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Edition 19 Volume 5 - May 17, 2024

Israel-Palestine: the role of mediators
What outsiders can and cannot do  - Shlomo Avineri
These inherent limits to the role of outside mediators should be considered when looking at the Saudi initiative.

Third party involvement: leadership and design  - Nisreen Haj Ahmad
Not doing anything would be taking sides: taking sides against peace now and against the possibility of peace in the future.

Immediate attention, please  - Ghassan Khatib
Now, more than ever, third party mediation of the kind that encourages the two parties to abide by international legality is needed.

Washington reassessing its role  - Daniel Kurtzer
The Bush administration's reticence suggests that it is changing the US strategic outlook.

Jordan's promising role  - Waleed Sadi
Jordan is right now in a unique position to act as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians


What outsiders can and cannot do
 Shlomo Avineri

Contrary to conventional wisdom, outsiders have only limited capacity to bring contending sides in the Middle East to meaningful negotiations if the local players lack the political will themselves.

This has certainly been the case in the past. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1978, the Oslo accords of 1993 and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1995 were the outcome of bilateral talks, initially secret and eventually public. None of them was initiated by an outside mediator, and though the United States did have a role in the final stretch of pushing the parties to agreement, the credit in all cases goes to the local players.


On the other hand, Middle East archives are full of well-intentioned but abortive attempts to propose negotiations and solutions that eventually fell flat on their faces because the contending parties were either unwilling or unable to move toward an agreement.

Despite its preponderant power, the United States is no exception to this rule. In 2024, President Bill Clinton failed at Camp David to craft an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman Yasser Arafat. More recently, President George W. Bush failed in making the so-called roadmap look like more than a pious wish list.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Arab-Israel conflict. Despite repeated efforts, the international community has failed for decades to solve the Cyprus problem--most recently, when the Annan Plan failed to convince the Greek Cypriots. Enormous pressure from the US and the European Union failed to achieve this goal. Similarly, in Kosovo the Ahtisaari plan, supported by both the US and the EU, doesn't appear to be able to achieve an agreement in the face of Serbian opposition. And in Bosnia, the great expectations of the Dayton agreements have failed to materialize, despite having stopped the violence.

These inherent limits to the role of outside mediators should be considered when looking at the chances of what is now generally known as the Saudi initiative. It should be immediately mentioned that the very fact that the Arab League has adopted, first in Beirut and recently again in Riyadh, language that moves in the direction of normalizing relations with Israel is a great step forward.

But the limits of Saudi power became evident when, despite Saudi Arabia's obvious distaste for Hamas, the agreement brokered by Saudi mediation setting up the Palestinian unity government clearly showed that for all its might and prestige the House of Saud, Protector of the Two Shrines, is not strong enough to dislodge Hamas from the dominant position it achieved through the Palestinian elections. Nor was it able to change Hamas' basic rejection of Israel and its commitment to the continuation of the armed struggle: talmudic distinctions between what Hamas and a Hamas-headed government stand for are a very poor substitute for a clear ideological and normative break with Hamas' fundamental position of not accepting Israel. Little wonder that the emergence of a Palestinian unity government has hardly dented Israeli skepticism--not only in the government, but also among most of Israel's doves.

This does not bode well for the future. The fact that the Arab League delegation due to visit Israel will be made up only of Egyptian and Jordanian members, with no Saudi or UAE participation, again shows the limits of this initiative.

But there is one significant step the Saudis can take. The Palestinian insistence on the right of return of 1948 refugees and their descendants is the one item that is totally unacceptable to all Israelis, left, right and center. The Saudis realized this, and it was left out of their initial draft in 2024, but in Beirut they were unable to prevail against the conventional Arab consensus. Yet Saudi Arabia--if it believes, as I think it does, that the Arab position on this issue is untenable and unrealistic--can initiate a move that can slowly help to shift this position without openly challenging it.

Saudi Arabia should announce that it is setting up a $5 billion Arab Reconstruction Fund to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, especially in the Gaza Strip. The fund should finance low-cost, affordable housing for refugee families: they will not have to renounce their refugee status or their individual claim to return, but will be able to move away from the misery, bitterness and humiliation of the camps, which have perpetuated and deepened their anger and moved so many of their young people to political extremism and terrorism.

