ANALYSIS - U.S. peace effort faces Middle East credibility gap
Sun Aug 5, 2007
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.S. plan to host a Middle East peace conference is intended to signal a new commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But many in the region doubt President George W. Bush can muster the perseverance and evenhandedness in his last 17 months in office to deliver the two-state solution he evoked in 2002.
Others fear an exercise in futility if the idea is to forge peace between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction without the consent of the elected government led by Hamas Islamists who have seized control of the Gaza Strip.
Visiting the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed an international conference, perhaps in October, that would discuss a "declaration of principles".
Previous outlines for resolving the conflict, from the 1993 Oslo accords to the 2002 "road map", have never led to deals on final borders and the fate of refugees and Jerusalem.
"The Bush administration has talked a good peace process, but hasn't done very much," said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher, adding the conference was unlikely to be a major milestone.
Bush has mostly avoided close engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, often to the frustration of Washington's mediating partners -- the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
"We have been asking for these type of developments," Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said of the planned international conference.
But an EU official said the details of the meeting were not yet known and conditions for a breakthrough seemed lacking.
"If they want to solve the Middle East conflict, to agree on a final territorial settlement, probably the situation is not mature," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Israel has shied away from such goals, especially since U.S.-brokered talks collapsed in 2000 and a Palestinian uprising began. Years of violence destroyed any lingering mutual trust.
Israel quit Gaza unilaterally in 2005, but the Hamas takeover there in June stifled any appetite for similar pullouts from the West Bank, where it has expanded Jewish settlements, built barriers and strangled the movement of people and goods.
Violent disarray among the Palestinians and persistent rocket attacks from Gaza have made many Israelis reluctant even to contemplate giving up land and security control.
To swing them behind any major policy shift towards ending the occupation would need strong leadership, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who once favoured some unilateral West Bank withdrawals, is struggling to save his political career from the damage it incurred in last year's Lebanon war.
He told Rice last week that Hamas, which has rejected international demands that it recognise Israel and accept previous interim peace deals, must be "kept out of the game".
Hamas has said any talks from which it is excluded would be just a photo opportunity, a view shared by many analysts who question the U.S.-Israeli strategy of isolating Hamas in Gaza while bolstering Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank.
While the Palestinian schism persists, Hamas will have a stake in sabotaging any progress in Abbas-led talks with Israel, the International Crisis Group argued in a report this month.
"How can Abbas deliver a ceasefire without the Islamists and their allies? How can he legitimise a political agreement with Israel ... if Hamas's significant constituency feels excluded? How can he move toward building a state if Gaza is left out?"
The report said repairing the Fatah-Hamas rift and including Islamists in the political system was vital to any peace effort.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?
Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based commentator, said the U.S. administration had left it very late to push for a solution.
"You have three desperate leaders -- Bush, Olmert and Abbas -- whose own people barely support them. If they try to salvage their political failures through a trumped-up, fake peace process, this is not going to work," he said.
Despite such scepticism, support for a peace drive is coming from Washington's Arab allies, fearful of rising Iranian power, chaos in Iraq and the appeal of Islamist militancy tapped by groups as diverse as Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, has said it could join the U.S.-proposed peace talks as long as they are substantive. For Riyadh, this hinges on Israeli acceptance of an offer of full peace with the Arab world in return for withdrawal to 1967 borders and creation of a Palestinian state.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have argued for years that the region cannot be stable unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major source of Muslim grievance, is settled.
These Sunni-ruled powers now share an interest with the United States and Israel in countering Shi'ite Iran, whose influence has expanded as a result of the war in Iraq.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, doubted Bush could seize the opportunity or recognise that settling the Palestinian issue was a strategic interest.
"To resolve this would require major U.S. leadership, and that is not going to happen in this administration," he said.
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