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Associated Press – November 28, 2007
WASHINGTON – So far so good. But can Israel and the Palestinians conclude a peace agreement mostly on their own?
Time is running out for President Bush to make good on his promise of a Palestinian state.
“It is not going to be possible in 2008 unless he is going to roll up his sleeves and make it happen. I don’t sense that,” said Martin Indyk, who worked with President Clinton in an unsuccessful sleeves-rolled-up effort to make peace in 2000, his last year in the White House, between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians.
Similarly, Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Syria, said in an interview that “the American president has to be strongly involved in this effort.”
“The U.S. cannot be a passive onlooker,” said Djerejian, who is director of the Baker Institute at Rice University. “At the end of the day, the Israelis and the Palestinians have to strike the deal. But the U.S. has an essential role to play.”
Clearly, the main accomplishment at the talks at Annapolis, Md., was the decision to relaunch negotiations between the two sides.
“They delivered on what they promised,” said Aaron David Miller, longtime U.S. negotiator now at the Wilson Center. “They launched a process of negotiations. Under the circumstances, this came out about as well as it ever could have come out.”
The talks had their bright side in other ways as well. On top of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to open discussions Dec. 12 and to keep meeting biweekly on both short-range and long-range goals, the Arabs, including Syria, turned out in force to register their mostly silent approval of a settlement with the Jewish state.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, even applauded after Olmert spoke, according to a member of the U.S. delegation. “The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused too much pain and suffering and too many lives have been lost,” Saud said in a statement.
But down the rocky road ahead, the same core issues that blocked success in U.S. mediation between Israel and the Palestinians, which began with a peace conference in Madrid in 1991, stand stubbornly in the way. They include the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian demands to return refugees to Israel.
In fact, one development looming ever-larger is the division within the Palestinians between Abbas’ relatively moderate stance and the refusal of Hamas to accept Israel’s existence.
“The harsh reality (is) that Hamas is shut out of the process while poised to violently derail the entire effort,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“It is based on wishful thinking that so-called moderate Palestinian forces will be strong enough to overpower hard-liners and enforce a final agreement,” he said in a statement.
And yet, Malka said, “a majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to end the daily cycle of violence.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with frequent trips to the region, played the key role for the Bush administration in bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to Annapolis and the decision to relaunch peacemaking efforts.
Unless Bush changes course after seven years of personal detachment, the president will now leave it up to Israel and the Palestinians to find a solution to their problems. The United States intends, at this point at least, to try to generate international support for peacemaking while letting Israel and the Palestinians decide how to proceed.
Indyk is skeptical of this hands-off approach.
“There is a distance for them to travel,” he said. “I don’t think it is possible without the president being deeply involved.”

EDITOR’S NOTE – Barry Schweid has covered U.S. Mideast diplomacy for The Associated Press since 1973.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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