Gideon Rachman
The Financial Times (Commentary)
November 27, 2007 - 1:39pm

Last time I visited Jerusalem, I sat down with a colleague and tried to see how many Middle East peace plans and conferences we could list. Within a couple of minutes we had scribbled down Venice, Madrid, Oslo, Camp David I, Camp David II, Taba, the Rogers plan, the Annan plan, the Reagan plan, the Tenet plan, the Saudi plan, the Mitchell report, the Geneva accord and the road map.

I have lost the beer mat on which I was keeping the minutes of our discussions – so I apologise if I have missed some out. But you get the general point. The record is not encouraging.

This long history of failure hangs over the latest peace conference, which convenes in Annapolis in the US this week. Each side has its favourite explanation for why peace has proved so elusive. The Arabs accuse the Israelis of bad faith and intransigence – and reproach the Americans for not putting enough pressure on the Jewish state. The Israelis blame the Palestinians for making impossible demands about refugees and Jerusalem, and never truly cracking down on terror. The real fatalists say that it may be impossible to create two viable states in such a small area.

Given this abject record, is there any particular reason to believe that things might go better this time?

There are developments that optimists can point to. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders – Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas – seem to have established a decent working relationship. The Palestinians can see that the prospect of a viable state is receding, so Mr Abbas needs to seize the moment. His incentive to act is increased by the desire to reclaim the political initiative from the Islamists of Hamas who control the Gaza strip.

The Israelis also have new reasons to make a deal. They too want to thwart Hamas. Unilateral withdrawal did not bring stability to Gaza or Lebanon – so negotiated peace is back in fashion. Even many in the rightwing Likud party have grasped the grim demographic problem facing Israel. If it holds on to the Palestinian territories, Israel will quite soon no longer be a Jewish state. If Israel sticks with the status quo it will be an occupying power – for ever.

The other parties to the dispute also have new incentives to cut a deal. The US president George W. Bush wants to show his Middle East policy has not been a disaster. Like Presidents Carter and Clinton before him, he wants his place in history. The moderate Arab states are frightened by the rise of Iran. They need a peace settlement to cut the ground from underneath the Iranians and the Islamists.

The outlines of a two-state solution are also clear. A Palestinian state will be set up. Israel will retreat to its 1967 borders, keeping some of its settlements and swapping them for some land currently inside Israel. The Israelis will at last stop building new settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians will have to accept that the “right of return” for refugees applies only to the new Palestinian state. Jerusalem will be divided.

All of this is well known. But, unfortunately, it is probably not enough. It is equally possible to point to developments since the last failed peace rounds that make success this time even less likely.

The Palestinians are now at war with each other – and so Mr Abbas is no longer capable of delivering peace, even if he signs a deal. The Israeli experience in Gaza and Lebanon will make them even more wary of the security consequences of withdrawing from the West Bank. And there is no evidence that mainstream Israeli politicians are prepared for the political (and personal) risks of taking on the settler movement.

The Israelis might just move if placed under severe American pressure. But that is highly unlikely to happen – particularly in a presidential election year. As for the Arabs, the Saudis and others are indeed worried about the rise of Iran. But that could make them even less likely to do a deal that allows the Iranians and other radicals to scream about a sell-out of the Palestinian national cause.

Calling for “leadership” and “vision” in a situation like this always sounds empty. But that is precisely what is needed on all sides.

The Israelis need to focus on what most mainstream politicians already know: a secure, democratic and Jewish state can ultimately be achieved only through a two-state solution.

The Palestinians have to be ready openly to abandon some long-cherished but unrealistic demands – in particular, the right of return for all refugees.

Given that both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides currently have weak leaders, besieged by internal problems, outsiders have to be prepared to take the initiative.

The Saudis and other pro-western Arab states must once again dangle the prospect of a comprehensive peace settlement in front of Israel. They must be prepared to put pressure on the Palestinians, when the negotiations get tough. And they must stop using the Palestinians’ plight as a useful distraction for their own discontented citizens.

The Americans – as the conveners of the Annapolis conference – have assumed a central role. Now, they need to get serious. Mr Bush has already moved the official US position by committing America to the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Now he and his officials need to be prepared to spell out, in detail, what a peace settlement would look like.

Will all this happen? Probably not. But unless it does, Annapolis will just go down as another in a long list of failed peace initiatives.


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