In the aftermath of Secretary of State Rice’s fourth recent visit to the region to prepare for a Middle East peace conference, only the meeting’s proposed location has been decided. The situation looks quite bleak, with little to show for the efforts made to date.
Early in her visit, Rice made an effort to tamp down expectations about the conference – not a good sign – sending mixed and confusing signals. Despite, yet again, reiterating the Bush Administration’s commitment to a Palestinian state, after meeting with a number of Israeli officials, the U.S. Secretary made it clear that the Administration would not press hard for a declaration of a defined outcome with a fixed timetable for implementation – two essential Palestinian requirements.
During Rice’s meetings with the Israelis, there was no focus given to the intolerable strangulation of the population in Gaza, and only slight attention directed at the hardships being visited upon the West Bank. Even the recent Israeli confiscation of a large swath of land east of Jerusalem, in order to build a bypass road that would, in effect, complete the separation of the northern and southern portions of the West Bank, was given short shrift. While previously the U.S. had cautioned against "unilateral actions" (not quite a rebuke), at one point on this visit, Rice appeared to diminish the significance of this recent land grab, and even offer an excuse for it.
The U.S. Secretary of State made a point of meeting with many of the fractious elements comprising Olmert’s government, each of whom in their own way, laid down their objections and/or preconditions to the Peace Conference. Fearing no pressure from the U.S., each made clear what they were not willing to surrender to the Palestinians. Having followed this process for decades, it never ceases to amaze me how the Israelis are able to use their internal differences to their advantage, and to pose as the weak party always in need of U.S. support. After hearing this cacophony of Israeli voices, Rice, of course, felt compelled to offer the Israelis and their weak Prime Minister renewed assurances.
The bottom line: Israel, it appears, feels no real compulsion to respond to Palestinian requirements for peace, or to alter its behaviors. Evidence of this abounds. The above-mentioned seizure of Palestinian land for the purpose of building a bypass road, and the ongoing efforts to expand settlements while continuing other disruptive projects in the occupied West Bank make this clear. So does the intensified blockade on Gaza which amounts to cruel collective punishment.
For their part, the Palestinians and the Arab leadership who have made clear their commitment to this peace conference, and who, in fact, have much invested in its outcome, are in a bind. Without a committed American partner willing to apply direct pressure on Israel, the talks will surely fail. But failure is no option. With failure the only winners would be despair and extremism, and it is Arabs who will pay the dearest price. Already, some Hamas spokespersons are gloating, pointing at the weaknesses of "the moderates" and their "foolishness" for placing trust in a U.S.-led effort.
To salvage the situation, Arabs need to aggressively pursue an independent strategy. Instead of being passive recipients of whatever ineffectual U.S. diplomacy can deliver, and instead of allowing success or failure to be determined by the outcome of the asymmetric Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Arab principals (including, at least, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) ought to formulate and project a common position, the elements of which should include:
1) a detailed account of Israeli behaviors that are destroying Palestinian life and impeding hope for an independent Palestinian state;
2) a specific and realistic list of those Israeli behaviors that must end before any Peace Conference can occur;
3) an elaboration of the Arab Summit proposals that, instead of using vague language about "full peace for full normalization," spells out in detail what a final peace would look like and lays out the stages of implementation, in sequence, and a realistic timetable for realization of this state; and
4) a call for a postponement of the proposed meeting until Israel and the U.S. respond to this unified Arab call.
In the intervening weeks, or months, while the U.S. and Israel are shaping their response, the Arab side ought to engage in active diplomacy to press their call in the U.S., in Israel, and with the other partners in the Quartet. The advantages of such an approach are clear. It moves Arabs from the role of passive recipients to active agents, and allows them to seize the political initiative on their own behalf. Such an effort would have the additional benefit of avoiding the risk of a failed summit.
The truth of the matter is that, at the moment, the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. governments are not in the strong positions most conducive to addressing difficult diplomatic challenges. On the other hand, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi governments are in a better position. The Palestinians would do better to work in this broader Arab context, than to be at the mercy of the U.S. and Israel, especially since the Israelis appear to be in no position to move forward, and the U.S. is disinclined to push.
Perhaps instead of urging reconsideration of the Roadmap, Arab interests would be better served by developing an actual Road to Peace. More than a poorly-conceived and ill-prepared conference, an Arab diplomatic offensive, at this time, might help breathe new life into the peace process and set the table for future talks.