November 27, 2007

Bush: You Know It Don't Come Easy

George Bush wants to push for a negotiated settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before he leaves office in 2009, but doesn't want to inflate expectations to the extent that a failure would provoke renewed violence in the West Bank. His opening remarks reflect the tension between those goals, imploring world leaders to work against the extremists while noting the difficulties ahead:

President Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday at the Annapolis conference that the time is right to relaunch Mideast peace talks because "a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East."

Bush said it won't be easy to achieve the goal of creating two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace after decades of conflict and bloodshed, yet he urged the two sides to work together for the sake of their people.

"Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is the key to realizing their own, and both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state," Bush said in remarks released by the White House. "Such a state will provide Palestinians with the chance to lead lives of freedom, purpose and dignity. And such a state will help provide Israelis with something they have been seeking for generations: to live in peace with their neighbors."

After months of frantic diplomacy, top officials from more than 40 nations were converging on this historic state capital for what Bush said he hopes will launch of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years.

The world has changed significantly in the intervening seven years. Yasser Arafat died, and his movement has fractured into several pieces. The Israelis could only fight Hezbollah to a draw in the north. Hamas has conducted a coup and grabbed Gaza, effectively eliminating them politically in the West Bank, where Israel and the Palestinians are interwoven more intimately. Both Abbas and Olmert suffer from considerable political weakness, which makes them simultaneously less effective and more amenable to negotiation.

Arab nations face other challenges, too. The US intervention in Iraq has challenged the status quo of southwest Asia, but more significantly, the Iranian bid for nuclear hegemony has shuffled priorities for the primarily-Sunni nations at the summit. Israel is no longer their biggest worry, and the Palestinians matter even less than they did in 2000.

So will this conference finally find a resolution to the conflict? Will it even outline the path to such a resolution? Not unless the Arabs have finally resolved to live in peace with Israel. As Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis put it yesterday, the conflict is either existential or a border problem. If the latter, then this kind of conference makes sense, and should resolve the issues relatively quickly. If the former -- if the Arabs simply cannot live with a Jewish state in the region -- then all of the conferences in the world won't solve the underlying problem.

Why hold the conference, if that's the case? The pragmatic reason is to build support for other American initiatives in the region. The idealistic case is that the more diplomatic contact the Arab nations have with Israel, the more likely they will see coexistence as a possibility. With Iran looming as a threat to their power, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan understand that the Israelis have higher priorities than meddling with their regimes.

In the end, however, either there will be all-out war or a negotiated settlement. Rather than assume the all-out war, a diplomatic conference at least gives everyone a chance to check the scorecards after seven years of silence. If the Arab nations accept Israel, then the conference can start looking at the border questions. If not, we know where the problem still lies.


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