Open season for peace or just mirage?

It seems to happen about every ten years. The cycle of serious US interest in moving the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to take a high profile role always in the second half of the second and final term of the US president.

It happened with Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Plan in the 1980s; it produced nothing and led to the first Intifada in 1987. Then it happened again in the late 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s second term; that produced no tangible result and, instead, the second Intifada started in 2000. And now it is George W. Bush’s turn. So everyone is braced, in case things don’t work out.

King Abdullah said publicly that the next six months are crucial for Middle East peace. Palestinian leaders are trying to patch up an acceptable government with even Syria is now playing a positive role in bringing Hamas and Fateh leaders closer to each other and to the acceptable international requirements.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been to the region, spent a little more time than usual and ensured that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to meet with her in a month’s time. In preparation for this meeting, there were also promises that the Quartet would meet in February, to fine tune the roadmap which has been dusted off and is being presented again as the only game in town.

The Israelis are also preparing themselves for the possibility of peacemaking. Labour leader and Defence Minister Amir Peretz spoke about a three-phase plan. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has her own plan and Olmert also has a plan.

All these plans talk of a Palestinian state, now that George W. Bush has made this term an acceptable one, but that is as far as it goes. A tour of the West Bank will reveal the elaborate plans for bridges, tunnels and alternate roads that aim at ensuring that the present apartheid road system (one for Jewish settlers and one for Palestinians) becomes permanent.

There is talk of a state with temporary boundaries (which Palestinians have rejected) and now we are told that there is an Israeli plan for some type of UN trusteeship which will, most likely, be confined to the Palestinian-populated areas and not for the settlements or the settlers.

For sure the current, apparently serious, US interest is not just because Bush is not running in 2008. There is the problem of Iraq, as well as the problems of Iran and some of its Arab supporters. The Bush administration, which is clearly planning to be out (or on its way out) of Iraq by 2008, is hoping to limit its losses to Iraq and therefore wants to create a buffer zone.

The Bush administration understands exactly what is needed; every Arab and European leader (including the UK’s Tony Blair) has been saying it: deal with the problems of Palestine.

Recently the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan mission has also given strong support to the need to deal with the issue of Palestine as part of a package deal aimed at allowing the Americans what they call an honourable exit from Iraq.

Therefore, the Bush-Cheney-Rice team know what it needs. The question is how much political capital it is willing to spend. Until now, only the political capital of a US president has succeeded in getting the parties (especially the Israelis) to react.

Bush and his team gave all the right signals, but it is not yet clear how far they will go in pursuing their goals and those of the world community in dealing with the issue of Palestine. Bush’s public call for an independent, viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity was an important declaration. It is not enough to support this call by words. Every bit of US diplomacy, and more, is needed to be able to try and translate this call into reality.