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A new push for Mideast peace

Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged at a U.S.-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Md., this week to begin negotiating a possible peace agreement that would finally create a Palestinian state. After an intense, 24-hour round of negotiations, Palestinian Pre

What happenedIsraeli and Palestinian leaders pledged at a U.S.-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Md., this week to begin negotiating a possible peace agreement that would finally create a Palestinian state. After an intense, 24-hour round of negotiations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to a framework for talks, with both sides promising to meet every two weeks and hammer out a detailed settlement of all issues by the end of 2008. Leaders of 16 Arab League nations attended the summit—indicating broad Arab support for the first major attempt to broker a Mideast peace deal since talks collapsed during the Clinton administration.

But in agreeing to a framework for talks, neither side gave any hint of how it would address the sticking points that have always stood in the way of a final deal, including Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees whose families once had homes in Israel. “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t believe that peace was possible,” President Bush said as he stood between Olmert and Abbas at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. “They wouldn’t be here either if they didn’t think peace was possible.” Bush said all shared the goal of “a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security.” What the editorials saidWe’ve all been here before, said The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1991, the first President Bush hosted a similar summit in Madrid. Despite his best efforts, Bush the elder couldn’t make peace. Bill Clinton tried even harder, and for far longer, and he failed, too. Now we see the current President Bush suddenly taking an interest in a region he has all but ignored, to its detriment, and it’s painfully obvious that the effort is “too little, too late.”

In fact, said National Review, the Annapolis summit could “make matters worse.” Olmert, beset by scandal and under heavy criticism from the right over his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war, is hardly in a position to make his people accept concessions. Abbas, meanwhile, is beleaguered by an increasingly bellicose Hamas, which is talking about “launching a third intifada.” The attempt by weak leaders to force peace talks could bolster extremists on all sides.

What the columnists said“Skepticism is always warranted” on the topic of Mideast peacemaking, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post, but “something real did happen in Annapolis.” For the first time, an outside arbiter—the United States—was appointed to hold the two sides accountable for “resolving all outstanding issues.” And the summit was no one-off: Both sides have agreed to “vigorous, ongoing, and continuous” meetings every two weeks for a year. That means that “a peace process has begun, and all the powers in the region—including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—will have to deal with it.”

Isolating those extremists is crucial, said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. It was “fear of spreading Iranian influence” that prompted the Arab states to show up in Annapolis. But fear alone is not a sufficient motivator. The moderates, who include both Olmert and Abbas, will have to make the choice to go all-out for peace. “Moderates who are not willing to risk political suicide to achieve their ends are never going to defeat extremists who are willing to commit physical suicide.”

This is Bush’s last chance to leave a positive Middle East legacy, said Roger Cohen, also in the Times. When he entered the Oval Office, he swore off trying to negotiate any deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and after 9/11, “hallucinated” that he could transform the Mideast by invading Iraq. Now he’s “desperate.” Fortunately, so are the Palestinians, who have reached “a dead end,” and the Israelis, who are bone-weary of the occupation and enmity. “Bush delivering Palestine is a far-fetched notion,” but at least he’s giving it a try.

What next?A Palestinian-Israeli steering committee overseeing the negotiations will hold its first meeting on Dec. 12. Follow-up meetings will be held at the top level, between Abbas and Olmert. Gen. James Jones, former commander of NATO, has been named American liaison. He will play a key role, said Dan Ephron in Newsweek, if he can exert “enough clout to be capable of humiliating both sides into compliance.”

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