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

Even if Abbas and Olmert are allowed to get on with it, there's good reason to doubt they could reconcile their differences. Negotiators for the two men worked till 4am on Tuesday and were still haggling minutes before Bush took to the podium with a text that, in the end, dodged every point of contention.

"The document could not even set out the problems, let alone state solutions," sighed veteran Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Khalidi.

It spoke of "core issues," which everyone knows means borders, Jerusalem and refugees -- but they could not find the words to say so. They could agree on a process, but are a long, long way from peace.

The negatives don't end there. Sixteen Arab states were present in Maryland, but hardly show signs of the deep economic and political engagement that I understand British officials believe could make a critical difference.

Meanwhile, some of those at Annapolis fear the sheer hoopla -- with one quarter of the world's foreign ministers present -- means that there's simply a greater distance to fall when the process fails, leading to disillusion with the very notion that diplomacy can bring results.

So there is no shortage of good arguments for pessimism. And yet, if only because such bleakness is bad for the soul, there are reasons not to give up just yet.

Those of us who have lamented the absence of a peace process for seven long and bloody years can hardly grumble now that one is beginning. Talking is always better than not talking and certainly better than killing.

The new process also has some assets worth exploiting. Sure, Olmert and Abbas are weak, but they seem to share something else, too -- a rapport which was entirely missing between Arafat and Barak.

They are not starting from scratch, but have been talking frequently for months. Nor do they have to reinvent the wheel -- the outlines of a peace settlement are already well-known, chiefly in the so-called Clinton parameters and refined in a variety of other unofficial efforts.

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon already did much of the heavy lifting in preparing Israelis for compromise, explaining that they would eventually have to give up land. That readiness has remained in "suspended animation" ever since, says David Landau, editor of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. But it can be activated when the moment is ripe.

The peacemakers have fear on their side, too. It was fear of Iran that brought most of the Arab states to Annapolis. They reckon that progress for the Palestinians will blunt Iran's appeal in the battle of Muslim hearts and minds, pushing back Iran's regional ascendancy. That degree of international support gives Abbas essential cover. With the Arab League behind him, he won't be making historic compromises alone.

Thursday was the 60th anniversary of the UN vote that sought to partition historic Palestine into two states -- one for the Jews, one for the Palestinians. It is a resolution that remains only half-implemented. Now there is a slender chance of completing the job, and surely, despite the thousand obstacles, the world has to grab it with both hands.

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