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Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fear overshadows vital Mideast meeting

November 21, 2007

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Thirty years ago, on Nov. 19, 1977, I stood at Israel's Ben Gurion airport as Anwar Sadat's plane landed on the tarmac. The scene defied imagination, as the Egyptian leader embraced Israeli leaders. Hope was in the air. Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

Sadat's bold move led to Israeli accords with Egypt and Jordan, and the tantalizing hope of a deal with the Palestinians. But over the last seven years, the peace process has virtually collapsed.

Now comes the Annapolis meeting - Condoleezza Rice's gamble that she can spark a new push for a Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel.

Yet this coming peace conference is defined less by hope than by fear.

The United States and its Sunni Arab allies are worried stiff about Iran's growing clout in the Middle East - and the rapid decline of American influence. So is Israel.

The popularity of radical Islamists - both Shiite and Sunni - is on the upswing throughout the region. It is fueled by America's invasion of Iraq and its hapless occupation, by Israel's failed war on Hezbollah last year, and by the unresolved Palestinian conflict.

Desperate to undercut the appeal of the Islamists, Sunni Arab leaders have urged President Bush to focus on the Israel-Palestinian question. So after years of White House neglect of the peace process, Rice is now on the case.

But fear is an insufficient driver to make the Annapolis meeting succeed.

The scanty underpinnings of such an important meeting are already evident. At this writing the date was still not fixed - even though Rice indicated it would take place in November. Nor have invitations been issued.

Rice is hoping the Saudis and other Arab states that have no relations with Israel will be in attendance - but they are waiting to see if the agenda is serious. However, the aims of the conference are steadily shrinking and no agenda is set.

Initially, Israel and the Palestinians were expected to issue a joint statement outlining their thinking on "final status" issues - borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Now it seems Annapolis will only be a kickoff for future discussion of such core issues.

Apparently, the meeting will focus on reaffirming stage one of the so-called road map peace plan of 2002. This plan has been considered defunct; it was supposed to have produced a Palestinian state within five years - meaning right now, in 2007. Stage one called for Israel to halt all construction of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and for Palestinians to halt all violence. Neither side ever came close.

If Annapolis does nothing but pay lip service to the Road Map, the conference will be viewed as a sham. Much more is needed to inject a note of hope into an atmosphere of fear.

Everyone knows that the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders are politically weak. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems ready to negotiate and even to diminish settlement building - but is under pressure to make exceptions for big settlement blocs. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems much more committed to a deal than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. But he can't confront militants (including Hamas in Gaza) unless his people believe they are on the road to statehood.

Which brings us to President Bush. For five years he has paid lip service to the two-state idea. For progress on this issue, total presidential commitment is needed. The models are Presidents Carter and Clinton and their handlings of Middle East peace negotiations. One produced an Israeli-Egyptian treaty, and the second came tantalizingly close to an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

"Without a clear American message, it won't work," says one of Israel's top journalists, Akiva Eldar, co-author of a definitive new book on the Israeli settlement issue called "Lords of the Land." Eldar says that Abbas and Olmert "need American pressure; they need a mediator. ... If Annapolis fails, Hamas will take over the West Bank."

The warning of Jordan's ambassador to the United States, Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, is even more dire. "If Annapolis fails, the targets will be Israel and the moderate Arabs," he says. Militants will boast on their Web sites of a major American defeat.

"It is an absolutely vital juncture in the Middle East," the ambassador says. "Unless we can produce something meaningful (at Annapolis), the trajectory points to a very dark future."

Having called the Annapolis meeting, what the White House should really fear is a flop.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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