Sun, Dec 02, 2007 - Page 9 News List

A small, slender chance for peace

There is no shortage of arguments for\n pessimism over the Middle East. But there are also good reasons not to give up hope

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

So now we know. This is what soon-to-be-ex-presidents do: Bill Clinton spent his final hours in the White House trying to patch together a deal between then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

Now George W. Bush promises to spend his last year the same way, confronting the problem that has defeated successive presidents for nearly 30 years. Will he share their fate, or could the road from Annapolis somehow, despite everything, lead to peace in Jerusalem?

The reasons to be cheerless are too numerous to count. Start at the top, with the Americans who will preside over the process, which was given a formal launch at the White House on Wednesday.

You don't have to succumb to the snobbish observation that Bush still can't quite pronounce the names of the leaders he is meant to bring together to have serious misgivings. The president promised his "personal commitment" to the Herculean task, yet he dashed away from Annapolis three hours after he arrived, leaving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in charge.

Not a huge crime, but a sign that Bush has no intention of immersing himself in the detail as Clinton did -- an effort that was surely pivotal in bringing the two sides as close as they were by the end of 2000.

It emphasized what Bush had already announced: that the US would play only a hands-off role in the core, substantive negotiations.

Officially, Israelis and Palestinians say that's fine, that in the end no one can end their conflict for them. But talks as complex as this need an involved mediator, one who can sometimes play referee, sometimes bridging seemingly impossible gaps -- and Bush has formally eschewed that role. Incredibly, the steering committee for these core talks will be headed by the enemies themselves, with no outside broker.

It's true that the US will be directly involved in overseeing the implementation of the two sides' promises under the ill-fated 2003 roadmap -- the Palestinian commitment to crack down on terror, the Israeli pledge to freeze settlement expansion -- but this hardly inspires confidence.

Bush has made such promises before: the soon-to-be appointed US monitor, former NATO commander Jim Jones, should remind himself of the fates of the Mitchell, Zinni and Tenet missions of the recent past. Troubling too is the US designation of itself as sole judge and jury of the parties' performance. It seems as if Washington has quietly killed off the Quartet, in which it took such decisions jointly with the UN, the EU and Russia.

Other weaknesses were even more obvious. Missing from the Annapolis feast was Hamas, which governs half of the territory of the future Palestinian state. They and their followers made their views known with mass demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank on Tuesday, declaring: "The only dialogue with the enemy will be with rifles and rockets."

If the men of violence were to revert to type, seeking to derail progress by launching an attack on Israeli civilians, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would respond fiercely. Several analysts I spoke to in Annapolis said Israel was "on the cusp" of retaking Gaza by force.

Perhaps Olmert would be happy to keep on talking peace with President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction under those circumstances, but could Abbas do it and remain credible in the eyes of his own people? More sharply, could Abbas really topple Hamas and ride back into power in Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank? Even Israel's sunniest officials concede that Gaza is "the Achilles heel" of the process.

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