Such a bold move would suggest that the Saudis are ready, to use a crude American phrase, to put their money where their mouth it. To the Palestinians, it would be a real step toward the amelioration of their situation even if negotiations may be stalled or slow. To the Israelis it would signal that Saudi Arabia is keen on moving toward a pragmatic compromise and not just involved in a propaganda game. And to the rest of the world it would suggest that Saudi Arabia, which since 9/11 has been universally considered--even if unjustly--as a hotbed of extremism and religious fanaticism, is now a regional player that can use its enormous influence and wealth for the sake of moderation, accommodation, compromise and coexistence.- Published 17/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org


Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University and former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, is the author, among others, of "The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx".

Third party involvement: leadership and design
 Nisreen Haj Ahmad

Two years ago, we had an active and involved third party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sustained intervention by the Quartet's special envoy James Wolfensohn led to the conclusion of an important accord, the much-heralded Agreement on Movement and Access. Based on the principle that the best way to improve security for Palestinians and Israelis alike is to create economic opportunity for Palestinians, the AMA sought to promote the free movement of Palestinian people and goods.

Nearly two years later, however, "Gaza is an open prison and Israel seems to have thrown away the key," in the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights John Dugard. Neither people nor goods are moving and the humanitarian situation in occupied Palestinian territory has spiraled to new depths. And as current events testify, both Palestinians and Israelis are demonstrably less secure.

Both the months-long negotiations process over the AMA and the year-and-a-half since its conclusion offer many important lessons to effective third party interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Some would question the necessity of the third party role. But the AMA itself demonstrates the positive role a third party can play if that third party is serious, committed and engaged: The AMA is certainly not ideal, but it is fair, and it could not have been negotiated absent that third party involvement. There are thus some important lessons to be gleaned from a re-examination of the Gaza Evacuation Coordination process.

Wolfensohn did not play the traditional third party role of pressuring the parties to reach agreement, usually at the weaker side's expense. Instead, he and his team provided a framework for effective negotiations by playing seven different roles:

1. Leading the process: Wolfensohn and his team led the coordination process by setting the meetings, carefully preparing the agendas and directing the discussions. Not a single meeting was carried out without the third party presence. Wolfensohn also led the process by influencing the agenda. Proposing a sunken road to connect the West Bank and the Gaza Strip put the issue of Palestinian contiguity on the table and under the spotlight. Taking the lead over the process and the agenda created a structure more conducive to substantive negotiations and helped ensure that each party's concerns were addressed.

2. Facilitating and mediating: There are two surprisingly equally important aspects to this point. The first relates to the communication patterns that govern the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. As trivial as it may sound, a third party presence to facilitate the discussion and clear up any misunderstandings or confusion goes a long way in advancing the process. The second point relates to presenting bridging proposals and creative thinking in times of crisis or possible deadlock.

3. Providing expert opinion: The Wolfensohn team provided both sides with Denis Lefebvre, who used to head the Canadian-US Border Agency, to provide a technical opinion on issues related to movement and border crossings. Together with USAID, the Wolfensohn team also gave the parties with Rich Roth, who provided an expert opinion on equipping and preparing the Rafah crossing. These experts were technical, non-political people who in effect became the "arbitrators" despite Israel's objection to arbitration.

4. Drafting proposals: Bill Taylor and Nigel Roberts--both working with Wolfensohn at the time--ended up being the drafters of the two documents that were accepted by the parties: the AMA and the Agreement on Rafah Crossing Point. They used to draft meeting reports after every session that the parties would comment on. These reports eventually became the outline and skeleton of the agreements. Having the third party draft these documents helped bridge gaps by clarifying each party's respective position.

5. Providing necessary financing: During Wolfensohn's involvement, financing was sought and guaranteed in support of the deal about to be reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Examples include purchasing green houses in the evacuated areas in the Gaza Strip, scanners for the crossing points with Israel (from USAID), equipment for the Rafah crossing after Israel removed all its own and the technical assistance fund from the World Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

6. Acting as monitors: The EU agreed to monitor Palestinian performance at the Rafah Crossing Point. The role of the monitors was clearly spelled out in a memorandum that both sides accepted. While third party monitors were in the past employed in Hebron (TIPH), this is the first time the third party takes such an active role. Unfortunately, Israel has not allowed the monitors regular access to Rafah, meaning that Rafah is closed more than it is open, and that when it is open, it is so unpredictably, which has resulted in mass surges of people trying to get in or out of Gaza. Despite Israel's continued refusal to let the EU BAM monitors do their job, the EU BAM at Rafah crossing point offers a good model for the future.

7. Enabling implementation: Often solutions deemed satisfactory by one side are difficult to implement for the other side. The third party can make implementation easier by either providing on-the-job training or establishing the implementation system together. This was clear with regards to the Rafah crossing point.

