Terry Walz: Jump-Starting the Peace Process

By Terry Walz

Invitations have gone out to some 50 countries and international agencies involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to attend an international meeting on Israel and Palestine organized by the United States and scheduled to open November 27.  The list of invitees remains unknown as of this writing, but it apparently includes Syria and Saudi Arabia, two key countries whose attendance is needed if the meeting is to be a success.  It does not include Hamas, the political party in control of Gaza that is also backed by many Palestinians opposed to, impatient with or suspicious of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas and the never-ending process of peace-making.

Much ink has already been spilt on the possibility of success of such a conference since President Bush first announced it in July.  From the beginning, almost everyone was skeptical that, given the poor record of the Israelis in the seven years – the brutal occupation of Palestine, the targeted bombing of Gaza, and the prolonged attack on Lebanon resulting in the death of many civilians – to say nothing of the shameful and murderous occupation of Iraq by the conference hosts, the Israelis or the Americans as "peace brokers" would be in a position to offer anything substantive to the Palestinians and the Arab World that has long championed their cause.  A collection of encircled Bantustans for a country is not what Palestinians want — nor anything their friends want.

Seven or eight trips by the Secretary of State to the region, whipping up support and nudging preliminary meetings and agendas, has failed to inspire confidence about the success of the November meeting (or conference). Reports from Cairo and Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the Middle East continue to be skeptical, even up to this late date. No one is sure of the agenda, no one is sure who will attend, and no one is confident that anything positive can come out of a conference (or meeting, whatever you call it) other than an agreement to meet again.

There are arguments for and against as to whether this in itself is an accomplishment.  For those of us who have been waiting for "peace" or the "peace process" to go forward, an agreement to "process peace" is not a forward step.  The 2003 Roadmap "signposts" and "benchmarks" – designated steps that must be taken by both sides – failed miserably as a mechanism to move the "process" forward.  The Israelis (and therefore the US, and to some extent Europe) habitually found fault with the Palestinians, giving them demerits for not controlling "terrorists" and "terrorist" organizations, while ignoring the fact that the Israelis continued to provoke the Palestinians by harassing them militarily or at checkpoints, to indulge in targeted assassinations, to abscond with Palestinian lands for their colonies and their separation walls, and finally by shutting up 1.5 million of them in a ghetto in Gaza. No one was willing to understand the deep frustration of Palestinians.  No one was willing to hold the Israelis accountable.  Pushed by the Israel Lobby, Congress held the Palestinians accountable for every little act and gesture.

Therefore, to be able to gather together these untrusting, suspicious parties, along with their neighbors and interested international parties, is – if nothing else – an achievement in brazenness.  It asks the Arab World put on hold its feelings after 60 years of diffidence, deliberate neglect, bombings and even bloody invasion, and hasten to Annapolis to listen to President Bush, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel make speeches that will predictably call for peace and cooperation. If they do come, it proves at the very least the optimistic nature of Middle Easterners.

The Israelis and the Americans are now energetically bolstering Mahmoud Abbas, regardless of his lack of popular standing in Palestine, providing him with long-blocked financial aid so that he can beef up his security force. They suddenly realize that the Israeli Defense Forces obliterated the Palestinian Authority’s security infrastructure in 2002-2003. Moreover, a few more prisoners have been released, but far short of what was hoped.  Close to 12,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails, many of them on unsubstantiated charges that would never hold up in a court if they had access to the judicial system.

Whatever agreement Abbas is able to make with the Israelis in the next six months or one year – or however long the new "processing" period is to be determined – he will need to convince all the Palestinians this is the best agreement they can make.  And it remains uncertain what command he has over the Palestinian electorate.  This uncertainty must be a cause for concern of those parties guaranteeing the success of any agreement.

Olmert a few days ago promised to remove "illegal outposts" – some 50 or so trailer parks established on hilltops since March 2001, housing perhaps 1,000 colonists – but this is yet another empty gesture.  Nothing has been said about established colonies, even those that are isolated deep within Palestinian territory. Nothing has been said about the wall, or the great core issues of Jerusalem and the refugees’ right of return.  And they assume that the large blocs of colonists – in which tens of thousands of Jewish colonists live – will become an integral part of Israel in any future agreement.  It is difficult to imagine how the Israelis will be able to make further concessions necessary to conclude a satisfactory peace with the Palestinians.

During this conference, Condoleezza Rice could nonetheless make a very positive step in the right direction by recognizing the Arab League, whose recognition the Israelis have long blocked. The League continues to act wisely under the very capable leadership of Amru Moussa. Its late endorsement – due Friday at a meeting of Arab states foreign ministers – of ultimate goals of the Annapolis meeting would not be out of line.  It has expended considerable effort to coordinate the desire for peace amongst its membership, and to offer assistance in any number of disputes that have plagued the area. The US recognizes regional entities in Central America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and it is time to recognize the oldest of them all, the League of Arab States.  If Annapolis achieves anything, this would be an important step in the direction of peace.

-Terry Walz is affiliated with The Council for the National Interest Foundation (CNIF), and can be contacted at terry@cnionline.org

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