MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
Representative sentiment about the upcoming Middle East summit meeting indicates that it is probably heading for disaster, that Palestinians have unrealistic expectations, Israel thinks it can bluff its way through, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is judged to be clueless about the Middle East. (see articles by Eran Lerman, Yossi Alpher, Ghassan Khatib, Oded Eran and Daoud Kuttab).
The most ominous signs of impending catastrophe perhaps, is that none of the sides, including the United States, appears to understand the probable consequences of failure. Even worse, since nobody can articulate the goals of the conference, nobody can say what would constitute success, and they give more or less muddled suggestions that sabotage the goals of the conference, without understanding that that is what they are doing. Therefore, Ghassan Khatib can suggest that Arab countries who don't recognize Israel should not come to the conference, without understanding that this "helpful" suggestion undermines the Palestinian Authority and makes the conference worthless in general. Some of the Israelis, like Oded Eran or Eran Lehrman, can delude themselves that some spin, like another worthless and dangerous declaration couched in destructive ambiguity, will serve the purpose of wasting time until someone else is president of the United States.
Understanding the events that powered this conference will help us understand what the goals ought to be, and what the consequences of failure can be (see also Guide to the Perplexed: the Annapolis Peace Conference. The chief overall purpose of the meeting from the American point of view, is to secure the American position in the Middle East, and the positions of what Americans perceive as their client states, and to form a coalition against extremist elements, led by Iran and its satellites The conference was fueled by a confluence of events, circumstances and policies. The first was the reiteration of the Arab Peace Initiative at the recent Arab summit. Secretary Rice wanted to follow this up immediately with a conference of Arab states and Israel, but at the time, the Arab states demurred. Apparently, the Arab peace initiative adopted or reiterated at the recent summit was meant to be a declaratory statement with no practical consequences - another diplomatic bomb dropped on Israel, to "prove" that Israel doesn't want peace.
A second factor behind the conference is the impending catastrophic failure of the US effort in Iraq. The notion inserted in the Iraq Study Group report, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem could magically make up for US incompetence in Iraq is charitably described as quaint. It reflects the anti-Israel prejudices of Ray Close who invented the idea, and of those who approved it, but the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict undeniably makes it easier for extremists to discredit the US, and it makes it harder for Middle East moderates to support US positions.
Another factor that serves as a backdrop for the conference was the alarm, in some Arab quarters, at the nuclear plans of Iran, and at the advances of Iran and its satellites in Lebanon. The fact the Hezbollah emerged intact from the Second Lebanon war and continues, along with Syria, to threaten the democracy and integrity of Lebanon, is no doubt in the background.
Finally, the violent takeover of Gaza by the Hamas represented yet another victory for extremists, and it became urgent to support the peace process, opposed by the Hamas, and the government of Mahmoud Abbas which supports the peace process.
If the conference succeeds, it could, theoretically, create a new reality in the Middle East. Everyone is invited, provided they play by the rules. Even the Hamas, as Ami Ayalon suggested, could be invited, provided they agree to be partners in the peace process. But wouldn't that be an admission that the government of Abbas and the PLO are not the sole representatives of the Palestinians? Syria already chose to opt out of the conference, and Hamas would no doubt do the same if they were invited. The conference would thus be the basis of a "coalition of the willing" build around the peace process and the Arab Peace initiative. It would establish both Israel and the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas as legitimate regional players, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the leading Arab states that calls the shots. It would get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under control and on the way to solution, and clear the decks for a concerted effort to save Iraq and counter Iranian and Syrian extremism.
