Gabrielle Rifkind: The lessons of conflict resolution must be learnt

Peacemaking has a history which everyone at Annapolis should be aware of
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The Independent Online

Cynicism rules on the day of the Middle East conference in Annapolis, and there are many who would welcome its failure. Following a seven-year hiatus in the peace process, conditions are far from ripe for a resolution. The key to any success will reside not in what takes place at the 24-hour meeting in Maryland, but in what happens the day after the meeting and what mechanisms are put in place for a sustainable peace.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, presides over a fractured Knesset. On the Palestinian side, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks only for Fatah, and while Hamas remains excluded from the peace process, it remains poised to act as a spoiler. The Palestinians have never been so deeply divided, and the failure of the National Unity government has been a huge setback.

But it would be a myth to think that there is a right time for peacemaking. Endless conflict leaves communities traumatised. The suffering breeds more hatred, and it would be surprising if the parties involved were in the right mindset to engage in the spirit to make the necessary concessions. But failure risks more devastating consequences.

This conflict is characterised by missed opportunities, broken promises, optimistic moments shattered by violence and the hardening of attitudes. In order not to repeat this experience, it's essential that expectations for a peace settlement from the conference are reduced, and that it sets a framework for time-limited talks that would be the launchpad for intensive negotiations. Oxford Research Group has done some in-depth work on what such a model could look like in the form of a Standing Conference Table. It draws on the work of other successful peace processes. While recognising that each conflict has its own characteristics and complexities, there are lessons to be learnt from the history of their peacemaking.

First, there needs to be a process that includes all the voices involved in the conflict. At present, the thinking is that by excluding Hamas it will be weakened and will lose its power base. This is a myth: Hamas is an organised, self-disciplined movement representing at least a third of the Palestinians.

Like it or not, the Islamists are now a powerful force in the region. They represent significant groups of the Palestinian population who feel marginalised and excluded. Engaging with these groups is an inevitable part of any agreement that could lead to the end of violence. A reframing of this paradigm will be a requisite for any serious reduction in conflict, requiring an understanding of the Islamists' agenda and factoring in some of the needs, fears and concerns of these communities.

Second, any attempt at peace talks needs to be embedded within a larger framework, which could then act as a safety net post-Annapolis. Close analysis of the failure at Camp David in 2000 highlights the "tragedy of errors" where there were no safety nets to sustain the process once talks broke down, leading to the Second Intifada. Serious work was later done at Taba, and with the Clinton Parameters, but by then it was too late. Had there been a continuous peace process with legitimacy and authority in the form of a Standing Conference Table, would things have looked different?

The Saudis have agreed to attend the Annapolis meeting, thus providing an opportunity to promote the Saudi Peace Plan, originally offered in 2002. The plan offers Israeli recognition and permanent peace with 22 Arab countries in return for the Arab lands captured in 1967. It calls for the setting up of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a just solution to be agreed on around the issue of Palestinian refugees.

While the basic principles are known, the details have not been defined. The Standing Conference Table could do serious work on this and the plethora of other peace initiatives, working to integrate the key ideas and creating the conditions for the difficult concessions that are needed on both sides.

To create the conditions for a peace process, a bilateral ceasefire will have to be negotiated both in Gaza and the West Bank, with a reciprocal agreement to the end of violence. There will need to be a freeze on settlers, a reduction in checkpoints, and an increased freedom of movement for the Palestinians. There would also be a need for monitors on the ground to ensure that settlements ceased and that Qassam rockets were not being fired.

There have been recent seismic changes in the political landscape in the Middle East and the Annapolis conference offers both a crisis and an opportunity for peacemaking. If Annapolis is to have legitimacy, it will be necessary to set up a frame for a sustainable peace process that is inclusive, time-limited and provides a security architecture that is resilient and can survive the political instabilities which will be endemic to the negotiations.

The writer's briefing paper, 'A Standing Conference Table – A Process for a Sustainable Peace in the Palestine-Israel Conflict' is published by Oxford Research Group;