As Secretary Rice sets off for Israel and the Palestinian territories to prepare a November peace meeting, the signs do not look good: the daily situation on the ground has not improved, Palestinians remain deeply divided, and tension has just rocketed up on Israel’s northern border with Syria. Predictably, all sides are upping the ante in advance of the Secretary’s visit. PM Olmert is talking down his negotiating wiggle room for a November declaration, President Abbas is asserting that a vague outcome would make the November exercise counter-productive and key Arab parties, crucially the Saudis, are suggesting they will not attend under these circumstances. Time is running out for Secretary Rice to seize the initiative and up the US diplomatic game.
The Iraq Study Group advocated a regional diplomatic surge. November is an opportunity to implement that recommendation – but so far it is an effort on tranquilizers, when it needs to be on steroids.
To be successful and to begin to have regional impact, the outcome of November’s summit must be inclusive, substantive and visible. Inclusive, in also providing a political horizon, directly or indirectly, to key actors thus far excluded and who have spoiler potential – Syria and also Hamas. Substantive, in laying out clear parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame. And visible, in delivering the beginnings of real change on the ground, such as security and a mutual cease-fire, including Gaza, removal of checkpoints, release of prisoners and more.
But a two-day visit in September and another one perhaps around the Iraq neighbors conference in Turkey in October will not be enough to deliver this. It is time for shuttling to make a rare appearance in this administration’s Middle East lexicon.
Attempted peacemaking, if ill-conceived, can be as risky and destabilizing as war-making. A harsh, but not totally unrealistic scenario would see a failed November effort weaken America’s allies, mobilize adversaries, embolden Iran and further destabilize the region with a possible spill-over effect in Iraq. Avoiding this will require a more dynamic and less dogmatic diplomacy. (And finally remember Camp David in 2000 and have your fall-back option prepared.)