October 15, 2007

Is Rice Right?

Condoleezza Rice told reporters this morning that the time has arrived for a Palestinian state. She defended the launch of the latest American-sponsored peace conference by asserting that the administration had "better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," and that the conference could make real progress towards resolving the decades-long standoff:

Secretary of State Condoleezza said Monday it was "time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," and described Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts as the most serious in years.

An international peace conference expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., in November has to be substantive, Rice said at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," she said.

Israelis and Palestinians, Rice added, are making their "most serious effort" in years to resolve the conflict.

"Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," she added.

Right now, it doesn't even look like the time for the conference, let alone the establishment of the state. Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert have begun squabbling over a preliminary document for the conference. Abbas wants a detailed agreement on several of the most contentious points, while Olmert wants a more generalized set of principles on the table before negotiations begin. Abbas has threatened to skip the conference if the matter is not settled, which would make the entire exercise moot.

However, Rice has a point. The problem with prior attempts at estabilishing the state on the West Bank that most people agree will have to come to resolve the conflict was a lack of Palestinian incentive for that solution. The Palestinians wanted it all, Israel included, which made any attempt at a deal worthless. Many of them still do, and the question will be whether Abbas is one of them.

Abbas has a different set of problems now than Yasser Arafat did. Arafat held unquestioned power while he ran the PLO; not even Hamas dared to seriously challenge him for it. That came in part because Arafat wanted what Hamas wanted, which was the destruction of Israel. Hamas suspects that Abbas may not be as willing to be an all-or-nothing leader, and the Palestinians agreed, at least in large part during their elections.

Since Hamas conducted a coup in Gaza, however, Abbas has an opportunity to work with moderates within the more secular Fatah movement. He could strengthen his position by bringing in billions of dollars in aid by agreeing to the Palestinian state in the West Bank. If the conditions are favorable enough, the Gazans will reject Hamas and finish them as a political force in order to share the wealth.

Will Abbas take the deal? Perhaps, perhaps not. But Rice is correct in saying that this may be the most propitious moment for peace since 1948, if he does.


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