Waiting for the November Middle East Peace "Conference"

With less than two months remaining before the still-unannounced November date for the Bush Administration’s much-discussed but as yet undefined Middle East Peace "Conference" (or "Meeting"), a lot of heavy lifting remains to be done.

In addition to the date and venue, neither the invitation list nor the agenda have been clearly delineated. This would not be so problematic if the region were not so roiled and expectations for the meeting, at least among some, so high.

For reasons that are the subject of great speculation (some suggesting legacy, others Iran, etc.), President Bush announced back in July his intention to convene this meeting. In the intervening months, expectations, in some quarters, far out-paced performance. With Iraq in tatters, warnings of an attack on Iran in the wind, the deplorable situation of Palestinians a continuing concern, and U.S. standing remaining quite low, America’s friends and allies in the region had at least some hope of a change in U.S. policy.

Expectations were, in this case, partially fueled more by hope than anything else. With a little over a year left to the Bush Presidency, and with so much made unsettled and left unsettled by U.S. policy and neglect, there were those who allowed themselves to believe that the Administration was intent on finally resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

But peering through the mist created by hope, reality tempered expectations. The Israeli government was in a weakened state, perhaps too weak to take risks and make concessions for peace. The Palestinians were deeply divided and in no easy position to make compromises. And the Bush Administration, itself, was struggling at home, without a history of bold or aggressive diplomacy. Nevertheless, there was hope.

Success on the Israeli-Palestinian track, it was believed, could change the dynamic in all three situations. Real Israeli concessions, dramatic changes in the lives of Palestinians, and a clear and definable path toward an independent Palestinian state would strengthen the position of President Abbas and Prime Minister Al-Fayyad while weakening the hand of their opposition. In turn, the changed international and regional climate resulting from significant Israeli concessions and movement toward a genuine two-state solution would bring real benefits to the Olmert government. And, if all of the above were accomplished, President Bush would, no doubt, achieve a much-needed diplomatic and foreign policy victory – the first of his troubled tenure.

But in the three months since the "Conference" was announced, progress has been too slow and despite the hopes invested in the effort and the sense of urgency in its outcome, the Administration and Israelis moved to tamp down expectations – not a good sign.

By now, Secretary Rice has made a number of trips to the region with little to show for her efforts. She may have made, as some suggest, "quiet progress," but I’ve stopped believing in magic – especially in peace making.

In contrast, recall sixteen years ago how then-Secretary of State James Baker approached the lead-up to the Madrid Conference. The goals that were set were much lower (maybe too low), but the public pressure Baker exerted on all sides was exemplary, transformative, and productive.

Despite the fact that the clock is ticking down, time still remains for a breakthrough by November. All of the elements of success are connected. The list of attendees will be determined by the agenda, which will in large measure be shaped by the ability of the principals to agree on a way forward. And this, given the situation of the Israelis and Palestinians, will be dependent upon the degree to which the U.S. uses its political and economic muscle to hammer out an agreement.

Left alone, the Israelis and Palestinians cannot make the progress needed. Even the best-case scenario that has been leaked is not enough. What these suggest are Israel’s intentions to freeze settlements (yet again – by my count this would be their fifth such pledge), free some prisoners, remove roadblocks and ease passage for commerce (again, an old, yet unfulfilled, pledge – though always welcome) and agree to a general statement of principles with the Palestinians. This will be a non-starter, not enough to draw broader Arab involvement, and maybe not even the Palestinians.

What is needed is much more. In addition to freeing prisoners, freedom of passage, removal of all road blocks, checkpoints, outposts and a roll-back of settlements, is a clear and detailed definition of the final outcome (like the Geneva Accords) and a definite time table to get there.

It is not too late for this to occur, but we’re running out of time, with much work remaining to be done, and with no choice but to get it done. The consequences of failure grow with each passing week.