The problem with this grandiose plan is that though the US threw a party for everyone's benefit, all the guests of honor are not very interested. The Palestinians would apparently rather rot for another hundred years then give up the idea of destroying Israel through right of return of refugees. The Israelis would rather hold on to some trailers peopled by fanatics then make peace with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabians perceive that the US is weak so they cozy up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and stab the moderate Palestinians in the back with calls for "unity" with Hamas. In general Dr. Rice should have understood that when you are in a position of weakness, it is a bad idea to initiate diplomatic maneuvers. The Egyptians allow Hamas and Islamic Jihad extremists to freely infiltrate into Gaza, and look the other way at the extensive Palestinian smuggling of arms, and the Americans look the the other way at the Egyptians looking the other way at the extensive smuggling. Some of this irrational behavior is no doubt due to pressures of internal politics -- making peace in the Middle East can be bad for your health -- some is due to what each country or actor may think of as legitimate national goals such as "Arab Unity" or "Greater Israel" or "Palestinian Rights." And some of it, no doubt, is due to lack of confidence in the ability of the US to back its clients and carry out its policy goals - which are never completely defined. Nobody wants to be on a losing team.
In current circumstances, it was totally unrealistic for Dr. Rice to say that the time is ripe for a Palestinian state. How can there be a state that makes a peace agreement, when a chunk of Palestinian territory and a substantial part of the Palestinian people are under the rule of the Hamas? Will there be two states? How can there be a state, when the Palestinians admit, and the Americans agree, that the Palestinian security forces are not at all ready to control terror, and are barely able to contemplate beginning ordinary police work to control crime??
Nonetheless, in certain circumstances, something could be retrieved from this conference, an outcome that at least would make some real progress toward solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict and strengthen the position of the US in the Middle East.
Everyone should understand the consequences that will most likely ensue if the Annapolis conference is a dud, or doesn't happen at all. For the United States, it will probably mark the end of their involvement in the peace process, and signal a marked diminution of US influence in the Middle East. The latter will be sealed by a rapid exit from Iraq and a deal concluded by engaging Iran and Syria. The essentials of that deal would be to give Iran a free hand in the Gulf region and Arabian peninsula, and to give Lebanon to Syria, in return for protection of major US interests such as the unimpeded flow of oil. The Americans would get their oil, the Iranians would get their regional hegemony and respect, the Syrians would get their nice Beqaa valley Hashish crop and opium routes, and (almost) everyone would be happy.
For the Palestinians, failure of the conference would mean collapse of the Abbas government, to be replaced by the Hamas, or "unification" of the Abbas and Hamas governments, under the actual direction of Khaled Meshaal and the Hamas/Syria faction. Palestinians in the West Bank, like those in Gaza currently, would then live in peace and harmony, enjoying the "benefits" of an undeclared Islamic Republic.
For the Israelis, collapse of the conference will firstly mean establishment of a Hamas terror state, de facto, in the West Bank. At that point, neither the quartet or anyone in the Middle East would be interested in maintaining an embargo against the Hamas, or able to do so. Missiles brought into the West Bank would be fired on flights at Ben-Gurion airport - the scenario predicted by right-wing anti-peace activists. Katyusha rockets, and worse, would rain down on Jerusalem. Diplomatically, Israel will inevitably be blamed for failure of the conference no matter what the facts are, and would be even more isolated than it was in 2001.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other US-backed states, if they don't come under Iranian control, will slide toward the Sunni variety of extremism.
Given the stakes, the attitudes of all the major players are surrealistic. Dr. Rice babbles about peace and Palestinian states while Islamic Jihad gangsters run loose in the West Bank, controlled only by the IDF, and Palestinians can't get into the Jordan valley. Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues insist on timetables for a PalesitinianstatewithitscapitalinJerusalem, when they have no power in Gaza, and can't even control pickpockets in Nablus. Right now, a free passage between Gaza and the West Bank, as demanded by the Palestinians, would be a conduit for bringing the Hamas and its supporters, and their smuggled arms, into the West Bank. Most of the PA officials insisting on this free passage would probably then get their kneecaps smashed and would be thrown from the tops of buildings in Ramallah. Ehud Olmert and his crew keep babbling about peace while doing everything possible to undermine the regime of Abbas that is supposed to be a peace partner. The Egyptians, the Saudis and other players do their best to undermine their own Arab peace initiative by supporting Hamas and refusing to make any constructive contribution toward a settlement. Perhaps the Iranians have been feeding everyone a new secret drug that makes them all behave irrationally, or perhaps it is just the same old Middle East.
There is a way out perhaps. The keys are in the hands of Dr. Rice and the United States.
Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000640.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.
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