Wolfensohn's team wore these seven hats successfully, getting Palestinians and Israelis to conclude a detailed, mutually-beneficial agreement that also forced both sides to make very difficult concessions. That success was partly dependent upon the consistency and impartiality with which Wolfensohn applied the following three principles, regardless of which hat he was wearing:

International standards and legitimacy: The Wolfensohn team respected international law on issues of occupier's responsibility in restoring the land to its original state and compensating for the damage. International law governed the settling of the abandoned housing and the rubble. Reference to international law established a sense of fairness.

Neutrality: Wolfensohn's team established an office in Jerusalem and was always available to both sides. The team consisted of third country nationals plus one Palestinian and one Israeli. The team and Wolfensohn went on ground visits in Israel and occupied territory in an attempt to better understand the situation. They met with various people in the civil society and business sectors on both sides.

International support: Wolfensohn received international backing and respect, partly because he was the representative of the Quartet and thus represented the whole international community. The support he received from the United States was manifested later in US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the region to finalize the AMA.

Why then are we in the midst of such a tragic and intractable conflict today? Why have none of the provisions of the AMA been fully implemented?

A simple answer would be that the success in negotiating the AMA would not have been achieved but for an engaged, committed and empowered third party. Unfortunately, since the agreement was signed, we haven't had a similarly engaged or empowered third party. Implementation, therefore, deserves just as much if not more third party intervention as does the negotiations phase.

Another answer could be that the AMA was the wrong approach to begin with. The AMA dealt with technical issues in the hope of spurring economic recovery that in turn would reinvigorate a political track. Perhaps what we needed was movement on the political front first, as Palestinians were calling for, instead of a detailed technical agreement full of pot holes and without a clear political destination.

Regardless of which answer is correct, the presence of that empowered third party signaled more hopeful times. Today we have an old/new political initiative on the table--the Arab peace initiative (originally presented to Israel in 2024). Reaffirmed unanimously by all 22 Arab nations, the Arab peace initiative offers Israel a welcome home in the Middle East and full peace in exchange for the full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just and agreed solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees.

We hope that Israel will accept this historic offer. Perhaps the best thing the international community could do now is devote its energies to convincing Israel of the initiative's merits and to design the most effective third party involvement. Not doing anything would be taking sides: taking sides against peace now and against the possibility of peace in the future.- Published 17/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org


Nisreen Haj Ahmad is a former legal advisor at the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department. She was a lead advisor to the Palestinian team during the coordination of the Gaza evacuation in 2024.


Immediate attention, please
 Ghassan Khatib

Experience has shown that whenever Palestinians and Israelis are left to their own devices, the situation deteriorates and the conflict deepens. This is why analysts and politicians have always looked to third party mediation as a necessary element in not only preventing deterioration but also laying the groundwork for progress.

The only period that witnessed relatively significant progress in relations between the two sides was the period of 1991-1994 that led to the first real negotiations and agreement (however incomplete) at Oslo. This progress required an extensive third party role. As one small example, US Secretary of State James Baker made 18 visits to each party in less than a year to prod the parties along.

Part of the problem with outside mediation is that the different parties have different views on any third party role. Israel has always been reluctant and never encouraged third party mediation. The Palestinians, however, were always, and are still anxious for third party mediation. The reason for both sides' positions on the issue is the imbalance of power between them as well as the framework for mediation. Any credible mediator will have to be guided by international legality. This poses a problem for Israel, because Israel wants a solution that is starkly incompatible with international law.

The Palestinians as the weaker party need the presence of a witness to actual practices on the ground as well as in negotiations to help offset the imbalance of power between the two sides. In addition, such a presence increases the weight of international law in affecting the outcome of negotiations.

The main factor contributing to the current deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations is the decision President George W. Bush took when entering office in 2024 to refrain from active involvement in the conflict. That opened the door to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take advantage of the vacuum to pursue his unilateral strategy. In other words, as the stronger party, Israel was left to determine the future of relations between the two sides, unilaterally and by force.

Now, more than ever, third party mediation of the kind that encourages the two parties to abide by international legality both in their practices and negotiating positions is needed. Third parties must also work to ensure that the two sides pursue bilateral as opposed to unilateral measures.

There are arguments being heard, mostly in Washington but also in Israel, that the internal political realities in both Israel and Palestine preclude effective third party mediation at the moment. But one of the reasons for that political reality is the absence of any political process and third party mediation. And in order not to mix cause and effect it has to be understood that one way of improving the internal situations in both Israel and Palestine, including strengthening the peace camps, is through a political initiative by an active third party mediator.

