Hope To Fix the Peace Conference, Not Bury It

The Middle East peace conference, announced with much ballyhoo over the summer and convened by the Bush Administration, is struggling, with good reason.

The easiest obstacle to overcome is the one that’s gotten the most publicity: the talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert attempting to devise a joint Israeli-Palestinian agreement on some framework before the conference. There are many problems here, but both parties have a vested interest in making this agreement happen. Olmert needs to do something concrete to support Abbas, both in the eyes of Palestinians and of Israelis. Abbas needs to show he can get something accomplished with Israel, or his ability to hold control of the West Bank will be seriously diminished.

Yet both sides are facing increasing pressure, both internal and external, against any real progress being made. Saudi Arabia, for instance, remains noncommittal about its attendance at the conference. This is no small point. The Saudis’ absence form the conference will significantly diminish the credibility of any agreement reached in the eyes of the Arab world. But they are not going to give their imprimatur to a conference that doesn’t seem serious about addressing the Palestinians’ rights. The Saudis are also committed to try to bring Fatah and Hamas back into one unified government. This is now a long-range plan, as the Saudis surely recognize that Fatah has little inclination or incentive to pursue this goal right now. That means the Saudis have to be concerned about building relationships with both sides. Fatah is, at best, ambiguous (one might say divided) over the conference, and Hamas is strongly opposed to it. While Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has opened the discussion about sharing Jerusalem in Israel, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas has made the explosive claim that the Palestinians must retain control over the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall, an obvious non-starter. This illustrates the splits within Fatah more than anything else, as the aide, Adnan Husseini, surely knows that such a claim will never be supported even by the Arab League. Thus it should be seen as an attempt to scuttle the conference more than anything else. The Saudis need to tread carefully here.

While Hamas and Hezbollah have been vocal in calling on Arab leaders not to attend the conference, the reality that a failure of this conference will have severe repercussions, including repercussions beyond Israel and Palestine, is a much more significant force in casting a shadow over the proposed meeting. One of the purposes, from the Arab point of view, of this meeting is to put together some sort of united front to counter increasing Iranian influence in the region. For the Arab states, it is imperative that this be accomplished without military action, either by Israel or the United States. But both of those countries are not so kindly disposed to a diplomatic initiative, especially the US.

But more to the point, a failed conference will turn up temperatures all around the region. A failure is quite likely to be seen as a failed attempt by the US and Israel to push the Palestinians into an unfair deal. The consequences in the West Bank are clear; Abbas and many of his aides have already warned that internal tensions are rising and that renewed violence is a real possibility. We’d do well to take them at their word, as Israel has not removed the outposts or diminished the number of checkpoints as promised. But the reaction will not be limited to the West Bank, nor even to Gaza, where Islamic Jihad and Hamas will feel emboldened. It will very much include Lebanon, which remains in a state of political instability. A failed conference will further weaken the pro-Western Siniora government and could well lead to an intensification of upheavals there.

Israel seems to believe that something substantive might come out of the conference. The decision to seize land from four Palestinian towns in order to build a new connecting road between East Jerusalem and Jericho is an effort to ensure that the key settlement of Ma’ale Adumim remains connected to Israel. This means solidifying Israel’s control over the controversial E-1 corridor which is the connection to Ma’ale Adumim and which effectively bisects the West Bank. The current Jerusalem-Jericho road compromises the Israeli desire to keep the E-1 area off-limits to Palestinians. This seems to be an attempt to consolidate the Israeli plans for E-1 in advance of potential concessions in Annapolis.

The outlook is not promising. The crux of the problem is a familiar one: a lack of American leadership. The US is not assuming the leadership role it would need to take in order for this conference to have a chance at success. It is not enough for America to merely call for the conference and host it at Annapolis. The US needs to be active in shaping the agenda and equally active in creating the conditions that would allow for the conference’s success.

