Mideast meeting needs an agenda

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- Is it a peace conference? Where will it be held, and what is its purpose?

The Bush team is supposedly organizing a major international meeting in mid-November that could revive the near-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace process and expand it to other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is deeply involved and has just been to the region to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But with November less than six weeks away, there's no firm date or venue for the meeting, and no one's certain who will attend. The Saudis, whose presence at a conference with Israel would be a historic breakthrough, say they won't come unless the gathering discusses "serious topics." Yet there's still no clear agenda.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants the conference to tackle the most sensitive "core issues" - final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee issue, water and security. Standing next to Ms. Rice last week in Ramallah, he complained that U.S. officials were too ambiguous about the meeting's purpose, which was why Arab states weren't ready to come.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, wants only to agree on a set of general principles for future talks. His poll figures are very low, and the Israeli public is skeptical about peace, as Hamas militants continue to fire rockets from Gaza, from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005.

Mr. Olmert does want to strengthen Mr. Abbas, who is a strong opponent of Hamas. He also wants to draw the Saudis into the peace process at a time when Israel sees itself in common cause with Sunni Arab states uneasy about Iran's growing power.

The Israeli prime minister is willing to float trial balloons, such as letting his deputy premier, Haim Ramon, say that Israel should turn over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal. But Mr. Olmert doesn't seem willing or able to meet Mr. Abbas' desire for a framework on core issues.

This yawning gap between the sides has left the conference without an agenda.

Leaving everything to the weak Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas seems only marginally more promising than relying on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to produce stability in Iraq. At some point, a more comprehensive strategy is required in which the United States plays the key role. Ms. Rice herself has set the bar high for success. "The international meeting has to be serious, it has to be substantive," she said in Ramallah. The meeting, she said, must "advance the cause of a Palestinian state." No hint of how.

The secretary has shifted her language about conference goals from the vague aim of setting a "political horizon" to the need to address "critical, core issues." Her efforts reflect an about-face for an administration that has bloviated about "two states" but for six years avoided investing any political capital in the issue.

With Iraq imploding and tensions rising with Iran, and with Islamists making gains across the region, Ms. Rice has finally fixed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one where the United States can improve its image. But having staked U.S. prestige, and her own, on this November meeting, the unnerving question is whether she knows how to succeed.

"The secretary is passionate, but my concern is that they still don't appreciate what it takes to do this," says Dennis Ross, the chief Mideast peace envoy under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "This will take much more time than she thinks."

If Ms. Rice wants to close the gaps between the two sides, "she will have to shuttle," said Mr. Ross. One possibility, he said, would be to combine forces with the European Union's special envoy, Tony Blair, so one of the two could always be present in the region.

Whatever she does, Ms. Rice must decide soon on her goals and match them with her means. She needs full support from the White House. Senior officials tell me "Bush is behind this." But, distracted by Iraq, will he put his weight behind a process that some in his administration still oppose?

At a time when U.S. credibility in the region is sinking, it certainly won't help if the November meeting is a bust. "The worst thing about failure," Mr. Ross said, "would be that it plays into the Hamas narrative, which says that diplomacy never works and only violence does."

Ms. Rice had the guts to finally focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. We'll know soon whether she has the will and skill to make her mysterious meeting bear fruit.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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