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High price of failure raises urgency of Mideast peace conference in Md.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

JERUSALEM -- This week's Mideast peace conference is unlike any previous U.S. attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the price of failure has risen dramatically:~ The biggest question is not whether a deal can be reached, but whether it can be implemented.

Radical Islamists could gain the upper hand in Palestinian areas and in an increasingly polarized Middle East.

Perhaps because of these high stakes, the latest bid to partition the Holy Land and end a century of conflict is receiving unprecedented international support, with more than 45 nations to attend the summit at Annapolis, Md.

There may be no better time for relaunching peace talks. Beleaguered leaders are hungry for achievement, most Israelis and Palestinians long for a negotiated settlement, and moderate Arab nations appear ready to provide key backing to offset the growing influence of Iran -- a reality highlighted by Saudi Arabia's decision Friday to send its foreign minister to Annapolis.

But the region's old demons are threatening new hope. Israel's prime minister is kowtowing to his hawkish coalition partners, the Palestinian president controls only part of his territory and extremists on both sides hold the power to torpedo any progress.

The two-day summit at Annapolis brings together Israelis and Palestinians in a U.S. effort to heal the rift. At stake is not just Palestinian statehood, but the survival of moderate forces in the Middle East and beyond.

"In this big picture, resolving this dispute is of colossal importance," Mideast envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair said recently. "It is a signal of reconciliation across faiths and cultures. It removes the cause that extremists use above all else to try to ensnare moderates within Islam."

Seeking a settlement

The scope of the conference has been scaled back from trying to outline a peace deal to simply relaunching negotiations in hopes of reaching a settlement before President Bush leaves office in a year. But just getting the sides to talk again is an accomplishment, considering seven years of diplomatic deadlock and fighting that killed 4,400 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis.

The bitterness of those years is evident in low expectations.

"We are not in the era of hope," said 45-year-old Israeli civil servant Rivka Cohen. "We are now in the era of 'so long as it doesn't get worse."'

Qassem Abu Khaled, 48, who lost his West Bank carpentry business because of Israeli travel restrictions, said he only trusts actions. "If they were to change we would have seen signals like freezing settlement construction or removing checkpoints. But all we see is more building and more restrictions," he said.

Such pessimism has been reinforced by the troubled conference preparations, including failure to write a joint declaration to be presented there. These challenges pale in comparison to what lies ahead, such as drawing borders and dividing Jerusalem.

Past summits already outlined the contours of a solution: a Palestinian state based roughly on pre-1967 Mideast War frontiers, shared control of Jerusalem and recognition of the needs of Palestinian refugees.

Two countries, two fears

The biggest question, it seems, is not whether a deal can be reached, but whether it can be implemented.

Israel has reason to fear a handover of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Hamas overran Gaza following Israel's 2005 withdrawal from that territory -- and then fired missiles at Israeli targets.

Palestinians fear that Israel's expanding settlements and separation barrier jutting deep into Palestinian territory have swallowed up so much land that statehood is slipping away.

Another obstacle to a deal is the weakness of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose hands are tied by right-wing coalition partners, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost Gaza to Hamas and has difficulty reining in militants in the West Bank.

Israelis and Palestinians long for charismatic leaders of the past -- like Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon -- and fear the buttoned-up Abbas and the cool-headed Olmert won't inspire the popular backing necessary to push through a deal.

"You are asking way too much of mere mortals who are prisoners rather than masters of their own political houses," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator.

Olmert may soon have to choose between two hawkish coalition partners and pursuing peace. For now, it appears he wants both -- which may explain his reluctance to meet key Palestinian demands such as an immediate settlement freeze. If he reaches a peace accord, early elections are likely.

For Abbas, the biggest challenge is Hamas. It and its Iranian patrons are poised to capitalize on failure. In case of success, Hamas could try to derail talks by stepping up attacks on Israel, which in turn would likely force Israel to reoccupy Gaza.

A bipartisan group of prominent former U.S. policymakers recently urged Bush to rethink the strategy of marginalizing Hamas and another Hamas backers, Syria.

Notably, Syria is among the nations the U.S. invited to Annapolis -- an indication Washington may now be taking such advice into account.

In Gaza, Hamas official Ahmed Yousef declared Annapolis a "total failure" even before it started.

"At a time when your country is split, it's not a good time to negotiate. They (the Israelis) will exploit your weakness," he said.

Despite threats from spoilers, Annapolis is being held under a rare convergence of interests.

Abbas needs a lift in his showdown with Hamas. Bush hopes to salvage his Iraq-tainted legacy.

Olmert is seeking redemption from corruption scandals and an unpopular war in Lebanon in 2006, and may never find a more amenable negotiating partner than Abbas.

"The prime minister thinks clearly that time is not in our favor," said Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.

Sunni-dominated Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia find themselves sharing the West's concern about the growing influence of Shiite-majority Iran, a key backer of Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Saudi support would bestow credibility on any agreement and give Israel an incentive to make concessions in exchange for Arab recognition.

Israelis and Palestinians may require intense U.S. involvement to bridge their differences -- something that's been absent during most of the past seven years.

Both sides also recognize that the status quo is not sustainable.

"It's either the path of peace and moderation, or the path of drowning in extremism, bloodshed, violence and counterviolence," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Former Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher warned that Israel "cannot possibly govern ... the Palestinians for the next 40 years as we did for the last 40 years."


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