How would the US do this? First, call on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and finally take down the outposts that Ariel Sharon promised to remove (a promise that was echoed by Ehud Barak when he assumed the Defense Ministry earlier this year). The US must also push Israel for a significant reduction in the number of checkpoints in the West Bank, particularly those that are not close to the border or the settlements. Olmert cannot move on this alone–the mood of the Israeli public is much too apprehensive. He can only do it if it is in response to an American call. Next, the US needs to pressure Egypt to act more firmly to prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

It would be preferable that the US allow some channel for Hamas to participate. Since this is probably not a possibility, they need instead to find some intermediary (probably the Saudis) that can discuss with Hamas some of the ideas for resolving their situation with Fatah and how they might at least stand aside and wait to see what results from the talks. And those talks should not be completely focused on this one conference, but instead the conference should be presented as the first of a series of events that would ultimately lead to a resolution.

This last point is emphasized in a paper assembled by a collection of former high-level US diplomats under the auspices of the Israel Policy Forum. The six diplomats outlined eight points that would be needed for a successful outcome:

1. A series of meetings: Rather than framing this conference as all or nothing, the approach should be rational, recognizing that the best that can be hoped for here is something that begins constructive work toward a lasting and just agreement.
2. Work on the Israeli-Palestinian joint declaration: The US cannot simply sit back and hope Israel and the Palestinians can work out a joint declaration. If it is to have any substance, it must be the result of careful diplomacy between the two and neither the Israeli or Palestinian leadership is politically positioned (or, judging form their performances, sufficiently skilled) to come up with a substantive agreement on their own. The US must, for once, be an honest broker and help the two parties come to at least a framework of significant understandings.
3. The details of that statement: In essence, the diplomats repeat various aspects of the Clinton Parameters, Geneva Initiative and Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreements.
4. UNSC endorsement: If a substantive statement can be presented, the US must immediately ensure that the UN Secularity Council endorses it.
5. An implementation agreement: The US must ensure that specifics of mechanisms for insuring the implementation of whatever agreement is reached is in place. This was the fatal flaw of the Road Map: there was no enforcement mechanism.
6. Participation: this should be as wide as possible, including finding a way for Hamas to have input or, at the very least, to avoid disrupting the conference. It also entails ensuring that parties that may not come to this conference, such as Hamas and probably Syria, know there will be future opportunities of the results of this one make such participation more palatable to them.
7. Set a next meeting: the idea is to meet, outline long-term goals and the first steps toward them. There needs to be deadlines and a time frame and that means setting the next meeting by which time benchmarks should be met and preparations for next steps made.
8. Diplomacy: talks need to be held and the US needs to offer real incentives to all participants to both engender a supportive dialogue and make agreement a tempting prospect rather than, at best, something the various populations are resigned to.

Of course, in that last lies the problem. The key actors in pushing this forward are Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair, the Quartet’s special envoy. Neither has a track record of capable diplomacy and neither has built up solid and trusting relationships with any of the parties concerned, Israel included. It is hopeful, though, that the framework the ex-diplomats adopted would be one that could endure beyond the current administration if need be. To be sure, speaking in terms of another eighteen months before a real breakthrough could be actualized sounds grim, and even then, there is no guarantee that the next administration would be any better (indeed, current indications suggest they won’t, although I still suspect they will improve at least a little).

But the simple reality is that this administration is what we have, and we have already seen that their disengagement leads to disaster, not improvement.

The outline presented above is a good one, even if it is being aimed at an administration that disdains diplomacy in general and is not very good at it as a result. It isn’t likely they will have the wisdom to follow these recommendations. But if such a process could be put in place, it would be significant, if for no other reason than it would allow for a productive process to be framed.

That’s more necessary than it might seem. In my next post, I will be discussing what is now being presented by a far-right member of the Knesset as “the Israeli Initiative.” It is not likely to get much Israeli support, but it indicates a trend that should not be ignored, especially as it might color some of the approach of Benjamin Netanyahu if he should succeed Ehud Olmert. That such a plan as this can arise is indicative of the despair gripping the region and the problems with a vacuum being where a political process should be. The American extremists like Christians United for Israel and Stand With Us are also organizing against the conference, and their essential premise is that Israeli concessions are not to be considered. That is tantamount to opposing peace, whether or not they would like to frame it that way. But with no other hope, such views only gain traction.

The problems with the conference can be addressed and it is a mistake for those interested in peace to oppose the conference rather than push for fixing it.