Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mideast efforts a huge gamble for U.S.

November 29, 2007

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The one-day Annapolis peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really scared me.

It wasn't the idea: I thought President Bush should have made an effort to restart the peace process years ago. What disturbed me was that the president doesn't appear to realize the size of the gamble he's made.

Bush has bet that the two parties can now make progress with some U.S. help from the background. He stressed that success will depend "on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves" and billed the U.S. role as that of a supporter. But the leaders of those countries are too politically weak to succeed on their own; the process kicked off at Annapolis requires a massive U.S. effort or it will quickly falter.

Having jump-started the talks - and talked of reaching a two-state solution before the end of 2008 - America will be judged on the results of its effort. If the process fails, the losers will be not just Israel and the Palestinians but our moderate Arab allies. America's standing and credibility in the region will plummet even further, and jihadis worldwide will be exultant.

The winners will be Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

I take this pessimistic stance not because I think the post-Annapolis process is hopeless. The statements by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were very moving, and both clearly want peace. Arab states in attendance - most of which have no relations with the Jewish state - say they want a peaceful end to this problem.

But wanting peace, however badly, won't make it so.

The Annapolis meeting was vague about what would follow the hoopla. It had been hoped that Israel and the Palestinians would issue a joint statement laying out a framework for negotiating so-called final-status issues: the core questions of boundaries, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and security. The Palestinians wanted such specificity, but these issues were too politically sensitive for Olmert to name.

Instead, the statement was deliberately vague, referring to "all core issues" as "specified in previous agreements." If final-status issues can't even be named, it's hard to see how the parties make progress in future talks.

Indeed, the difficulties ahead were painfully evident in the speeches of Abbas and Olmert. The latter emphasized the need for Abbas to curb Palestinian terrorism, and stressed that talk of final status must go hand in hand with implementing the first phase of the "road map," a 2003 peace accord long considered dead.

Phase I of the road map calls for a simultaneous halt to Palestinian violence and a freeze of all Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, even within existing settlements. It also calls for Israel to dismantle illegal settlements built in recent years.

Neither side ever implemented Phase I - and it's not clear Abbas and Olmert have the strength to do so now. Olmert never specifically mentioned a settlement freeze and is said to be wary of arousing strong opposition from Israeli settlers.

Abbas, on the other hand, stressed the very details that Olmert wouldn't mention. He can't direct his security forces to crack down on Palestinian militants if his public continues to see Israeli settlements expanding. He said he needs to show the Palestinian public "tangible and direct steps on the ground" to convince them there is a real chance of gaining a state.

Without such steps, Abbas will lose ground on the West Bank to Hamas, which already controls Gaza. Only if his public believes negotiations are moving toward a state will it pressure Hamas to stop violent opposition to talks.

The main hope of breaking out of this vicious circle lies with the White House. The one new negotiating tool to emerge from Annapolis was the formation of an American, Palestinian and Israeli mechanism to follow up on the road map. The United States is to judge whether both sides comply.

This is a heavier burden than Bush seems to realize. Is he willing to press Israel to freeze all settlement construction, as called for in the road map? Will he lend his weight to a push for talks soon on core issues? Will America be ready to make bridging proposals when the sides are deadlocked?

And - a subject not yet broached - will the United States be willing to give Israel the security guarantees it will require to feel safe giving up the West Bank?

Without a heavy investment of presidential political capital, these talks are bound to falter. And if they do, the blame in the Muslim world will be directed at the White House.

That's why I hope the president understands the extent of his Annapolis gamble. Losing this bet will hand an enormous victory to extremists in the Islamic world.

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

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