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Don’t call it a peace conference
September 14th, 2007
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have stepped up their work on a declaration of principles for a final status agreement in advance of a planned peace summit in Washington this fall.
But their efforts may be doomed because this chain has three weak links.
The Bush administration has so little confidence in the outcome that it insists it’s just a “meeting” and not a peace conference, and that it is being convened by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not President Bush, who may not even show up.
Rice has been trying to persuade Arab leaders from Persian Gulf states to attend, particularly the Saudis, but the best she’s been able to get from any of them is a maybe.
Instead, they’re preparing their alibis by pressing Washington to force Israel to accept their terms as the price of their participation, and even if they get that they won’t commit to help with any of the heavy lifting.
The Saudis rebuffed Rice’s and Israel’s requests to take public steps toward normalizing relations with Israel as a confidence building measure. Instead they’re sticking to offering nothing until Israel meets their demands.
The summit is a high-risk venture in which the Israelis and Palestinians may be doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t make the attempt.
The ostensible goal is to come up with a declaration of principles on the key issues — borders, refugees and Jerusalem — for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.
This is easier said than done. In nearly 15 years of negotiations, they’ve been unable to do that and chances don’t look any better today.
Vision without effort
Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are the driving forces behind the “meeting,” which they hope will produce a “horizon” that will show Palestinians what statehood will look like.
For Bush, it is an opportunity to rescue his legacy, which has been littered with failures across the Middle East. Five years ago, he set out to be the godfather of Palestinian statehood and it isn’t any closer today than then.
Bush is willing to talk about his “vision” for the Middle East, but he has consistently been unwilling to devote the effort required to produce results, especially if that means pressuring Israel — a political daredevil act.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going along for the ride, hoping the conference will boost his dilapidated political standing at home, where most Israelis are skeptical but want to see progress on the diplomatic front.
Both leaders want to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the rivalry between his relatively moderate Fatah camp and the radical Hamas, which rules Gaza and threatens to take the West Bank.
Abbas has done little to resolve the problems that led voters to reject Fatah — corruption and abuse — and is hoping Bush and Olmert can give him a badly needed boost. While his sincerity in seeking a negotiated solution is not questioned, his ability to deliver on any agreement is.
But that hasn’t discouraged him from trying to raise expectations at a time when Bush and Olmert are doing the opposite. While Olmert is looking for a general statement of principles, Abbas is demanding an “explicit agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state,” including a “binding timetable and international guarantees” for completion.
Even if he could get that — and he won’t — he can’t deliver because half the Palestinian side isn’t invited to the meeting, nor are Lebanon and Syria.
Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher predicts the uninvited will try to “sabotage any chances of success” to demonstrate their own importance. He called Bush, Olmert and Abbas “failed leaders grasping at straws” and said they are unrealistically raising expectations they cannot meet.
If the Washington meeting — which could be postponed if Olmert and Abbas are unable to agree on a basic framework document — fails to meet public expectations, there could be a violent backlash among the Palestinians, even another intifada (uprising), according to many observers.
Abbas will look even weaker and more irrelevant, and Hamas will cite his failure to produce a breakthrough as proof that negotiations with the Zionists don’t work and the only answer to the occupation is armed struggle.
Olmert will repeat his offer to withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank and offer a land swap for the remainder — the major settlement blocks — from other parts of today’s Israel.
Abbas can’t accept leaving even a single settler in the West Bank unless he has the full public backing of the Saudis and other Arab leaders, and none is willing to do that. Nor will they support him on anything less than a full right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, a poison pill for the Jewish State.
There is a greater chance for an agreement on re-dividing Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods going to the Palestinian state and Jewish neighborhoods to the Jewish State, and a cooperative arrangement for the holy sites.
The biggest obstacle to peace is not Jewish settlements or Arab terrorists but the failure of Arab – especially Palestinian -- leaders to prepare their publics for eventual compromise with Israel and the acceptance of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based syndicated columnist and a former chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.