Pre-summit groundwork is critical to peace talks

All eyes will be on Annapolis, Md., as it prepares to host next month’s version of the defunct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Curiously, the Bush administration is not returning to Camp David, site of the 2000 summit hosted by Bill Clinton. That meeting, we remember, was testament to the failure of politicians to bring a peaceful end to the conflict.

Against all odds, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s hope that Israelis and Palestinians should move beyond a "peace process" and agree on a "political horizon" reflects a lesson about the failure of previous peace efforts. A "political horizon" that offers hope for peace and defines it in a way acceptable to both sides would create political momentum for implementing negotiations to succeed. Without such hope, extremist minorities — both Palestinians and Israelis, who oppose a two-state peace — will continue to dictate the agenda, as they did in destroying the open-ended Oslo peace process. Major issues such as refugee status will be relegated as unending debates over opening or closing another military check point dominates the talks.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have thus far proved themselves unable to agree on a clear "political horizon" that would break the logjam, notwithstanding polls showing that majorities on both sides would welcome an agreement along the lines of the Clinton parameters, the Taba agreement, and the Geneva Accords. In the run-up to President Bush’s fall meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are still far apart on the basic issues these former plans address — Jerusalem, settlements, borders, and refugees. To show his seriousness, Abbas, for his part, has threatened to resign if the conference does not succeed. He knows too well that a failed conference will translate into a victory for Hamas, which wants nothing to do with U.S.-sponsored meetings.

It is probably unrealistic to hope that Rice can prod the leaders to agree, in the weeks before the meeting, on a substantial outline for peace that has eluded previous efforts. My advice to our president, if he is really sincere about a successful outcome, is to announce an ambitious and unprecedented American vision of peace by defining solutions to the major final status issues and pledging determined U.S. leadership to implement this "political horizon."

This commitment would require marshalling all necessary supportive packages, including economic, diplomatic, and security-related incentives –” a matter that will inevitably require complex diplomatic wrangling well after the conference has ended. Both Olmert and Abbas would be obliged to take this decisive stand seriously. Bush must also push for a more comprehensive agreement eclipsing the vague joint "declaration of interests" statement that Olmert is seeking. The outcome must be a complete departure from procedural concessions to substantive compromises — all based on the already well-known, two-state and land for peace formulas.

There has to be a dramatic move from conceptual discussions to enforceable and practical agreements.

Bush should seek the most unequivocal, unambiguous statement possible for the advancement of Palestinian statehood. The negotiations have been stalled for so long that a broad-brush declaration will do nothing to change the status quo. However, setting concrete, achievable goals would lend greater chance to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process being rescued from its current stagnation. With increased feasibility for Palestinian statehood comes a boost for moderate Arab governments in the region.

Arguably, the next few weeks may be just as pivotal as the meeting in November. The message has to be clear: a real plan will be not only be worked out, but the U.S. will also vigorously pursue fulfillment of its recommendations afterwards. Such an objective can be achieved only if the U.S. forgoes its unilateralist inclinations and proactively engage other powers. By so doing, the United States can inject much needed good will and enthusiasm and ensure positive Arab and international participation into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With a successful conference and a definable path to Palestinian statehood, perhaps the U.S. can regain some of its tarnished moral authority.

Until and unless the United States views a just and comprehensive peace in the troubled Middle East as a strategic interest, peace between Arabs and Israel will remain an elusive goal. The November conference must succeed. The Palestinians and the Israelis deserve no less. President Bush’s legacy will be forever tarnished absent any such dramatic and history-changing stand.


First published by the Herald News