The long haul

November 29, 2007

Yesterday, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met at the White House in a symbolic first session of what is supposed to be a yearlong series of negotiations toward a final settlement in the Middle East. It was the first fruit of Tuesday's Annapolis summit, and though there may not have been much to it, there is at least the promise of a more substantial harvest down the road.

But if Annapolis turns out to have been nothing more than an end-of-term gambit by President Bush, it will come to nothing. The United States has signed on as arbiter of the negotiations, and success will require considerable effort and skill on the part of the Americans, starting with James L. Jones, a retired Marine general named yesterday to act as liaison between the two sides.

The deadline - dictated by the end of Mr. Bush's term - may help concentrate Israeli and Palestinian minds on reaching a settlement. But at root it's artificial, and it would be a shame to subject something as significant as genuine peace in the Middle East to the specifics of the U.S. political calendar.

That these negotiations will be taking place during the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign - and all its inevitable broad-brushing and pandering - is bad enough. That's why it would be useful if the current administration as well as the candidates for president began now to think about how to build on any gains that may be in place if, as seems entirely likely, a resolution is not in hand by Inauguration Day.

A great deal of bargaining lies ahead, all of it difficult. Jewish settlements, security and water are big issues. There is no discernibly acceptable middle ground for the two sides on these questions.

But a different sort of question has to do with political strength and legitimacy. Ehud Olmert is hardly Israel's most popular or inspiring prime minister. Mahmoud Abbas is known as the Palestinian Authority president, but that doesn't count Gaza, where Hamas is in control. Mr. Abbas is the man Washington has chosen to support, but he may not have the backing at home to pull off a compromise.

In fact, any resolution, to be effective, may have to wait until the Palestinians have overcome their internal divide. Neither Mr. Abbas nor Mr. Olmert may be in office to put his signature on a final settlement. That goes for Mr. Bush, too. But everything will depend on how they perform their jobs in the months ahead.

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