Jon B. Alterman
The Financial Times (Commentary)
November 1, 2007 - 2:38pm

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, is bringing the wrong people together in Annapolis, near Washington, in November. Belatedly deciding that the time has come for the Bush administration to put energy and focus into Arab-Israeli peacemaking, her effort to gather Israeli and Palestinian leaders and whatever other dignitaries will join her is not only too little, too late. It is also the wrong thing to do.

There was a time not so long ago when reasonable people wondered whether common ground could ever be found between Arabs and Israelis. The Oslo accords were a true breakthrough, suggesting that at least some overlap existed between the maximum Israelis might offer and the minimum Palestinians might accept. Seven years of only partly successful negotiations highlighted just how much the details mattered. As it left office in late 2000, the Clinton administration left behind the “Clinton parameters”, a sort of high water mark for what had been agreed in principle and what could be expected in an agreement.

The problem then, as now, was demonstrating to sceptics that an agreement would actually bring peace. The so-called 2002 “road map” was intended to reassure them by outlining reciprocal steps that would lead toward peace and a Palestinian state by 2005, but the document fell as yet another victim of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

In its wake, the voices of sceptics have grown louder. Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections did little to soften the organisation’s rhetoric or its actions. Fatah’s forced flight from Gaza not only highlights the difficulty the Palestinian Authority has establishing control over many Palestinians, but that hardliners are consolidating their control over Hamas. Israelis are stung that their withdrawal from Gaza has not meant an end to rocket fire from there. Most Palestinians view the barrier Israel is erecting as yet another in a long series of land grabs; most Israelis see it as a necessary defence against an unrelenting foe.

The problem now in Arab-Israeli peace is not one of mere tactics, it is one of strategy. If one believes the polls, a majority of Palestinians and Israelis alike seek a two-state solution but doubt whether one is attainable. Israelis believe that they have fought, negotiated and unilaterally withdrawn for peace, all to no avail. They are divided on what measure of violence and negotiation, directed toward what targets, will bring them peace. Palestinians are consumed by a similar debate, with many arguing that some willingness to use violence is the only way to force Israelis to the negotiating table.

Ms Rice’s conference does nothing to move this debate forward. Instead, it seeks to bring together people already on record as favouring a negotiated solution to rehash their stated positions. In a different environment, this could make sense. Yet, Ms Rice brings together two leaders – Israel’s Ehud Olmert and the Palestinians’ Mahmoud Abbas – in the twilight of their political careers. They are widely ridiculed for their naivety about the nature of their adversary. Political weakness compels the Palestinian side to demand more, and the Israeli side to surrender less. Meanwhile, they are being brought together under the aegis of a US president in the twilight of his own political career, one so burdened with Middle Eastern problems that the Arab-Israeli conflict is now his number three priority in the Middle East, after Iraq and Iran.

The way this is likely to unfold is precisely the wrong way. Rather than move the parties toward peace, it will demonstrate how difficult it is even for those leaning toward peace to make such a peace. In so doing, it will strengthen the rejectionists.

What needs to happen now is more politics and less diplomacy. Israelis and Palestinians need to have genuine national debates about where they want their countries to go. They need to agree on a strategy. Israel seems poised to begin an election campaign that will discuss exactly that point. Where Israeli politics end up – whether Kadima endures as a centrist party and whether the Israeli public tilts left or right – will help determine how Israelis pursue peace.

Palestinians have a much harder time because their politics are in such disarray. A 22-month, western-led effort to weaken Hamas has divided Palestinians rather than uniting them behind Fatah. While Hamas may not be strong enough to govern, it has ample capacity to act as a spoiler.

The problem here is principally political, not diplomatic. Moving the politics would require a US commitment of immense courage and creativity that changes the politics on both sides. Those politics would require a unified Palestinian community that includes Hamas and Fatah, less polarisation on the Israeli side, and more urgency on both. That is a tall order, especially for a lame-duck president, and an ill-planned conference does little to bring it about.


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