When the Annapolis conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ended two weeks ago, pessimists took to the commentary pages and talk shows to argue that these warring parties had been down this road several times since 1967 and that George Bush's efforts will be no more successful that previous ones in getting a peace agreement.
However, there are new leaders on the scene, and the stakes have escalated significantly since Bill Clinton failed to broker an agreement in 2000. Example are: - Palestinians are now represented by a moderate nationalist, Mahmoud Abbas, instead of the mercurial Yasser Arafat, a radical who supported terrorism against Israel. Abbas, with support from Egypt and other Arab states, is prepared to live in peace with Israel if most Palestinian lands are returned.
- Israel's current leader, Ehud Olmert, is also a moderate nationalist. He replaced the hard-line Ariel Sharon who rejected the idea that Israel must dismantle West Bank settlements in order to achieve peace with Palestinians. Olmert seems ready to make hard decisions to finally end sixty years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- George Bush, the first U.S. president to propose a two-state solution in Palestine, does not plan to participate personally in negotiations, and has designated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for that difficult assignment. Bush's approach is similar to Richard Nixon's: he designated Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, to negotiate an end to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
These leaders in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Washington face a political/strategic challenge in 2007 that has changed dramatically since Clinton tried and failed to negotiate a peace accord between Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Five years ago Saddam Hussein was Israel's most dangerous Middle East adversary. The then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, suggested to President Bush in 2002 that if Saddam's regime were removed, he would be able to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. Today Saddam Hussein is gone, a new moderate but weak government holds power in Baghdad, and Israel is out of Gaza. Instead of peace in Gaza, however, Israel faces a Hamas government there that rejects Israel's right to exist.
Last year Israel went to war in Lebanon to stop another hostile Arab organization, Hezbollah, supported by Syria, from attacking its northern border. The effort failed and Israelis have recognized that military power alone will not solve their security problems. It needs the United States' help to broker a peace agreement with Syria, and this will require Israel to return the Golan Heights, which it seized during the 1967 war.
In the last five years Iran has worked steadily, despite U.N. and European pressure, to build a capability to produce nuclear weapons. A new U.S. intelligence estimate concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but that it continues to enlarge its weapons-grade uranium production. A nuclear-armed Iran is a prospect that frightens not only Israel, but Iran's Arab neighbors, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates.
The confluence of these changes in leadership and changed strategic environment opens the possibility that this Middle East peace negotiation can succeed.
What are the prospects for Israelis and Palestinians agreeing to a settlement of their sixty year struggle for control of territory that both claim as their homeland?
The key to success is the ability of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to overcome the fierce opposition that each faces among his own population: Olmert from hand-line conservatives and Abbas from the extremist Hamas organization that controls Gaza.
The parallel may not be entirely clear, but we should recall the strong enmity that existed between France and Germany after World War II. France was unwilling to consider cooperation with the neighbor that had defeated it in 1940 and occupied its territory for five years.
With strong leadership by the Truman administration, however, these antagonists eventually forged an economic partnership that transformed Europe and led to formation of the current European Union.
Can the United States in 2008 negotiate a similar settlement of the deep antagonism that now marks Israel-Palestinian relations?
Condoleezza Rice, supported by George Bush, seems ready to exert her considerable talents during the next year to achieving a just peace settlement. But she needs strong support from Congress and the American public, and not least from the influential American Jewish community.
File last modified on Sunday, 09-DECEMBER-2007 5:50 PM EST