James Carroll
The Boston Globe (Opinion)
November 26, 2007 - 12:51pm

Obstacles abound. When representatives of more than 40 nations convene in Annapolis tomorrow, hoping to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there will be many reasons for pessimism.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas presides over a fractured people, with Hamas ready to spoil any agreement. Qassam rockets fired from Gaza remind Israelis what a hostile Palestinian state could do from the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is politically vulnerable to extremist figures on the Israeli side who want no concessions.

Olmert last week promised to suspend construction in settlements near Jerusalem, but the endless expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas remains a paramount impediment to any agreement - exactly as it was intended to be. In the Knesset, a law advances that forbids any compromise on the status of Jerusalem.

The last thing Palestinians need is a high profile peace conference that debates abstractions while ignoring the crushing realities of life under a brutal occupation. Issues of free movement within the territories, the crippling isolation of Gaza, malnourished children, Israeli readiness to punish a population for actions of individuals - such matters must be not be left to the distant by-and-by.

Principal Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, meanwhile, have struggled even to define what the Annapolis meeting aims to accomplish. For all of these reasons, polls suggested last week that, while strong majorities of Israelis and Palestinians both firmly approve of the conference, majorities also doubt it will achieve results. A punditry consensus is skeptical. Obstacles abound, to repeat, and so does pessimism.

There is another way to look at Annapolis, even without donning rose-colored glasses. First of all, it is crucial to think of this meeting as the beginning of something, not the end. It can be the launching of a multipart dynamic that takes on a life of its own, opening into unexpected realms of possibility. For all of the factors weighing against progress, several important ones push in a positive direction.

Chief among these is the international character of the conference. What the presence of those representatives from the more than 40 countries means is that the world community is now pressing for resolution of this problem and looking for ways to support it.

Such broad internationalization has been the key to peace in the past, most notably in Europe, where hardly anyone remembers when Germany and France were mortal enemies. The internationalization of Middle East reconciliation efforts can break the choke hold that has suffocated not only Israeli and Palestinian impulses, but those of the heretofore ineffectual negotiating partners, especially the United States.

The active Arab commitment to this resuscitating of the peace process is the single largest reason for hope. A historic transformation of the Middle East dynamic became possible when the Arab League issued its own parameters for peace in 2002, with Arab nations affirming in advance any negotiated settlement to which Israelis and Palestinians could agree. This removed an obstacle that, for example, was one of the major reasons Yasser Arafat could not quite close the Clinton-brokered deal at Camp David in 2000.

Bill Clinton's example suggests another reason for hope. After seven years of drift, during which Palestinians embraced suicide bombing and Israeli settlements vastly multiplied, Clinton focused his famous laser on the Middle East only in the last year of his term. Obviously, he was desperate to rescue his own legacy, and nearly did.

The so-called Clinton parameters - a two-state solution, with Israel recognized, most Jewish settlements dismantled, some territorial adjustments, compromise and compensation on the refugee issue, and Jerusalem the capital of both nations - still define a mutually understood final agreement.

Now George W. Bush is in Clinton's position. He, too, hopes to rescue a legacy, and has a year in which to do it. Indeed, the political woundedness of all the key figures, from Bush and Condoleezza Rice to Abbas and Olmert to the leaders of extremist-threatened Arab regimes, gives each one a transcendent motive to make peace.

And every player knows that, when a new administration takes office in Washington in 2009, another period of drift will almost surely begin, with the status quo rampant once more.

Which brings us to the final reason for hope. The status quo is now universally recognized as catastrophic for everybody. "Unless a political horizon can be found," Olmert said last week, "the results will be deadly." Deadly to a two-state solution, Palestinian hope, and Israeli democracy. Deadly to the world. By comparison, all obstacles to peace are minor.

"Obstacles," as Emerson insisted, "exist to be overcome."


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