The Middle East Summit
How low the peace process must sink if that's so
[Talk about a provocative cover-slash-suggestion. How desperate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become, if its only chance is the one president who has shown more indifference to the process than any in memory, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan. For more on the subject, see also my "Annapolis Inanity: O Bethlehem."pt]
George Bush is not likely to be remembered by history as the saviour of the Middle East. He botched Iraq, dropped his democratic “freedom agenda” when the Arabs started voting for the wrong people, and has spent most of his two terms more or less ignoring Palestine. On this last front, however, he now has an opportunity for redemption.
If all goes to plan, Mr Bush will preside on November 27th over a peace meeting in Annapolis, Maryland. Expectations of this one-day event are at rock bottom. Nobody foresees much more than some bland speechifying and a photo-opportunity. And yet, if he is bold, Mr Bush has it in his power to turn Annapolis into a significant step towards peace. All he has to do is pluck up the courage to make the right speech.
That may sound like a wild claim to make of an event already shrouded in defeatism. This is a party nobody is thrilled to have been asked to. Ehud Olmert is going because an Israeli prime minister cannot leave an invitation from the White House to curl in the in-tray. Mahmoud Abbas is going because after losing the Gaza Strip to Hamas he must show that he is still president of Palestine, if only in the eyes of the great powers. Not even the hosts seem excited. Condoleezza Rice, America's secretary of state, is a genuine if late convert to the idea that America can budge things in Palestine. But the rest of the administration appears to see Annapolis as a way to roll out the customary pieties on Palestine and so make it easier for America to line up its Arab friends against Iran.
Worse still, these modest ambitions have shrivelled as the day has neared (see article). Plan A was for Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas to talk to one another before Annapolis and make a joint declaration when they arrived. To give the Palestinians what Ms Rice calls a “political horizon” (ie, hope) this declaration was supposed to go beyond Mr Bush's oft-repeated but ephemeral “vision” of an independent Palestine and fill in the vital missing detail on borders, refugees and Jerusalem. But although the two sides have indeed talked in recent weeks they have not bridged their longstanding differences.
That is no surprise. With Hamas snapping at his heels, it would take immense courage for the timorous Mr Abbas to modify the Palestinians' mantra: a state on the 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem and the “right” of the refugees of 60 years ago to return to what is now Israel. And although Mr Olmert is at least the prime minister of a functioning state, he governs in coalition with men who hate the very idea of an independent Palestine and have worked sedulously to tie his hands. Polls show that many Israelis long to be rid of the Palestinian territories. But even they wonder how they can trust Mr Abbas's ramshackle Palestinian Authority to police a state when it has already lost Gaza to the rocket-firing rejectionists of Hamas and might well lose the West Bank too.
In the absence of a pre-Annapolis meeting of minds, America has therefore moved to Plan B. There may still be a joint declaration, but it will be vague. It will pay homage to the principle of two states and recite the relevant, long-ago United Nations resolutions, which both sides know by heart but interpret differently. The two sides may then promise to sit down together the day after Annapolis to talk about borders, refugees and Jerusalem, with the hope of reaching agreement within a year. In the meantime, Tony Blair, in his new guise as the UN's midwife for Palestine, will set out his plans to strengthen the economy and institutions of the West Bank in preparation for the independence that will come, some day.
Are such modest aims worth going to Annapolis for? Just about. If Mr Bush gets the Saudis and Syrians as well as the Egyptians and Jordanians to show support in Maryland, this may boost and embolden Mr Abbas, at least for a while. If Annapolis leads to economic help and makes Israel free up movement on the West Bank, the life of many Palestinians will improve. If talks about borders, refugees and Jerusalem really do start right away, this will be a change: Israel previously cited the “road map” of 2003 as a reason to pickle final-status negotiations in formaldehyde until the PA uprooted the Palestinian militias. And if Israel honours its own obligation to freeze settlement in the territories, this may persuade some of the Palestinians who have good reason to doubt it that there will still be room one day for a state of their own.
Plan B, in short, is probably better than nothing. But if he dares, Mr Bush has it within his power to make Annapolis so much more. He cannot bring a free Palestine into being at a stroke, or even within the final year of his own presidency. The Israelis are right to say that the divided Palestinians are in no shape right now to govern a state: at some point Hamas has first to be bullied, bribed or cajoled into accepting Israel's permanence and joining the peace camp. But Annapolis does offer Mr Bush the perfect chance to make a speech that could set the Palestinians fair on the path to statehood, and leave America's next president in a far better position to finish the job.
In this speech Mr Bush needs to set out forthrightly America's own plan for dividing Palestine. That would mark an historic change. In the past—in Madrid in 1991, for example, and at Camp David in 2000—the Americans asked the Israelis and Palestinians to thrash out their differences on their own. But they can't. The gap is too wide, and even when their respective leaders want to narrow it neither dares move towards the other for fear of the uproar from the ideological bitter-enders at home. The existence of an American blueprint that commanded international support would, however, immediately transform the political dynamic of both societies, fortifying the moderates and pushing the hardliners to the margins.
Although it would be too much to expect Mr Bush to unfurl a map at Annapolis, he could come quite close. For a start, he should make it clear that when America talks of a two-state solution, it has in mind a border based on the pre-1967 line. Three years ago Mr Bush said in a public letter to Ariel Sharon that it would be unrealistic to expect Israel to evacuate all the dense settlement blocks it has planted in the West Bank. Fine. But since most settlers live close to the old border, he can now tell Israel that it cannot keep more than a few percentage points—say 5% or so—of the West Bank, and that it must offer the Palestinians land from its own side in compensation. On refugees, Mr Bush should say, as Bill Clinton did, that their right to “return” should be exercised in the new Palestine and not in pre-1967 Israel: that is a bitter pill but it is the logic of a peace based on partition. And Israel too must accept a bitter potion: Jerusalem, the beating heart of both peoples, will have to be the capital of both.
If Mr Bush gives this speech, Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas will wax furious. They might agree with him in their hearts, but if only for domestic political consumption they will have to accuse the American president of setting an ambush, bullying the little guys, prejudging the final-status issues and riding roughshod over the views and rights of the people most directly affected. These fulminations can be safely ignored. Israel and the Palestinian territories alike are full of politicians who will tell you knowingly but off the record that only a deal along the lines described above stands the remotest chance of bringing permanent peace. It is high time the superpower and the rest of the world threw their weight behind such a plan. The photo-op at Annapolis may be just the place to do it.