanned by conceptual confusion, primarily on the Israeli side, over whether to favor graded interim agreements (influenced by the Road Map), a unilateral approach influenced by the disengagement plan, or a final status agreement based on full reconciliation with the Palestinians. In addition to internal disagreements, Annapolis suffered because of the lack of clear political guidelines over core issues. While Israel approached the issue of Palestinian statehood from a Road Map-based incremental perspective, the Palestinians demanded that all issues be addressed due to an underlying fear that Israel would push through a ‘temporary state,’ a limited diplomatic entity without established borders and full sovereignty.
- Multiple tracks can be useful, but must be managed effectively. The Annapolis process included dual-track negotiations: a leadership track led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a broad negotiation track led by the Steering Committee, headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and PA top official Ahmad Qurei (Abu Alaa). However, in this case the tracks were conducted under problematic guidelines:
- The Steering Committee consisted of numerous subcommittees, which suffered from a lack of coordination and a competing discourse of narratives. The absence of "detailed political directives for the teams and lack of progress in agreement over the core issues" stifled progress, and led both teams to focus on rules to run the process and define committee mandates. The debate over these procedural issues derailed progress on content.
- The leadership track, which did show potential, suffered due to questions over each leader’s domestic credibility. Abbas questioned Olmert’s legitimacy and weak political position within Israel, and Olmert questioned the deep divisions on the Palestinian side and the strength of Hamas, leading former US negotiator Aaron David Miller to ask “will an Israeli prime minister make existential concessions to a man who doesn’t control the guns?” Negotiations will not succeed unless each leader has the credibility to make concessions and come to an agreement.
- All three parties adopted a guiding principle: "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". This left no room for incremental progress, as each side hesitated to compromise in the interest of maintaining all of its bargaining power until the very end. Naturally, this created a negative approach on both sides, that prevented any sort of agreement from forming on substantive issues.
Many negotiations fail not due to a lack of potential, but because of the strategic approach and procedural manner in which the talks are conducted. In the case of Annapolis, American involvement fell short of its potential, and did not help the chances of peace. The overarching lack of political direction from the US created an environment in which the complexity of the process and the large number of participants took center stage, to the detriment of serious discussions over how to implement a final status agreement. In addition, the presence of American negotiators in sensitive discussions changed the focus of both sides from direct, focused negotiations to external political posturing. Annapolis’ procedural flaws exacerbated the distrust, political constraints, and unwillingness to make compromises that threaten any negotiation. Zanany’s “Negotiations and its Discontents” includes a full overview of the achievements and failures of this round of negotiations, and its concrete recommendations can serve as a guide for future American policy makers and negotiators.
- The goal of successful negotiations is to lead into successful implementation, not only to achieve an accord. The Israeli approach to negotiations favored maximizing Israeli gains in the sought accord. However, for a process to truly succeed, it must lead to the formation of a stable and effective Palestinian state. In this light, some concessions that limit Israeli gains in the short term might actually lead to a more sustainable outcome. This is especially true in the case of security arrangements.
- The US should clearly define its role, and examine the benefits and risks of its presence before facilitating negotiations. In “Negotiations and its Discontents,” Zanany identifies two conflicting approaches over American involvement in negotiations. One perspective is that overinvolvement led the sides to play to an American audience instead of truly negotiating. The other is that the talks suffered because of the lack of strong leadership and involvement on the parts of Bush and Rice. This argument posits that the US leadership did not have a fully developed diplomatic toolkit, and therefore tried to convince both sides to act instead of showing the way. In any case, future efforts should contain a coherent, nuanced strategy that enables progress yet ultimately allows the two sides the necessary space to negotiate independently.
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