Tel Aviv – Wrapping up her latest tour of the Middle East with a visit to the West Bank Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice won a key concession from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: a willingness to discuss a "declaration of principles" with Israel at an international conference this fall.
Until now, the Palestinians have been arguing that a major meeting involving the US, Arab states, and Israel would be a waste of time if it didn't get into meatier issues of refugee returns and the final borders of a Palestinian state. Even with Mr. Abbas's compromise, how much the conference will accomplish is uncertain. The Islamist movement Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip and which Israel refuses to deal with, says any final deal will be impossible without its assent.
Israel's influential Haaretz newspaper quotes a senior aide to Ismail Haniyah, the ousted Palestinian prime minister and Hamas leader, as saying progress can't be made without considering the demands of his organization.
"Abbas' talks with the U.S. will continue to be no more than 'photo-ops' for as long as Hamas is not involved in the talks," said [Mr. Haniyah's adviser Ahmed] Yusef.
... Yusef added that any agreement Abbas might eventually sign with Israel will need to be approved either by a national Palestinian referendum, or in a general election. "No such event will take place, unless Hamas authorizes it," he explained. "Hamas is an important regional player and it will continue to be a cardinal player in any sort of political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians."
But Ms. Rice, who said she's likely to be back in the region for this fall's conference, insisted that the US agenda was substantive, reports the Associated Press.
"The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo opportunity. This is to call people together so that we can really advance Palestinian statehood," Rice said.
Abbas, meanwhile, said he's ready to negotiate a declaration of principles as an interim step. Such a declaration, as envisioned by Israel, would outline the contours of a future Palestinian state, without immediately tackling the most explosive issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Reuters reports that Israel still refuses to have anything to do with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization. Israeli officials are also reluctant to give more security control to the Fatah forces loyal to Abbas in the West Bank, something the Palestinian president says he needs to bolster his standing with his own people.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Rice on Wednesday that Hamas Islamists had to be "kept out of the game" while Israel explores new cooperation with the Palestinians.
... "(Olmert and Rice) spoke about future security cooperation with the Palestinians and Israel's concerns ... about transferring security control of various cities and areas, including Israel's condition that it only happen after proper security guarantees have been given," said Israeli government spokesman David Baker. "Those security concerns have not yet been satisfied," said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.
In Rice's meeting with Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah Thursday, she signed an agreement granting the Palestinians $80 million for reform of their security services.
Columnist Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz that the appearance of progress being created now is "based on an imaginary reality," given Israel's security priorities.
The basic assumption is that Abbas and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayad are too weak and will not be able to impose security and order in the West Bank. Or, as a senior Israeli official put it, they're pleasant and moderate, but hold pens, not guns, in their hands.
... For Israel, the central problem is the Qassam [rocket] fire. Israel will not tolerate having its population and airport within Palestinian rocket range. Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told officials he met that Israel would not be able to relinquish its security control over the West Bank, at least until it obtains the means of intercepting short-range rockets.
Such a project would take three to five years... Let's face reality: In the absence of an effective Palestinian security force and an Israeli Qassam-interception system there can be no significant pullout from the West Bank and handing over territory to a Palestinian state.
In an editorial, the more hawkish Jerusalem Post argues that Israel's neighbors are showing insufficient commitment to change, which it says severely undermines the hopes for creating any new peace momentum and is strengthening the position of Iran, which the paper says has "all but completed a hostile takeover of the anti-Israel camp."
In addition to helping instead of hindering the US in Iraq, the Saudis and other Arab states can take serious steps to dismantle the monster they created and continue to feed: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Attending a conference would be nice, but it is substance that matters. The key substantive things they can do is to stop their diplomatic warfare against Israel, drop their illegal trade boycotts, combat the rampant anti-Semitism in their countries, and start openly breaking it to the Palestinians that their "right of return" can only be to a future state of Palestine, not to Israel.
None of this should be seen as a bridge too far, but rather as basic steps that must be taken. Nothing less is required to start reversing the current negative momentum, which favors Iran, and shift it to where it should be, with the United States.
Writing in the Daily Star, a Lebanese English-language daily, influential columnist Rami Khouri argues that a large military aid package announced by the US this week for Israel and Arab states, which America says is key to creating the conditions for Arab-Israeli peace, is likely to be counterproductive.
The totals will approximate $70 billion over the coming 10 years. The United States justifies this as part of its policy of fighting radicalism and terrorism, supporting moderates, and promoting an Arab-Israeli peace process. It might also help the Man on the Moon learn to make really fine New York-style cheesecake as well.
... Some Arab governments remain vulnerable to economic and political stresses, ethnic and religious challenges to centralized state identities, widespread Arab skepticism with "democracy promotion" attempts, and the continued expansion of small but violent terrorist groups broadly reflecting Al Qaeda-like worldviews.
Every one of these trends is exacerbated, not diminished, by the pro-military, pro-Israel and pro-Arab autocracy policy constants the US now reaffirms and intensifies. As if to ensure that its policies will backfire and heighten popular Arab, Iranian and even Turkish resistance to the US, rather than acquiescence, Washington also routinely lumps together very different movements and sentiments in the region: the most powerful and legitimate Islamist movements (Hamas and Hizbullah), two very different state leaderships (Syria and Iran), and extremist terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
... Raising the intensity of American policies anchored in militarism, threats, sanctions and political bias will only make matters worse.