Here is my attempt to be constructive on the President Bush speech from this week - an effort to grab some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat.
It is on the Guardian Online.
Can anything good possibly come out of President Bush's Middle East speech earlier this week and the flurry of diplomatic activity that will come in its wake beginning today with the Quartet meeting in Lisbon, Portugal?
First of all, let's be clear. The speech represented more of the same failed policies with even less chance of success. Anyone who thinks that the new speech was a constructive contribution should read an op-ed by Michael Oren in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that was distributed by the official White House Jewish Public Liaison, presumably signifying that Oren's interpretation has formal blessing.
Oren, of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based, neocon-sympathetic creation of Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote the following: "Mr. Bush has not backtracked an inch from his revolutionary Middle East policy. Never before has any American President placed the onus of demonstrating a commitment to peace so emphatically on Palestinian shoulders...the bulk of his demands were directed at the Palestinians...Mr. Bush set unprecedented conditions for Arab participation in peace efforts."
I have detailed my own thoughts on the speech elsewhere, and the search for a silver lining is not an easy one. What I propose is a jujitsu move that leverages the expectations created by the speech toward achieving a constructive, if unlikely, outcome. To call this jujitsu move a long shot is an understatement, but it is worth a try. Here is how it could be done.
Despite White House efforts to lower expectations, Bush's speech did call for an international meeting in the fall that is being touted everywhere as a peace conference. In the speech, Bush committed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to chairing that meeting.
Her undoubted desire to avoid a huge flop is the point of departure. The Americans will be very keen to have key regional and international players at the table in the fall, which in turn gives the Arab states and the Quartet partners an invitation to negotiate the terms of reference for the conference should they choose to use it.
This would be the moment for the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and the majority of European states who are uncomfortable with current American policy to articulate and bargain over a new approach. It is even conceivable that Rice herself would welcome a strong stand on the part of her interlocutors in order to use such a negotiation to carry the president toward a more realistic policy.
The model for diplomatic efforts should be the Madrid conference of 1991. There is of course an important similarity, but an even more important and complicating difference - the president's name then and now was Bush. But Bush the father showed commitment and courage in advancing peace efforts, while Bush the son is not on board. Rice would have to cast herself in the role of James Baker, this time with the additional challenge of having to convince her boss, the president.
At the closing of that Madrid Conference, Baker said, "The United States is willing to be a catalytic force, and an energizing force, and a driving force in the negotiating process." Rice would have to adopt that mantle and be all of those things and more.
Baker shuttled for eight months around the region putting together the conference and negotiating the terms of reference for Madrid, which appeared in the letter of invitation and to which all sides agreed. He succeeded in creating a peace process that brought together Israel, the Palestinians, all the neighbouring states and an additional 10 Arab countries, none of whom had formal relations with Israel.
The substance of the Madrid terms of reference contained four elements, crucial to its success.
First, the effort was comprehensive, involving not only the Palestinians and Jordanians (not yet at peace with Israel), but also the Lebanese and the Syrians. Second, the terms for engagement represented at the time a breakthrough, namely the land-for-peace formula with a comprehensive settlement to be based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
Third, the letter of invitation provided a timetable for an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement. Finally, Madrid managed to bring Israel and the broader Arab world together, holding out the prospect of regional peace and acceptance that is so vital for Israelis.
Interestingly, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was in attendance at Madrid. The conference set in motion five multilateral regional working groups to build confidence between Israel and the Arab world. Politicians and experts would meet to discuss the environment, economic developments, water, arms-control and regional security, and refugees in such places as Muscat, Rabat, Doha and Tunis.
A similarly ambitious approach calibrated to today's realty is what Rice should pursue. Of course it is far from clear whether she has the appetite for such a mission or whether Bush would agree. Perhaps new envoy Tony Blair can be helpful in this regard.
Pursuing such a course would also be the implementation of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and fulfill their call for a regional diplomatic peace effort to restore American credibility and alliance-building capacity, and to deal a blow to Salafist radicalism.
The president's speech may inadvertently have issued an invitation to Europe and the Arab states to start negotiating a contemporary version of the Madrid letter of invitation. These might include detailed terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, provisions for a comprehensive, inclusive process with Syria on board, a reasonable timetable and modalities for implementing the Arab peace initiative. Forcing the frontloading of Arab deliverables outside of a broader comprehensive peace framework is likely to be a non-starter and recipe for diplomatic gridlock.
The alternative would be for this fall's meeting to resemble the January 2003 conference on Palestinian reform that was convened in London - an eminently forgettable experience.
The Madrid model offers one further clue on the way forward with regards to an even more thorny issue. At the time of Madrid, Israel and the PLO still did not recognize each other and Israel refused to talk to the PLO or to have its representatives officially in attendance. A formula was concocted whereby there would be a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the Palestinian members of which could be claimed by Israel to not formally represent the PLO, but who themselves insisted that they were doing everything in coordination with the exiled PLO leadership.
Hamas today is the group whose name dare not be spoken in polite company. Yet a process, today, that excludes Hamas (just like excluding the PLO then) is unlikely to deliver sustainability, legitimacy or security. A peace process cannot be built on Palestinian division, and Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah leadership will have to be quietly and patiently climbed back down from the tree that they are so rapidly ascending.
Most of the European Union member states and the Arab states understand this. A discreet but crucial backchannel in the lead-up to any conference would have to be devoted to internal Palestinian reconciliation. This approach would ultimately have to be accepted by both the US and Israel. At least Blair, with his Northern Ireland experience, will have an informative frame of reference with regard to bringing militants into a peace process.
Like I said, it is a very long shot, but this is what I would argue that realists and genuine believers in peace should be advocating for. Today's Quartet meeting in Portugal will likely be all smiles and rhetorical platitudes, but the real work needs to begin and soon.