The Economist (Editorial)
November 30, 2007 - 5:41pm

BETTER than nothing. For now, that is the most that can be said of the new Arab-Israeli “peace process” George Bush inaugurated in Annapolis on November 27th. After weeks of negotiation, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations did at the last minute approve 437 words for the American president to read out, but this was the sort of declaration that makes the phrase “lowest common denominator” sound generous. It commits both sides to the goal of two states but is utterly silent on borders, Jerusalem, Israel's West Bank settlements and the fate of the Palestinian refugees—all the issues, in fact, that have confounded previous bouts of peacemaking.

The pious hope of this newspaper that America's president might fill the gap was confounded too (see article). Annapolis showed that for all its woes in the Middle East the United States still has pulling power. Saudi Arabia, Syria and a dozen other Arab countries turned up. Had Mr Bush wanted to signal what sort of deal America wanted, this was his chance. Yet his own speech was almost miraculously content-free. There was the ghost of a reference to 1967 and a call for Israel to stop expanding settlements. But saying out loud (as Bill Clinton did) that the border would have to be based on that of 1967, or that the two states would have to share Jerusalem, was evidently too daring for this deadbeat White House.

So Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president Annapolis was intended to strengthen against the rejectionists of Hamas, returns to Ramallah with little to show except the promise of a year of bi-weekly meetings with Ehud Olmert. He has already met the Israeli prime minister umpteen times and they have been unable to agree on any of the substantive issues. Mr Olmert may feel that he came out better from Annapolis. But what a barren victory: how can he or any other Israeli centrist persuade Israel's religious hawks to accept the need to give ground on Jerusalem, for example, while America has a president who is not willing to make such a demand?

It is of course better that the two sides talk, even if their chances of making a breakthrough unaided are nil. Talking is better than killing. Talks might also prepare the ground for the day when America does have a president who is genuinely willing to spend political capital on Palestine. Having a peace process under way should also make it easier to take practical steps to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians.

And it could get worse

On the other hand, history teaches that the start of even unpromising peace talks galvanises the spoilers from both sides. Right now, with the Gaza Strip under the control of Hamas, the prospects of escalation are all too real. As soon as one of the many rockets that Hamas fires routinely and indiscriminately into Israel's southern towns hits a school or synagogue and kills a large number of Israelis, Mr Olmert will come under intense pressure to send his army back into the Gaza Strip, from which Ariel Sharon controversially extracted it in 2005. That could lead to a war no less brutal than the one Israel fought against Hizbullah in Lebanon last year.

In the White House, Mr Bush's speechwriters are no doubt congratulating him on a good week's work. They appear to think that simply attracting a big crowd of Arabs to Annapolis and talking loftily about an independent Palestine strengthens the region's moderates against the extremists of Hamas and Hizbullah, and the Iranians behind them. But in asking Mr Abbas to lead his exhausted and sceptical people back into the tunnel of negotiations, and neglecting to switch on a light at the end of it, Mr Bush is asking a lot of the Palestinian moderates. If they fail, he will deserve a big share of the blame.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017