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Archive for Thursday, September 27, 2007

U.S. must set Mideast agenda

September 27, 2007

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Is it a peace conference? Where will it be held, and what's its purpose?

It's the biggest Mideast mystery of the season (beyond the buzz over the unknown Syrian target that Israel bombed Sept. 6).

The Bush team is supposedly organizing a major international meeting in mid-November that could revive the near-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and expand it to other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is deeply involved, and has just been to the region to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But, with November less than six weeks away, there's no firm date or venue for the meeting (senior officials won't even call it a "conference"), and no one's certain who will attend. The Saudis, whose presence at a conference with Israel would be a historic breakthrough, say they won't come unless the gathering discusses "serious topics." Yet there's still no clear agenda.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants the conference to tackle the most sensitive "core issues" - final borders between an Israeli and Palestinian state, Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee issue, water and security. Standing next to Rice on Thursday, in Ramallah, he complained American officials were too ambiguous about the meeting's purpose, which was why Arab states weren't ready to come. "I believe there is a need for clarification," Abbas insisted.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, wants only to agree on a set of general principles for future talks. His poll figures are notoriously low, and the Israeli public is skeptical about peace, as Hamas militants continue to fire rockets from Gaza, from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005.

Olmert does want to strengthen Abbas, who is a strong opponent of Hamas. He also wants to draw the Saudis into the peace process at a time when Israel sees itself in common cause with Sunni Arab states uneasy about Iran's growing power.

The Israeli prime minister is willing to float trial balloons, like letting his deputy premier Haim Ramon say that Israel should turn over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal. But Olmert doesn't seem willing or able to meet Abbas' desire for a framework on core issues.

This yawning gap between the sides has left the conference without an agenda. So far, Rice is insisting on leaving it to Olmert and Abbas to bridge their Grand Canyon of differences. That might be OK if time were not crucial, but the clock is ticking toward November.

Leaving everything to the weak Olmert and Abbas seems only marginally more promising than relying on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to produce stability in Iraq. At some point, a more comprehensive strategy is required in which the United States plays the key role.

Rice herself has set the bar high for success. "The international meeting has to be serious, it has to be substantive," she said in Ramallah. "We don't need a photo opportunity." The meeting, she said, must "advance the cause of a Palestinian state." No hint of how.

The secretary has shifted her language about conference goals from the vague aim of setting a "political horizon" to the need to address "critical, core issues." Her efforts reflect an about-face for an administration that has bloviated about "two states," but for six years avoided investing any political capital in the issue.

With Iraq imploding and tensions rising with Iran, with Islamists making gains across the region, Rice has finally fixed on the Israel-Palestinian issue as one where America can improve its image. But having staked U.S. prestige, and her own, on this November meeting, the unnerving question is whether she knows how to succeed.

"The secretary is passionate, but my concern is that they still don't appreciate what it takes to do this," says Dennis Ross, the chief Mideast peace envoy under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "This will take much more time than she thinks."

Former ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told me of the intense diplomacy preceding the 1991 Madrid Mideast peace conference, before which Secretary of State James Baker made nine trips to the region in nine months.

If Rice wants to close the gaps between the two sides, "she will have to shuttle," says Ross, author of Statecraft, and How to Restore America's Standing in the World. " 'Shuttle' means you go back and forth - it will take that kind of effort."

One possibility, says Ross, would be to combine forces with the European Union's special envoy Tony Blair, so one of the two could always be present in the region. That would require Rice to agree to an expansion of Blair's limited mandate.

Whatever she does, Rice must decide soon on her goals and match them with her means. She needs full support from the White House. Senior officials tell me "Bush is behind this." But, distracted by Iraq, will he put his weight behind a process that some in his administration still oppose?

At a time when American credibility in the region is sinking faster than the value of the dollar, it certainly won't help if the November meeting is a bust. "The worst thing about failure," says Ross, "would be that it plays into the Hamas narrative, which says that diplomacy never works, and only violence does."

Rice had the guts to finally focus on the Israel-Palestinian issue. We'll know soon if she has the will and skill to make her mysterious meeting bear fruit.

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

Comments

Speakout 7 years, 4 months ago

The Israelis know and the world agrees that the occupation of the West Bank is a burden on Israel and the Palestinians, and Illegal. The settlers who have illegally built homes there are in violation of International Law and they must withdraw. This step would signify the beginning of honest and lasting peace initiative by the Israelis and in turn Hamas should be stopped from firing rockets into Israel and totally disbanded. These two steps alone will can be the starting point for meaningful and lasting peace efforts. Someone needs to monitor those events and it cannot be the USA because our government has no clout, no trust, and no credibility. The only other choices are limited. So who will step forward? China?

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