Slouching Towards Another Mideast Summit
At one end of the table, you'll have President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is locked in an internal power struggle with his legitimacy to represent the divided Palestinian Authority in question. He has called for new elections to try to defeat Hamas, which has already unsurprisingly rejected the concept of a three-way meeting. At the other end, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He has a 14 percent approval rating in Israel and is facing criminal investigation. He is also dealing with the resignation of his chief of staff Dan Halutz over the repercussions of the Lebanon war, and subsequent calls for him and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to follow suit.
And in the middle - Rice -- or another representative of the Bush White House, which has virtually no political or military capital to spend as Middle East broker. This administratin is currently putting all of its diminished energy on Iraq and Iran, with little left to use pushing either side to take any significant risks for peace.
All in all, a pretty motley crew to attempt to work towards a permanent settlement of the world's most thorny conflict.
One has to ask how anyone could hope that such a group could come even remotely close to anything resembling a peace accord. Under the circumstances why would they would bother trying.
Rice seems to be quite aware of this reality. Indeed, if the Secretary of State were to lower expectations for the get-together any further, they would be subterranean.
Speaking to the press in Kuwait, Rice carefully distanced herself from ownership of the whole idea of the meeting, stressing that the summit "was Abu Mazen's idea...let me just make that very clear."
She then recounted to the gaggle of the reporters that the Palestinian leader had asked for "informal talks" with Olmert and the U.S., and that when she turned to him, Olmert had agreed. So, she seemed to be saying, who was she to stand in their way?
You might imagine that if Rice thought there was a real chance it would work, she would try to grab a little credit for the concept. Instead, knowing of its non-existent potential for success, Rice played it down:
"When people have not talked about things like this for six years, I think it takes a little time to build some confidence. It's also the case that we do hope, or I do hope, that it will also reinforce and lend momentum to the bilateral negotiations or talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis that have to deal with very difficult and concrete issues. And it's partly been Abu Mazen's view, which I think I agree with, that in order to keep making progress on these concrete issues which require things like movement, of checkpoints, and working on money transfers and the kind of day-to-day, that there would be momentum lent even to that by having talks about a broader horizon. "
Continuing the policy of obfuscating reality, Rice's aides are spinning the press that this is a meaningful shift in policy.
Until now the Bush administration has been committed to the internationally conceived step-by-step "Road Map," which requires concrete confidence building measures - like a crackdown on terrorists on the Palestinian side and a settlement freeze on the Israeli side. If the Road Map is to be followed, only then can talks be held on the more difficult long-term issues such as borders, Jerusalem and the right of return.
But with the ascent of Hamas, Abbas is unwilling, and some say unable, to do the former and the Israelis are refusing the latter without a major quid pro quo. In additon, with kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit still in Palestinian hands, Isreal is not in the mood to make any major concessions. So far the "Road Map" is the "Road Map to Nowhere."
If you can't get interim steps working, why would you bother trying to reach an agreement on final status first? If you did you'd be taking on on issues that eluded Clinton, Barak, and Arafat in 2000 - who, while they weren't all in the best of political shape, were in a much better position than Bush, Olmert and Abbas?
Logically, you wouldn't.
The real reason for the attempt to appear as if the U.S. responded positively to the Abbas plea to talk about the big picture -- a final settlement, a Palestinian state and the right of return -- has little to do with logic or with its actual chances for success. The true explanation lies in the second paragraph of the Washington Post's story on the announcement of the meeting.
The Post reported that announcing talks "would signal deepening involvement by the Bush administration in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a time when Rice is seeking greater support from Arab leaders in helping to stabilize Iraq."
In the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group on Iraq (remember that?) the administration was pushed to get involved with the Middle East peace process to help win Arab support for the Iraqi government and curry favor in the Arab world.
The report specifically recommended that, in order to move forward in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the US to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon and Syria, and President Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine." The report also stated, "This effort should include - as soon as possible - the unconditional calling and holding of meetings under US or Quartet auspices between Israel and Lebanon and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and the Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel's right to exist) on the other."
Since Lebanon and Syria aren't interested at the moment, that leaves the Palestinians (minus the ruling Hamas party) to assist the U.S. in pretending there is an actual shot at resolving the conflict and that the United States is doing something about it.
In short, appearances seem to be the point here. That along with the mistaken impression that this will somehow help the U.S. position in the Arab world vis a vis Iraq.
It is not. It is a chimera. As analyst David Makovsky has pointed out, the idea that if the Arab-Israeli conflict is the source of all Mideast strife is a myth. He noted in the Jerusalem Post: "The 2000-2004 intifada did not cause a single Arab regime to fall; al-Qaida prepared its plots at the height of US peacemaking in the Middle East in the 1990s. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq's Anbar province is not driven by the dynamics of Israelis and Palestinians."
Proposed at the worst possible time for all three leaders, intended to solve a problem it can't solve, the three-way is little more than window dressing for three troubled governments. And while a pleasant surprise (it would be a shock, really) in the form of true movement towards Israeli-Palestinian settlement would certainly be welcome, none of the parties sitting of the points of this three-way triangle are holding their breath.