What makes this even more urgent is that at the moment the Palestinians and Arab states are presenting a united front that is very conducive to reaching a peace agreement between the two sides. The Arab peace initiative, which offers comprehensive Arab-Israel peace and normalization in return for an end to the Israeli occupation of Arab land, is a unique opportunity. To be grasped, immediate, effective and active third party mediation is necessary.- Published 17/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org


Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.


Washington reassessing its role
 Daniel Kurtzer

For nearly 40 years, the United States has fancied itself the most important "third party" in the Israel-Arab peace process. Some administrations have adopted ambitious approaches to peace-making in which the US president and/or the secretary of state have involved themselves directly and in detail in negotiations. Other administrations have adopted less ambitious approaches, often the result of circumstances assessed to be unpropitious for achieving progress toward peace. US failures in the peace process during the past decade or more have given rise to the possibility of a gradual but fundamental reassessment by the United States of its primary mediating role. If this gradual shift proves real, it will have profound consequences for Arabs and Israelis.

Several factors accounted for the US role in previous Arab-Israel peace efforts. First, the US perceived such engagement as being a vital national self-interest, that is, it was a means of extending US power and prestige and blocking the aggressive aims of adversaries such as the Soviet Union or, more recently, Iran. Second, the US believed that peace was desirable, possible and necessary for the long-term well-being of the Middle East, a region of significant strategic importance to it. Third, the US has enjoyed a special relationship with Israel, and always perceived a strong interest on the part of Israeli governments to reach peace accommodations with all its neighbors.

In seeking to fulfill these self-interests, the US always brought important assets to the table in its role as a mediator. US offers of economic and military assistance often helped seal a deal between the parties. Similarly, US political assurances were taken very seriously by all the parties, especially those that related to final status issues such as the question of Palestinian self-determination, the necessity of a viable and territorially-contiguous Palestinian state, the future of settlement blocs, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the issue of Jerusalem and the best ways of enhancing security for Israel and its neighbors. The US also often brought ingenuity, creativity or muscle to the table, attributes that were no less important than the tangible economic, military and political commitments it was prepared to make.

Given this extended period of US primacy in mediation and the panoply of skills and assets the US mustered in support of its mediating role, the central question now is why the US no longer seems interested in helping the parties get to negotiations, implement agreements already reached and bring forth new agreements on the road to a final peace settlement. Has the US lost interest in the peace process? Has the US assessment of peace--its desirability, possibility and necessity--changed? And if the US does not play a key mediating role, can a peace settlement be reached?

For the current administration, two primary considerations have underpinned a reticence to get too deeply involved in peace-making. President George W. Bush believed that his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, had weakened the power of the presidency through repeated, failed efforts at peace. Bush assessed that presidents have only so much political capital to spend and from the outset he had other priorities. In this respect, 9/11 only reinforced Bush's predispositions in that he saw the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of terrorism-counterterrorism.

These considerations could have been subjected to review after the death of Yasser Arafat, when an opportunity arose to invest heavily not only in stopping the violence but also in getting the two sides back to the negotiating table. However, the Bush administration remained on the sidelines, supportive of Israel's disengagement policy, active in trying to resolve relatively small on-the-ground problems, but reticent to touch the more important issues, particularly those associated with final status. It is this reticence--at a time when the parties themselves and the larger Arab world appeared anxious for a helping hand back to peace-making--that suggests that the Bush administration is changing the US strategic outlook, not just hesitating to get involved while the two sides fight. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest foray into the Israel-Palestine dispute initially appeared to counter this strategic shift, but its lackadaisical style and limited ambition actually reinforce the trend of US policy.

With US elections in late 2024, the parties in the region will need to factor into their own strategies this evolving but increasingly clear US approach. They will face two stark choices between now and November 2024: either go it alone in bilateral engagement and bilateral negotiations, or find an alternative third party to provide the off-the-table benefits previously provided by the US. Neither of these appears very realistic, and thus the peace process has a vacancy for a mediator.- Published 17/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org


Formerly US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


Jordan's promising role
 Waleed Sadi

It is a matter of history that direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have never come close to resolving the conflict since it began in 1947-48. With the two sides so far apart on the fundamentals in terms of settling their conflict, it has always been necessary to inject a third party to jumpstart negotiations, even if this too has not met with great success.

