Terry Walz: Stop Gap Peace Talks?

By Terry Walz

The lurching and heaving by the U.S. on the path to an upcoming international Middle East peace conference is baffling those who have long hoped for an end to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Never has a conference been so peculiarly and fitfully envisaged and planned, with so many pieces deliberately left out of place at such a late date. This is beginning to resemble grand guignol entertainment, with Mother Rice pulling the strings of America’s various puppets – Ehud, Tzipi, Mahmoud, Tony and, of course W – and one wonders what horrors will be left on the stage when the actors move off.

Part of the problem is that so many of the main characters are deeply flawed. Condoleezza Rice’s track record is getting the Israelis to concede anything to the Palestinians is negligible. Her half dozen excursions into the Middle East are often misunderstood by both Israelis and Arabs. Her strategic vision is tied too closely to the Israelis and the neocons, to which she is neonatally linked. Tony Blair was President Bush’s greatest backer in Iraq, and his reputation in influencing the President’s thinking on Palestine is remains unapparent. Now it is thought he doesn’t enjoy Israeli support, so the hand he may be dealing at the conference could contain unexpected jokers. Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, are part of a government that has little popular support in Israel. Mahmoud Abbas relies on what have thus far been meaningless concessions from Israel to bolster the feeble support he enjoys among his own people.

A month before the conference is supposed to open in Annapolis, the invitation list remains undisclosed. For a while it was thought Syria would be invited; then the Israelis found a link with North Korea and secretly bombed an undisclosed site – so an invitation may not be forthcoming after all. In any event, President Bashar al-Assad recently announced Syria would not come even if it did receive an invitation unless the Golan Heights was on the agenda.

Close Bush ally Saudi Arabia may or may not attend, pending the substance of the agenda, which remains unknown. Lebanon may be invited, but its government is being challenged to the core by Hizbullah, which is not invited. For sure, Hamas will not be invited, and in an extraordinary irony, the Israelis, with the backing of the U.S., have declared the area a "hostile zone," threatening even to cut off water and electricity. A substantial part of the Palestinian electorate, whose fate the conference will decide, is being besieged.

Even a group of Israeli writers have called for negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas at the same time as negotiating a peace with the Palestinian Authority.

Given such a cast and set of circumstances, how can the conference be allowed to proceed?

Three former assistant secretaries of state for the Near East – Tom Pickering, Edward Walker, and Robert Pelletreau – nevertheless offered suggestions two weeks ago to Secretary Rice on how to enhance the murky outlook. The text is available on the Israel Policy Forum website and is ably discussed on Daniel Levy’s blogsite, Prospects for Peace. Among its several valuable points, their proposal urges Secretary Rice to extend an invitation to Hamas, and to set up constructive steps that would encourage the leadership to buy into a peace with Israel. It also suggests that the conference not be a one-shot meeting, as Camp David II was, but that it be broken up into several meetings, staged over time, allowing the contending parties the time to negotiate more substantially with each other. Finally, they propose a mechanism for the continuing conference, making sure that proposed steps are followed up.

The Israelis now seem to embrace this idea and are speaking of a negotiation spread over the period of a year. Prime Minister Olmert mentions the willingness of the Israelis to make concessions, but this may merely be an attempt to strengthen his hand in the Knesset without revealing his hand, which could be bitterly opposed. More tellingly, Foreign Minister Livni has talked over the last several months about the need to lower expectations. Is she setting the stage for a non-event or are the Israelis really interested in making a deal?

Actions speak louder than words, of course, and while they press a peace agenda and proclaim Mahmoud Abbas and Salim Fayyad acceptable "peace partners," the siege of 1.4 million Gazans proceeds unabated. The Israel Defense Forces moved into northern Gaza and launches regular attacks against "extremist" positions, causing death and injury to civilians. Twelve Gazans died in the last two weeks of September. Qassam rockets are lobbed into Israel, but rarely injure anyone while they increase fear and make retaliation popular. The wall continues to be built separating "Arab" and "Jewish" Jerusalem – for the latest reports, see B’tselem, the Israeli human rights group. Land continues to be confiscated by the state to build roads. Since the beginning of the year, 450 Palestinians have died, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Up to 10,000 colonists, according to the reports of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, have moved last year into Jews-only settlements on the West Bank and Jerusalem.

What then can anyone expect from such an international conference? While any effort to bring peace to the region must be embraced, it can only be hoped that the invitation list, the agenda, the scope of the talk, whatever emerges from the meeting will not be a repeat of Oslo, which also entailed a series of follow-up meetings. Oslo had the great bonus of bringing back the nationalist leader Yasir Arafat. Who can the new international conference produce who will mean anything to the Palestinians?

-Terry Walz is CNI Staff (The Council for the National Interest Foundation – www.cnifoundation.org)

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