Not Madrid, not Oslo, not yet

October 03, 2007

The date hasn't been set. There is no firm guest list or agreed agenda. A site has been chosen, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but that decision doesn't offer much assurance that the Bush administration's Middle East peace conference proposed for November is going to take place. There are too many unknowns at this late date, and a stark difference of opinion exists between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the meeting's expected outcome.

Neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor President Bush has offered any clarity on that point. And it's critical, because without some consensus on the goal for the talks, without a framework, the risk is great that one side or the other - and most likely, the Palestinians - would walk away from a meeting defeated. That would just reaffirm hard-liners' insistence that negotiations will never yield Palestinians their state.

For now, no one should consider the city of Annapolis as peace proponents once did Madrid or Oslo.

The Bush administration, so far, has taken a hands-off approach to the work of trying to resolve the 40-year conflict at a conference, even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet (as they plan to today). But it's clear from what Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas have said publicly that they want different things from this meeting. Mr. Abbas insists on some agreement on core issues for Palestinians - an independent state, the future of Jerusalem, the status of refugees. Mr. Olmert has spoken in broader terms of a "declaration of intent" for what would come later.

This is not a matter of semantics. Their differences are real because Mr. Olmert may have a tough time selling anything more than a declaration to his constituency and Mr. Abbas risks empowering his enemy, the militant group Hamas, without some substantive gains. Mr. Olmert has taken several steps to show Israel's good faith, including the recent release of 86 Palestinian prisoners, but his political standing is low and Hamas continues its rocket barrage of southern Israel from Gaza.

Ms. Rice can't take a "if we invite them, they will come" attitude. She has to persuade key regional players - the Saudis and Syrians - to attend and contribute. She also has to foster an environment and the kind of dialogue and compromise to produce a document of some merit, one that Israelis and Palestinians can bring home for discussion. If neither she nor the White House is willing to do that kind of hard work, they should forgo the conference. Another photo-op won't serve anyone's needs.

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