Indeed, the first such attempt met with violent failure. The UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte made a daring effort in 1948 to mediate the differences between the two antagonists and propose an equitable solution. Not only did his attempt fail, he was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist group for even trying because his plan would have put an end to the Zionist dream of further expansion and usurpation of Palestinian land.

Yet those were years when emotions on both sides ran high and there was no room for compromise, much less to attain final agreement. While emotions still run high, current conditions are more favorable for arbitration, especially with both peoples worn out from decades of conflict, suffering and instability. In the intervening years, furthermore, mediation has succeeded between Egypt and Israel.

What put the seal of approval on the Camp David I accords was not only the intervention of US President Jimmy Carter but also the two countries' conviction that war was no longer a tenable strategic option. Israel wanted Egypt out of the Arab-Israel equation due to its conviction that a regional war would never take place without Egypt. With Egypt effectively neutralized, Israel no longer had any real fear of a wider war. Egypt was also tired of war and wanted to look inward for change to address the colossal problems that its increasing population was posing. Poverty and unemployment became the real enemy of Egypt.

But Israel forgot one important thing: while regional war is not likely without Egypt, regional peace is also not probable without Syria. In fact, the wider Arab dimension is important if any future mediation between the two sides is going to bear fruit.

The last serious attempt at mediation between the Palestinians and Israel was when President Bill Clinton used his good offices to attempt to broker a peace plan. He did not get too far in his efforts essentially because he did not enjoy the total confidence of the Palestinian side and because the two peoples were not yet ready for the necessary compromises.

Clinton was building on the Oslo accords that in turn were brokered by Norway. Oslo, however, went down the drain partly because neither Palestinians nor Israelis offered their full support but also because the accords left the core issues for later, in the false hope that momentum generated by solving smaller issues would prepare the ground.

Does this mean that the Israelis and Palestinians can never get their act together without third party intervention or mediation? The answer must be yes, even if the two sides have tried foreign mediation and failed. Perhaps, then, the time is ripe for Arab mediation.

Jordan is right now in a unique position to act as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. Bolstered by an Arab peace initiative that was endorsed by the entire Arab world during the last summit in Saudi Arabia a few months ago, King Abdullah II can now convincingly approach the table with a comprehensive Arab mandate to broker peace.

It is a role the Arab world should endorse. Unlike other Arab countries except Egypt, Jordan already has a peace treaty with Israel and maintains diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Furthermore, Jordan's own national strategic interests are at stake and will be immeasurably bolstered by a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan wants its western flank secured as soon as possible.

Furthermore, in more ways than one, Jordanian and Palestinian national interests coincide. Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, while Jordan wants stability and security in both the Palestinian territories and Israel. King Abdullah, like his father the late King Hussein before him, enjoys the confidence of the Israelis who know that the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel serves the strategic interests of both countries and that Jordan therefore wants nothing less than a secure Israel.

Thus, if anyone is in a position to mediate in good faith, it is Jordan. Abdullah was on the verge of traveling to Israel last month to advance peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. Freak weather conditions led to the cancellation of the visit, but the king would seem to be ready, once political (and weather) conditions are more favorable.

However to be an effective mediator, King Abdullah needs to cultivate warmer relations not only with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but also with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The deep divisions between Fateh and Hamas render any attempt at mediation between the Palestinians and Israelis impossible. If Abdullah can seal an understanding with the Hamas-led Palestinian government and win its confidence, the king would be well positioned not only to act as mediator between the two factions. This would also enhance his credibility as a mediator between Palestinians and Israelis.

To this end, the Syrian dimension has to be invoked. Damascus has strong leverage with the Palestinians and its consent to mediation efforts by Jordan is indispensable. This means there should be a parallel peace process on the Syrian front. While leaving the Palestinian-Israeli track in the hands of Jordanian mediators, a mediation effort needs to be launched on the Syrian front by another Arab state, which is where Egypt can play an important role.

It is obvious that King Abdullah is desperate to convince Israel to accept the Arab peace plan. In his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Aqaba a few days ago, the monarch tried his best to sell the plan to Olmert by pointing out its virtues for both Israel and the Palestinians. Time is not on the side of either party, the king warned Olmert.

Olmert in turn may want to salvage his own political fortunes in Israel after the setback of last summer's war in Lebanon. The best way to do so would be by attempting peace for his own people and giving a chance to the most promising peace plan on the table. Olmert appears hesitant for the time being. But with more prodding, especially from Jordan, he might be amenable to this well-intentioned advice.- Published 17/5/2007 bitterlemons-international.org


Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.




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