It appears that the Bush administration s proposed Mid-East peace conference may not be held before November 2007 – a relatively long time from now considering the volatility of the region, especially the ever deteriorating situation in Iraq and the deepening Fatah-Hamas conflict. Holding such a conference during the current turmoil would seem to jeopardize any prospects of achieving even a modest success, that is, unless the administration abandons failed policies, embraces the Arab Initiative, and has all participants commit in advance to a negotiated set of principles.
Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia s participation is of paramount importance if only because it is a leading Sunni state. But Saudi participation is far more significant as it would signal a break with the past (the Saudis have never officially sat down with the Israelis) as well as lend greater credence to the conference and to any commitments made there. Even more significantly, Saudi Arabia is the author of the Arab Initiative, which calls on Israel to return the territories captured in 1967 in exchange for a comprehensive peace.
The Arab Initiative is critical because it is exactly that: an Arab, not an American RoadMap, not a Clinton plan, and not any other peace proposal from outside theMiddle East. Because they are the authors of the Initiative, the Saudis presence at the conference will likely engender wider Arab public support thanthe conference would otherwise attract. This is why the administration mustofficially embrace the Arab Initiative, thereby not just giving the Saudis acompelling reason to be at the conference but by this, providing an opening forthem to assume a leading role in the peace process. The Saudi presence is alsonecessary since without a collective Arab will, as enunciated by the Initiativeand the cover it provides, no effort will be successful in overcoming IslamicArab militancy and no negotiation will lead anywhere. For any positive outcometo be possible, the Arab states need to work in concert, which makes theInitiative indispensable.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the conference s focus, theadministration must also make sure that countries in conflict with Israel, Syriaand Lebanon in particular, are both present and solicited to present theirpositions and demands. The administration s policy toward Syria is a failedpolicy because it has impeded rather than helped move the peace process forward.Syria is the key to a peaceful Middle East, and it is high time for theadministration to shift from a policy of regime change in Damascus to one ofconstructive engagement with Syria. Only at the negotiating table will theadministration be able to determine the seriousness of Syria s repeated peaceovertures. It is not entirely implausible that Damascus and Jerusalem couldagree on a joint declaration accepting the principle of exchanging territoriesfor a normal peace in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 andcommit to a political solution to their conflict. But before any of this canoccur, the administration must give Israel the green light to pursue the Syriantrack. Without Syria s full participation, the conference is doomed from theoutset.
As things now stand, Hamas will not participate in the conference, and while itmay be useful in the short run for the administration to demonstrate thatmoderation pays by rewarding and empowering Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas cannot bewished away. Whereas it is a given that the envisioned Palestinian state mustcomprise the West Bank and Gaza, any negotiated declaration of principlesbetween Israel and the Palestinians needs also to have a wide Palestinianappeal. Since Hamas is not expected to reform itself anytime soon, is unlikelyto die a natural death, or be forcefully dismembered, it can be made to losepopular support only if the declaration of principles deals with fundamentalssuch as, borders, a general outline of a resolution to the refugee problem, andsolid plans for Palestinian economic progress. In sum, in order to erode Hamas position the Palestinians need to see a very real and compelling vision of atwo-state solution. The Arab Initiative can play a significant role here bymaking it abundantly clear to Hamas that peace with Israel is the only realoption. If Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan and other moderate Arabstates are joined by Syria, Hamas will be largely isolated politically andincreasingly lose public support. To hammer this point home to Hamas, theadministration should insist that any declaration of principles be put to anational Palestinian referendum in the West bank and Gaza and then provide themeans, including gathering international support, to conduct such a referendumwhatever the circumstances. If the leaders of Hamas resist, they will have to befaced down. Hamas must understand its options in advance, but a referendum couldalso give Hamas a face-saving way out.
After nearly five years of war in Iraq, one would hope that the administrationhas finally moved beyond the futility of having believed that the Arab-Israeliconflict could be resolved by removing Saddam Hussein from power. It would alsobe helpful if the President has understood that the conference he has calledwill produce nothing if he continues to rely on policies that have not moved thepeace process forward. The next couple of months will show whether Mr. Bush isserious about advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process or is merely using theconference to distract public attention here and in the Middle East from adisastrous war that has cast such an ominous cloud over the entire region.
Alon Ben-Meiris a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT with his permission.