That a summit in Damascus of the Middle East's "axis of evil" -- Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas -- was convened immediately following US President George W. Bush's call for a conference of "moderates" to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace demonstrates once again how intertwined the region's problems are. The Damascus meeting reflects Iran's view of Israeli-Arab peace as a major strategic threat, because it would condemn it to isolation in a hostile Arab environment free of its conflict with Israel. The Iranians also sought the meeting to forge an alliance against a possible US attack on their country's nuclear installations.
The US has always known that the Middle East's problems are interconnected, but for years it got its priorities wrong, because it failed to see that if there was an Archimedean point to the Middle East problem, it was to be found in the Palestinian issue, not the "War on Terror," Iraq or the need for Arab democracy. It took Bush six years of wrongheaded policies to finally admit that "Iraq is not the only pivotal matter in the Middle East."
Bush's initiative is a last-ditch effort to salvage the US' position in a region where it is on the defensive on all fronts. It is especially ironic that, in stark contrast to his own rhetoric, Bush's call for a Middle East peace conference is a call to wage war against the party, Hamas, that won a democratic election, and to make peace with the loser, Fatah.
Nevertheless, Bush's initiative is not devoid of virtue. He has finally acknowledged the failure of the "road map," and hence the need to skip interim stages and move directly to a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, both he and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were unusually blunt in warning Israel that its future does not lie in "continued occupation of the West Bank." Bush also came as close as he could to endorsing former US president Bill Clinton's peace plan by affirming that "the borders of the past, the realities of the present, and agreed changes" will define his two-state solution.
But Bush's strategy suffers from serious inconsistencies. The conference ground rules exclude radical forces -- Syria and Hamas -- thus encouraging them to persist in their role as spoilers. It is a fantasy to believe that peace can be concluded without the radicals' participation. As long as Hamas and Syria are left out of the US-led peace process, they are condemned to Iran's orbit.
The Saudis certainly have an interest in supporting this last ditch US attempt for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, especially now that, for the first time ever, Israel has refrained from opposing an arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia. The common fear of Iran is a major consideration here. However, Saudi Arabia's willingness to participate in the conference might come with a price too high for Israel to pay: an endorsement of the Saudi peace initiative. This is the reason Rice was cautious in her reaction to the Saudis' ambiguous acceptance of their invitation to attend the conference.
Bush was right to call on friendly Arab states to contribute to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But how much leverage can he apply when they are so badly needed for his "War on Terror" and for containing Iran? Though certainly a welcome new idea, Bush's call for Egypt and Jordan to replace Israel as the gateway for Palestinian exports is most likely to be resisted. For these "moderate" US allies, peace is about Israeli concessions, not about pulling Israel's chestnuts out of the fire, certainly as long as it refuses to endorse the Arab peace plan.
The current US initiative sounds reasonable, but it is essentially unrealistic. Tony Blair, the new envoy of the Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia), has called for a "conference with substance." But Israel will be required to engage in peace talks only if the Palestinians crack down on terrorism -- that is, risk another Fatah-Hamas civil war -- and eliminate corruption.
Such a sequence -- and a conference whose harmless aim is "to review progress toward building Palestinian institutions, look for ways to support further reforms, and support the effort going on between the parties" -- fits perfectly with the Israeli view. But Palestinian militias have shown time and again that they will not give up the armed struggle before they see a Palestinian state along the lines of the 1967 borders, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital.
This is the fundamental pitfall of a strategy based on driving a wedge between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' "moderates" and Hamas' "extremists." If Abbas is to prevail, it will not be through "gestures" or a process focusing on "institution building," however important these may be. Nothing less than a full-fledged peace agreement that meets the fundamental aspirations of Palestinian nationalism is likely to give him the popular legitimacy needed to confront the radicals.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo Center for Peace.
Copyright: Project Syndicate