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Making the inevitable happen

By Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour, The Los Angeles Times, 18.11.07

Anybody who knows anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that the leaders expected at a summit meeting in Annapolis, Md., later this month, won't devise a deal. That's because the outlines of the deal have already been devised, in bits and pieces, through the Clinton parameters; the Taba summit; the Arab League proposal; international law, including myriad U.N. resolutions; and semiformal understandings, such as the Geneva Initiative.
So couples therapy is not what's needed at this stage; it's tough love. World powers, mainly the United States, should publicly endorse the deal, which is the only way to secure a place in the global economy that both Israel and Palestine need. What's largely been settled is this: The foundation will be the boundaries from before the 1967 war, and Israel will compensate Palestine with land for agreed-upon border modifications; Jerusalem will be capital to both states, and its Old City will be open, free of checkpoints and restricted areas; international forces will help keep the peace, especially where jurisdictions are shared; the bulk of Palestinian refugees will exercise their right of return by settling in the new state of Palestine and accepting financial compensation, though a certain number will be allowed to return to Israel proper; and, finally, all Arab states simultaneously will recognize Israel. To be sure, there are contentious details to be hammered out, including how and when to remove Israeli settlers and repatriate Palestinian refugees. But generally speaking, that's the deal, and who hasn't heard it?
Why, then, do many doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can get to yes in Annapolis in the coming weeks? Already the headlines predict "Derailment," "Doomed to Failure," and "Dead End." Olmert and Abbas are too weak, we are told. Neither can sell the necessary compromises to his people. But the opinion polls suggest that both leaders would be pushing on an open door. Substantial majorities of Israelis and Palestinians -- 60% to 70% -- endorse the elements of the deal. When pundits and reporters call Olmert and Abbas weak, what they're really saying is this: They are personally unpopular and could well lose any election that was held today.
However, both have provisional support to pursue what is left of the peace process, and, in fact, their only chance at recovering political prestige is to deliver an agreement. But the clock is ticking. If, God forbid, there is an Israeli-Palestinian fight to the finish, Olmert and Abbas are hardly the leaders their peoples will turn to.
Behind their diplomacy is economic urgency. Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are often called centrists, but they are really products of Israel's business and professional elite, whose influence is underestimated. They know full well that Israel cannot sustain an economy like Singapore's through an ethnic war like Serbia's.
During the relatively peaceful 1990s, Israel became a high-tech player. And over the last decade, dozens of venture capital firms invested well over $11 billion dollars in innovative start-ups -- from medical instruments to Internet firewalls. But know-how is not enough to keep that growth going. Israeli entrepreneurs need unimpeded access to global corporations and markets that only lasting peace can ensure.
Israel also faces the risk of a devastating brain drain if the violence doesn't end. A recent study found that 44% of young Israelis "would seriously think of leaving Israel if it would result in an improved standard of living." Many grumble about the disappearance of a secular center and the creeping polarization of the country. In Israel proper, one-quarter of first-graders are ultra-Orthodox, and another quarter are Arab children living, in effect, segregated lives. If the professional classes don't stay to advance the overall quality of life, how will Israel rehabilitate its failing educational infrastructure or assimilate Israeli Arabs into an urban civil society?
On the Palestinian side, the economic pressures are even more dire. The Palestinian professional elite -- mainly based in Ramallah -- is desperate for capital and calm to invest in new housing and infrastructure. This elite is highly educated, but it cannot build its markets or businesses when Israeli checkpoints disrupt commerce daily. Likewise, it needs a coherent government that represents all Palestinians -- not the fractured West Bank-Gaza situation that exists now.
The 1994 Oslo peace accords cracked open the door for the return of diaspora Palestinians, who started to invest in the state's future beyond the military occupation. But then Oslo foundered, and the new intifada started. Since then, the Palestinians have suffered an even more serious brain drain than Israel's. A staggering number of Gaza businesspeople have closed their doors and are looking to emigrate. The Palestinian Christian community in Bethlehem, among the most educated, has dropped from more than 75% of the city's population to less than 30%. Palestine graduates hundreds of computer scientists who are looking for jobs abroad.
Abbas already represents a fragmented and battered people, with Hamas in control of Gaza and a substantial force in Nablus, Jenin and other West Bank cities. His leadership will fail under the weight of more poverty and extremism. Half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are younger than 18, and 40% of all Palestinians live in poverty. But if Abbas can bring about the end of the occupation and open up Palestine's virgin markets, a flock of Palestinians will reengage in state-building. Israel could be a big part of Palestinian growth, creating jobs in technology and tourism. The potential for peacetime growth is huge: Jerusalem gets about 1.5 million tourists a year now, whereas a city such as Prague draws 8 million.
Understandably, perhaps, the media prefer to focus on dramatic threats to the peace process -- new Jewish settlements around the West Bank, Gaza's homemade missiles or Iran's nuclear ambitions. But these only underscore how imperative it is to end this conflict and consolidate the sources of regional stability, which are mainly economic. If the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is allowed to continue, then one intifada will be followed by another, and the next upheaval could be in Amman.
Which brings us to the most plausible argument against success at Annapolis. Olmert and Abbas will fail, pundits say, because they face radically aggressive domestic opposition -- Scripture-hawk settlers on one side, Hamas on the other. Each leader cannot put his fragile "national unity" at risk for the sake of a peace deal that depends on the other weak leader. But this is precisely where the U.S. comes in. To trump the hard- liners, each has to show that he is moved by bigger forces, economic and geopolitical. The most immediate force is American interests and policy.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently grasps the regional dynamic. She has stated repeatedly that failure will yield unprecedented new threats. But by not publicly adopting the inevitable deal, she has not added the one threat that Olmert and Abbas actually can use. She has not emphasized to their supporters -- and their opponents -- that U.S. security interests are in play, which they are; that Washington's full weight is behind Annapolis; and that Americans know the logic of an agreement by now.
If Rice takes a firm public stand in demanding a final settlement, she strengthens Olmert and Abbas, who can point to the danger of defying the U.S. But if she merely offers mediation services, the summit may well fail. And failure means the United States' standing in the region -- so diminished after its debacle in Iraq -- just got worse.
Bernard Avishai is a writer and consultant living in Jerusalem. His book, "The Hebrew Republic," will be published in April. Sam Bahour is a consultant and entrepreneur living in Ramallah. He is co-editor of "Homeland: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians."