WASHINGTON: In the aftermath of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice s fourth recent visit to the Middle East to prepare for a 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. While the US secretary reiterated the Bush administration s commitment to a Palestinian state, she made it clear after meeting with a number of Israeli officials that the administration would not press hard for a declaration defining outcomes or setting timetables – two essential Palestinian requirements.
During Rice s meetings with the Israelis, there was no focus on the intolerable strangulation of the population in Gaza, and only slight attention directed at the hardships being visited upon the West Bank. Also short shifted was the recent Israeli confiscation of a large swathe of land east of Jerusalem, land confiscated in order to build a bypass road that would, in effect, complete the separation of the northern and southern portions of the West Bank.
While previously the US had cautioned against unilateral actions (not quite a rebuke), at one point during this visit, Rice appeared to diminish the significance of this recent land grab, and even offer an excuse for it.
The US 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 the objections to and/or preconditions for the peace conference. Fearing no pressure from the US, they 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 pose as the weak party always in need of US 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 behavior. 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.
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, a partner willing to apply direct pressure on Israel, the talks will surely fail. But failure is no option. In failure the only winners are despair and extremism, and it is the 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 US-led effort.
To salvage the situation, Arabs need to aggressively pursue an independent strategy. Instead of being passive recipients of whatever ineffectual US 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 propose a common declaration whose elements include:
– A detailed account of Israeli behavior that is destroying Palestinian life and hope for an independent Palestinian state.
– A specific and realistic list of the Israeli behavior that must end before any peace conference can occur.
– An elaboration on the Arab summit proposals that details what a final peace would look like, sequences the stages of implementation, and sets a realistic timetable for realizing the Palestinian state.
– A call for postponing the proposed meeting until Israel and the US respond to this unified Arab call.
In the intervening weeks, or months, while the US and Israel are shaping their response, the Arab side ought to engage in active diplomacy to press its call to the US, Israel, and the other partners in the Quartet. The advantages of such an approach are clear. It moves Arabs from their role as passive recipients to active agents, and allows them to seize the political initiative on their 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 US governments are not in a position 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 well to work in this broader Arab context than to be at the mercy of the US and Israel, especially since the Israelis appear to be in no position to move forward, and the US is disinclined to push.
Instead of urging reconsideration of the roadmap, perhaps 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.
James J. Zogbyis founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Source: Jordan Times, www.jordantimes.com.