Hope To Fix the Peace Conference, Not Bury It

The Middle East peace conference, announced with much ballyhoo over the summer and convened by the Bush Administration, is struggling, with good reason.

The easiest obstacle to overcome is the one that’s gotten the most publicity: the talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert attempting to devise a joint Israeli-Palestinian agreement on some framework before the conference. There are many problems here, but both parties have a vested interest in making this agreement happen. Olmert needs to do something concrete to support Abbas, both in the eyes of Palestinians and of Israelis. Abbas needs to show he can get something accomplished with Israel, or his ability to hold control of the West Bank will be seriously diminished.

Yet both sides are facing increasing pressure, both internal and external, against any real progress being made. Saudi Arabia, for instance, remains noncommittal about its attendance at the conference. This is no small point. The Saudis’ absence form the conference will significantly diminish the credibility of any agreement reached in the eyes of the Arab world. But they are not going to give their imprimatur to a conference that doesn’t seem serious about addressing the Palestinians’ rights. The Saudis are also committed to try to bring Fatah and Hamas back into one unified government. This is now a long-range plan, as the Saudis surely recognize that Fatah has little inclination or incentive to pursue this goal right now. That means the Saudis have to be concerned about building relationships with both sides. Fatah is, at best, ambiguous (one might say divided) over the conference, and Hamas is strongly opposed to it. While Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has opened the discussion about sharing Jerusalem in Israel, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas has made the explosive claim that the Palestinians must retain control over the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall, an obvious non-starter. This illustrates the splits within Fatah more than anything else, as the aide, Adnan Husseini, surely knows that such a claim will never be supported even by the Arab League. Thus it should be seen as an attempt to scuttle the conference more than anything else. The Saudis need to tread carefully here.

While Hamas and Hezbollah have been vocal in calling on Arab leaders not to attend the conference, the reality that a failure of this conference will have severe repercussions, including repercussions beyond Israel and Palestine, is a much more significant force in casting a shadow over the proposed meeting. One of the purposes, from the Arab point of view, of this meeting is to put together some sort of united front to counter increasing Iranian influence in the region. For the Arab states, it is imperative that this be accomplished without military action, either by Israel or the United States. But both of those countries are not so kindly disposed to a diplomatic initiative, especially the US. Continue reading