Outside editorial: U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process looks shaky

Posted: Monday, November 26, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose to plunge into Mideast peacemaking earlier this year because, she said, she saw an opportunity in the rise of a moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank and a common interest of Israel and many Arab states in checking Iranian-backed extremism in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Yet exploiting that opening is proving excruciatingly difficult. The Bush administration is expecting some 40 countries to attend a meeting Tuesday in Annapolis that is meant to kick off intensive negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But the two sides have been unable to agree even on a statement to be issued at the meeting, despite extensive negotiations in recent weeks. Several of the Arab governments whose support Ms. Rice is counting on confirmed their attendance only after a conspicuous show of reluctance.

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The meeting, at the U.S. Naval Academy, may yet serve the modest purpose of providing an international blessing for the first formal Mideast peace process in seven years. But events of the past few weeks have tested Ms. Rice's notion that conditions in the region now favor the two-state settlement that President Bush has endorsed.

In private meetings Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have broadly agreed on some of the principles of a peace accord. In practice, their negotiating teams have bogged down in the decades-old disputes that have blocked every previous peace process, such as sovereignty over Jerusalem and whether Palestinian refugees will be allowed to settle in Israel. Ms. Rice tried to push the two leaders to take concrete steps before Annapolis, hoping to compensate for the absence of a far-reaching agreement. Both sides responded haltingly. Palestinians deployed a few hundred police in one West Bank town in a gesture at taking over responsibility for security; Israel released 441 of the more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds.

The response of the "mainstream" Arab governments that Ms. Rice hoped to marshal has been even more disappointing. Saudi Arabia, which claims the Palestinian cause is a top priority, has persistently declined to support the new U.S. effort, either through substantial support for Mr. Abbas's government or overtures to Israel. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal announced his attendance at Annapolis only on Friday - and then only after making clear that he would not speak or shake hands with Israeli attendees. Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, will attend the meeting but has recently played a distinctly negative role, allowing Hamas to smuggle large quantities of weapons and other supplies into Gaza.

If there are causes for optimism, they lie in the hopeful public rhetoric of Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas - and the fears that lie behind it. Mr. Olmert has publicly pledged several times that Israel will negotiate seriously, and he said last week that he believed there was a chance to complete a peace deal by the end of next year. His government, like many in the Middle East, is deeply worried by Iran's attempt to expand its influence throughout the region and believes a failure of the talks would play into Tehran's hands. That prospect may be enough to produce some progress at the Annapolis meeting and in the months to come. But the breakthrough that Ms. Rice thought was possible still looks remote.

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