If the Middle East peace conference proposed by US President George W. Bush succeeds, it will be hailed as a milestone. If it fails, it will bring about increased despair and cynicism and constitute the gravestone of peace efforts. The key lies in preparation.
For this conference to become a stepping-stone to real progress, participants must come with well-defined ideas and clear objectives and leave with a genuine plan of action in which all players know the roles they have committed to. Good speeches are not enough.
The most critical parties, Israelis and the Palestinians, should come ready with an agreed-upon list of permanent-status principles that will outline the contours of an agreement. No details are needed at this stage.
Conventional wisdom suggests that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not strong enough to market such an agreement to their constituencies. That is simply not true. Both peoples are smarter and more pragmatic than even their leaders think, and both publics came to their own practical conclusions long ago.
And not wise words:
Most Israelis rarely visit the Palestinian parts of Jerusalem. They know that a "united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty" is a slogan that has not reflected reality for years. (The security wall constructed in Jerusalem excludes a substantial part of the city's Palestinian citizens, leaving the city, and the people, effectively divided.)
Most Palestinians acknowledge that the refugees will not return to Haifa, Jaffa or any other towns or villages where they or their ancestors lived before 1948. The illusion of return has served as a pretext to neglect hundreds of thousands of Palestinians stuck in refugee camps.
The above may be true or not. Overwhelming majorities of Palestinians insist on right of return to Israel as part of any peace agreement. As for Israelis, while they don't go to "East Jerusalem," they certainly go to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, and Jews bring their kids to have bar-mizvah ceremonies at the West Wall. Abbas explicitly claimed that Palestinians must have those areas as their own. Where is Ephraim living?
Here are some wiser words however:
Both parties also should be required to bring with them interim reports on what has been accomplished regarding security arrangements in the West Bank. This is critical, and tough questions must be answered. For instance, how are the Aksa Martyrs Brigades fugitives complying with their commitments? How is law and order being imposed by the reformed Palestinian Authority security forces? How is the movement of Palestinians being eased on West Bank roads?
Donor states must arrive prepared to pledge concrete support to specific projects, or to finance key activities in PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad's government. This includes Arab states, especially those enjoying high oil prices. Solidarity with the Palestinian people cannot be confined to speeches in international or Arab conferences. The price of solidarity is commitment and action.
THERE IS great expectation regarding Saudi Arabia's participation. But if the Saudis intend solely to promote reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, it is better that their delegation stay in Riyadh. Hamas, with its terrorist-Islamist charter, cannot be among the builders of Middle East peace; it is one of its principal spoilers.
If, however, the Saudis intend to offer tangible support to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his government and to promote their own ideas for peace, their participation is paramount.
Neither the Bush administration nor the Israelis and the Palestinians can afford anything less than real progress. A conference that produces a good show but no tangible results will ultimately disappoint. In the past, in this volatile region, frustration has led to violence and destruction. Serious preparation, commitment and bold leadership are indispensable.
Unfortunately we can see that nobody is well prepared, and there won't be much real progress. The interim reports of both sides will be either blank or filled with empty verbiage. Hosni Mubarak was right to warn that the conference is ill-prepared: Mubarak: Mideast summit lacks structure, consensus on issues
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