Mon, Nov 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Outgoing US government invokes deja vu in the Middle East

By Joschka Fischer

Maybe history does repeat itself after all. Recent developments in the Middle East suggest that this is the case, because the situation as the end of US President George W. Bush's term draws near is increasingly similar to president Bill Clinton's final year in the White House. Both presidents, at the end of their terms, sought to resolve one of the world's most dangerous conflicts, while facing the threat that time was running out on them.

One could despair: the Bush administration has obviously wasted almost seven years, during which it could have pursued a solution. We are now back to square one: The Camp David and Taba talks -- flippantly abandoned in January 2001 -- are to be taken up again.

Still, as the saying goes, better late than never!

The Middle East conference to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, should be a forum for final negotiations between all parties, dealing above all with the establishment of a Palestinian state and its borders -- those that existed in June 1967, with some negotiated exchanges of territory -- its capital (Jerusalem), Israeli settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

It should also address questions of security, the termination of the decades-long state of war and recognition of Israel by the Arab states.

It is high time for progress on a two-state solution, because the Palestinians are increasingly losing hope of ever having a state of their own. Without it, the Middle East conflict will remain at a stalemate and violence will only intensify.

Acceptable compromises on all of these questions have been negotiated repeatedly by the parties and stowed away for many years. The only missing ingredient is the political will and strength to enter into a peace agreement.

But this very political strength is precisely what both the Israeli and Palestinian governments lack. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are very weak domestically and, given the compromises needed from both sides, they will be putting themselves on the line.

The same is true of Bush. The US government is not united behind the Annapolis initiative. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants the conference to happen and has done much to push for it. But how much risk is Bush -- without whom a real breakthrough will be impossible -- prepared to accept?

Fortunately, some taboos about what is an acceptable solution have dissolved on both sides. The parallel weakness of Olmert and Abbas has produced a parallel interest in a peace settlement. Indeed, both men hope for political survival through a peace agreement: Olmert by means of new elections and Abbas by a referendum through which he can regain ascendancy over Hamas.

So will a failed "peace of the strong" be followed by a successful "peace of the weak?"

Even as the situation in Israel and Palestine has changed, the regional political environment has seen a shift, because most Arab states today are more afraid of Iran's regional domination than they are of Israel. This development offers an unprecedented opportunity.

There are obvious pitfalls, to be sure. Olmert's room for maneuver within his party -- ?and particularly within his coalition -- is very small.

Can he make sufficient concessions on borders and Jerusalem? Similar doubts apply to Abbas. Can he deliver the security guarantees that Olmert needs, especially given the Palestinians' fear that, in the end, they will give too much, without getting back concessions on what they see as their fundamental demands?

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