If negotiators can overcome today’s deadline to resolve a dispute on Israeli settlement expansion and keep peace talks alive, the date of September 2011 will begin to loom as the target for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The one-year goal to reach a comprehensive peace agreement was set before the start of direct talks earlier this month in order to calm Palestinian worries that the negotiations would continue ad infinitum. But given the past failure of Israeli and Palesitnian negotiators to meet joint deadlines, is there any reason to believe that this time will be different? Might another missed negotiating target do more harm than good?
"Given the fact that the Middle East is a grave yard for timelines and deadlines, the latest ones are understandably being dismissed,’’ said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a non-profit government think tank.
The target is for a broad "framework" agreement dealing with the core issues of the conflict: control over Jerusalem, borders, the status of Palestinian refugees and water.
But skeptics say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are too far apart on these issues to close the gaps, and that a deadline inflates expectations and could spur unrest if not met.
A year could be enough time
Others point out that a year is plenty of time to reach an agreement on disputes which have already been worked through (albeit unsuccessfully so far) by negotiators and academics. The outlines of an agreement have already come into focus.
"Since the parties have been through these issues before,’’ added Mr. Lasensky, "these are eminently attainable goals within the timelines that have been set, assuming there is the political will.’’
The demand for a deadline has recently come from the Palestinians. In contrast, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that a year isn't enough time to close the gaps, and that disappointment is liable to spark a new Palestinian uprising.
The Palestinians however, see a lack of a clear time frame as a sign that Israel doesn't actually plan to finish the talks.
"The Palestinians have a bad experience in the negotiations. The Israelis favor negotiations for a long time, and raise minor topics that aren't the main points,'' said Nashat Aqtash, communications professor at Bir Zeit University outside of Ramallah. "The Israelis are negotiating for the sake of negotiating and not for the sake of reach of an agreement. They just want to gain more time to establish settlements, to confront the international community with facts on the ground.''
Past missed deadlines
This conflict is no stranger to missed deadlines.
The original target to finish negotiations on a Palestinian statehood during the Oslo process was 1999. The multi-phased roadmap peace blueprint issued by the administration of former President George W. Bush in 2003 was supposed to have created a Palestinian state by 2008. The direct peace talks initiated in 2007 by the Bush administration in Annapolis, Md. were also supposed to be wrapped up in a year.
Despite the missed goals, however, using the deadlines helps the US inject the talks with a sense of urgency.
The most often-mentioned blueprint for a deal revolves around the peace parameters published in 2001 before the departure of former President Bill Clinton, who unsuccessfully mediated a final deal between Israelis and Palestinians in the final months of his second term. The Geneva Accord, a model peace deal reached by out-of-office Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, could be another touchstone.
"It’s not like the leaders have to open up the books and start studying proposals," said Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "What is required is decision making.’’
A piecemeal approach
Baskin and others believe that the sides should use the time to reach a piecemeal agreement in order to build confidence in the negotiations, rather that an all-or-nothing package deal that was the goal of previous rounds.
One suggestion raised involves setting a three-month deadline for an agreement on a mutual border – a modification of the 1967 Green Line to annex Jewish settlement blocs in exchange for the same area of territory.
It is widely assumed that the sides will have an easier time reaching an agreement on land compared to resolving issues that lie at the heart of their competing narratives like claims on holy sites in Jerusalem or Palestnian refugees.
"We should concentrate on a partial agreement that creates a Palestinain state within defined borders,'' said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, an Israeli Palestinian web-based opinion journal."
"I don’t believe that given who the leaders are, given their ideologies, that they are capable of reaching an agreement. On the refugee issue and the Jerusalem basin issue, we cannot agree. These are core issues that are best left aside.''