A summit with varying expectations

U.S. secretary of state meeting with Israeli, Palestinian leaders

February 17, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Jerusalem today for peace talks aimed at jump-starting the Bush administration's long-dormant efforts toward creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Her meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is the beginning of a new, concerted effort by the administration to develop what Rice describes as "a clear political horizon for the Palestinian people." Instead of concentrating on short-term objectives with troublesome sticking points - such as ending Palestinian violence or halting settlement construction - Rice plans to focus on the end goal: what it will take to create a viable Palestinian state.

The summit is also part of a broader U.S. strategy to counter the nuclear threat from Shiite Iran by forging a partnership among the Sunni nations of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries. These moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, see brokering a peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a way to undercut Tehran's growing regional influence. But such a deal will require strong U.S. involvement.

The diplomatic initiative comes at a troublesome time for both Israel and Palestinians. Even before the parties sit down to talk, both sides have vastly different expectations for the meeting's agenda, raising serious doubts about what this summit can accomplish.

Abbas comes to the table once again looking to show the Palestinian people that negotiations, not the armed struggle backed by the ruling militant group Hamas, are the path to a Palestinian state.

One week after Abbas' Fatah party and the Hamas militant group reached a power-sharing agreement in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Abbas is eager to demonstrate his authority and backing of the new unity government to enter negotiations, despite Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

Abbas wants the summit to tackle the substantial issues of creating a Palestinian state, including such delicate matters as the return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

But Israel is refusing to get entangled from the start with such highly sensitive and explosive issues, which Olmert's aides say would only doom the talks to failure.

Instead, Olmert is likely to raise questions about whether Israel and the international community should enter negotiations with the new Palestinian unity government while its policies still remain unclear.

Rice said the U.S. would await the formation of the new Palestinian government before making a decision about whether to work with it. Rice acknowledged, however, that the unity government complicates her efforts at peacemaking. So far there has been no clear indication of whether the government will meet the international community's demands that the Palestinian government recognize Israel, halt violence and honor all past agreements with Israel.

Still, Rice says her goal is to show the Palestinian people what's possible in terms of creating a Palestinian state.

"I fully believe that the Palestinian people, the great majority of them, want a better life. They want a peaceful life. And they recognize that they'll have to live side by side with Israel in order to do that. And I think that's the case that President Abbas has tried to make," Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month.

Establishing a "political horizon" will help Abbas make the case more effectively, she said.

"Hamas will either have to stand against the aspirations of the Palestinian people or find a way to change their ways," said Rice.

If the talks stall, however, it would be a poor start for the new U.S. effort to form a bloc of moderate Arab states to blunt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, end Hezbollah's control in Lebanon and transform Hamas.

The initiative marks the first serious engagement in the conflict since 2003, when Bush announced his "road map" peace plan toward a two-state solution. Since then, Bush has had a hands-off approach, distracted by efforts to reshape the Middle East through regime change in Iraq and democratization.

But Rice's decision to re-engage in the conflict might be ill-timed. Rice has laid out a lofty agenda at a moment when Olmert and Abbas might not have the political clout to push through a peace deal that would require painful compromises on both sides.

Continued squabbling over the makeup of the new unity government and a fragile cease-fire between feuding Palestinian political factions have placed Abbas in a precarious position. A failed summit would only reinforce his image as an ineffective leader unable to deliver progress for Palestinians.

Likewise, Olmert, damaged by corruption scandals and investigations into his handling of Israel's failed war against Hezbollah last summer, has approval ratings of just 14 percent.

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