What if Olmert-Abbas Talks Go Wrong?

A Collapse of the political process may be a severe blow to the principle of the two-state solution.

Eran Shayshon, Jerusalem Post, 9/6/07

After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel sought to bolster Palestinian President Abbas' status. While Jerusalem was skeptic regarding his capacity to become a real partner, it understood that only a political horizon may prevent the fall of the West Bank to the hands of Hamas.

The renewal of negotiations between Abbas and Olmert is aimed at arriving at an agreement of principles on all outstanding issues by November 15 – the date scheduled for the international conference. Despite the good will of both sides, there is a concern that the differences between Israel and the Palestinians are too wide to be bridged.

Abbas demands that both sides reach a framework agreement with a timeline for implementation ahead of the conference, thus raising the bar for an agreement to be met. However, despite the obvious obstacles ahead, Israel does not seem to be preparing herself for the option of the failure of negotiations.

Some may disregard the importance of a possible collapse of negotiations, seeing it as just another step in the long line of political stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians. However, failure of negotiations with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, the optimal partners the Palestinians can offer Israel, may severely aggravate Israel's geo-strategic status.

A collapse of the current political process means a knock-out for the Palestinian moderate camp and the narrative of historic compromise. This may further accelerate the trend of Palestinian inversion towards the two-state solution and may encourage more and more Palestinians to call for the dissolution of the PA, in order to perpetuate the Israeli occupation and promote the establishment of a bi-national state on all of Mandatory Palestine.

Moreover, some elements within the international community are already claiming that the small size of the territory, demographic trends, the intertwined nature of Jewish and Palestinian communities, and the issue of natural resources (such as water), do not permit the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. These arguments are echoed against the backdrop of increasing calls from left–wing elements in the international community to adopt the one-state solution, based on the argument that it presents the only solution which is moral, just and achievable. A collapse of the political process may bring even leading actors among the international community to question the viability of the two-state solution and the principle of separation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The conclusion is that the failure of negotiations may not only lead to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, but also to a severe blow to the principle of the two-state solution. The current Israeli military presence in Palestinian cities in the West Bank, aimed at thwarting terrorism against Israel and preventing a possible Hamas takeover, may turn out to be a quagmire if negotiations fail and the PA collapses.

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that Israel should consolidate an 'exit strategy' from the negotiations in case it feels that they are doomed to collapse. The essence of such a strategy is to 'blur the failure'. However, the real key for dealing with this dilemma, is to strive to bolster the Palestinian Authority's political status and delivery capability, so that it could survive the possible collapse of the political process. Therefore, parallel to negotiations, Israel should promote the strategy of granting greater powers and responsibilities to the PA in the international arena.

Abbas' rejection to the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders prior to an agreement of principles, does not necessarily indicate that he would oppose actions aimed at granting attributes of statehood to the PA. The general rule of thumb for Israel should be to offer gestures in the 'spirit of negotiations' which upgrade de-facto the status of the PA and minimally compromise Israeli security interests. Such actions may promote the logic for a two-state solution.