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Annapolis: The Day After

By Scott MacLeod, The Times, 15.11.07

I hate to say it, but after speaking with several plugged-in diplomats all over the region the past two weeks, I have to report that none of them sounded the least bit optimistic about the Middle East peace conference due to start in just 10 days. One of them even said it was not certain that Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas would come up with any agreed declaration to present at the conference--much less the rough outline of an eventual historic peace deal that many, perhaps especially the Palestinians and Arab parties, hoped would constitute a promising framework and timetable for final Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Despite Rice's eight shuttle missions to the Middle East this year, the odds for success were never high. Both Olmert and Abbas say they want a deal before Bush leaves office in '09. But both are politically weak. There is deep mistrust on both sides since the breakdown of peace talks and the outbreak of the second intifadeh in '00. They are seemingly far apart concerning what they want and what they are willing to give on the key issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The Bush administration's six-year withdrawal from active mediation, despite the U.S.'s position as the internationally recognized co-sponsor of the peace process, didn't help, either.
So, what to do now?
Condi Rice seems determined to persevere, perhaps have the two sides announce whatever progress they can, declare that to be a good step forward, and then have them return home for further bilateral efforts. Others like former U.S. mediator Dennis Ross believe that Rice should postpone the conference until the way forward is clearer, and then limit the eventual conference's aims to vague principles that refrain from asking Olmert and Abbas to commit to things there are politically difficult for them for the time being. What both approaches have in common, though, is an obsession with the process rather than a focus on the peace.
Ross is correct that it makes little sense to have a peace conference that promises no meaningful followup. But his idea of postponing the conference, and then tip-toeing around the hard parts, also makes little sense, if the aim is to actually achieve something. Wait for what, another 10 years? Another 60 years?
If making peace is the top priority of the Bush administration that Rice claims that it is, it may be time for Rice to withdraw from her role as a passive mediator shuttling among Israeli and Palestinian parties and instead put forth the American leadership's bold vision--based on the prevailing international consensus--of what a final peace settlement should look like. Then the skulls of the parties might be seriously banged together to produce a compromise in negotiations based on that framework. Certainly Israel will have to come under pressure to go along, if only for one simple reason: the rapid expansion of illegal Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank means that the more time that passes before an agreement is reached, the greater the chances there will be nothing left to negotiate about. Certainly, Palestinian violence will have to be dealt with firmly, too; but, is it wise to continue giving Hamas a veto over a peace settlement, by insisting that Palestinian attacks cease before a political compromise can be reached?
Indeed, it's worth repeating what Rice herself has recently said about the feared consequences of not achieving a settlement very soon, namely that Israel risks losing moderate Palestinian interlocutors for a two-state solution, and could then be confronted with an increasingly radical Palestinian majority in the land that it rules. That's a scenario that will be dire for Israelis, Palestinians and the entire region, especially considering other grave situations elsewhere, including Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
Our concern is growing that without a serious political prospect for the Palestinians that gives to moderate leaders a horizon that they can show to their people that indeed there is a two-state solution that is possible, we will lose the window for a two-state solution.
Because of the threat of violent extremism, the two-state solution is, frankly, more urgent now than ever... my fear [is] that if we do not act now to show the Palestinians a way forward, others will show them a way forward. If the Palestinians are losing hope, especially among the young, we have a great danger before us. The prolonged experience of depravation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people... My fear is that if Palestinian reformers cannot deliver on the hope of an independent state, then the moderate center could collapse forever and the next generation of Palestinians could become lost souls of unbridled extremism.
Assuming that Olmert and Abbas prove unable to get final negotiations solidly on track after nearly a year of Rice's urgings to do just that, there seems little point in giving them more time, or hoping that more determined leaders will someday replace them in office. Clearly, Israelis and Palestinians are in need of leadership and support if they are to get to where they claim they want to be. If Bush believes in peace so much, why hold back from laying down guidelines on where the borders should be, how the '48 refugees should be dealt with, and how Jerusalem can be shared? Why should a president who was bold enough to invade two countries and topple their governments be shy about saying how he thinks Israelis and Palestinians could achieve a fair deal? It's not rocket science, by the way. Barak and Arafat came reasonably close before things turned ugly in '00; unofficial Israeli-Palestinian negotiations sorted out all these issues in the so-called Geneva Initiative of 2003. Strong U.S. leadership rather than mere mediation may be the only thing that makes sense now, if the aim is truly to break the impasse.
Don't take my word for it: As I blogged last month, a bipartisan group of American "wisemen/women" are proposing exactly such an approach in the event of an Annapolis stalemate. The group includes: Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter; Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman and Co-chair of the Iraq Study Group; Carla Hills, former U.S. Trade Representative under President George H.W. Bush; Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, former Senator; Thomas R. Pickering, former Under-Secretary of State; Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush; Theodore C. Sorensen, former Special Counsel and Adviser to President John F. Kennedy; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System.
Here's the essence of what the group proposed, in a letter to Bush and Rice on Oct. 10:
"The international conference should deal with the substance of a
permanent peace: Because a comprehensive peace accord is unattainable
by November, the conference should focus on the endgame and endorse
the contours of a permanent peace, which in turn should be enshrined
in a Security Council resolution. Israeli and Palestinian leaders
should strive to reach such an agreement. If they cannot, the Quartet
(US, EU, Russia and UN Secretary General)—under whose aegis the
conference ought to be held— should put forward its own outline, based
on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the Clinton parameters
of 2000, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the 2003 Roadmap. It
should reflect the following:
Two states, based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor,
reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications as expressed in a 1:1 land
swap;
Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling
under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian
sovereignty;
Special arrangements for the Old City, providing each side control
of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community
to them;
A solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the
two-state solution, addresses the Palestinian refugees' deep sense of
injustice as well as provides them with meaningful financial
compensation and resettlement assistance;
Security mechanisms that address Israeli concerns while respecting
Palestinian sovereignty."
Scott MacLeod, TIME's Cairo Bureau Chief since 1998, has covered the Middle East and Africa for the magazine for 22 years.