Push for Mideast Peace -- Lightly


By Stan Crock When the Bush Administration helped craft the Middle East road map in 2003, Washington pledged to press for a peace accord between the Palestinians and Israelis. It didn't live up to its promise. Now that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to a cease-fire, we're hearing similar noises from the Bush team. But the Administration shouldn't dive in head-first this time -- at least not now.

Yet it looks as if it's preparing to do just that. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is visiting the region now, her first overseas trip in her new position. Bush has appointed Army Lieutenant General William Ward as a security coordinator and invited both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House. Calling this the "most promising moment for progress" in years, Rice declared on Feb. 7, "The U.S. is determined to do all that it can to take advantage of this moment of opportunity."

UNILATERAL PROGRESS. On the surface, this makes sense. Now seems like a golden opportunity for Washington to push its two-state solution. With the death of Yassir Arafat -- whom both Israel and the U.S. boycotted -- and his replacement by Abbas, the Israelis feel they have someone they can deal with. Palestinians are weary of the violent, economically devastating intifada, which has left them further from independent statehood. And Sharon, the architect of Israeli settlements, wants to remove the Israeli outposts in Gaza.

But if one looks a little closer, the golden opportunity doesn't shine quite so brightly. An American bear hug would be the kiss of death for Abbas -- certainly politically and possibly literally. What's more, the unilateralism that both sides are practicing may be a better recipe for short-term progress than negotiation, some experts believe.

Take Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. If Sharon had tried to negotiate the pullback, the talks would have been endless. And afterward, critics would have attacked him for giving up too much and blasted the Palestinians for violating the pact's terms. Similarly, if Abbas had tried to cut a deal to send police to the border to stop attacks on Israel, it would have taken forever to negotiate. And his constituency would have griped that he had handed Israel too much and that the Jewish state was violating the accord.

NUDGE GENTLY. When the two sides move independently, such dynamics aren't at play. Certainly, coordination is needed between the two sides. Someone has to take over when Israel leaves Gaza, and it's necessary to make arrangements with the Palestinians for that eventuality. Similarly, the Israelis can help the Palestinian Authority police maintain order near the border. And so far, the two sides are playing well with each other.

That became abundantly clear when Sharon and Abbas agreed to a cease-fire at Sharm el Sheik on Feb. 8, a symbolically important site since it's one the Israelis controlled after the 1967 war but gave back to Egypt as part of a peace treaty. The U.S. wasn't present at the summit, and that's fine.

So, what's the role for the U.S.? It can nudge gently from behind the scenes when appropriate. It can pony up more money, as the Bush team is proposing. By most accounts, the new Palestinian Authority leadership, including Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, is far more competent and less corrupt than Arafat and his cronies, so there's less fear that the funds will be squandered.

BUILDING ABBAS' STATUS. But what the U.S. should not do is attempt to broker a major deal just now. "The principle of ripeness is important in diplomacy," says one Administration insider. "It looks to a lot of people like it's ripening -- but it's not there yet." Bitterness and mistrust on both sides remain deep. Neither public is prepared for the hard compromises needed -- on land, capitals, refugees, water, and other explosive issues -- as part of an overall and durable settlement.

If the progress so evident now continues, the U.S. will have plenty of time to develop its role. Indeed, that role will prove critical as final-status talks approach. But America will have to wait until Palestinians revive their perception of Washington as an honest broker.

It also will take time for Abbas to gain the political stature crucial to executing a deal. The election was only a start. He needs to establish a reputation as a leader who can improve his people's lot. Abbas may need to bring into the fold Hamas, which has been more successful at delivering services than the Palestinian Authority.

PATIENCE NEEDED Some of the terrorist organization's leaders, perhaps seeing where the future is heading and the overwhelming vote for Abbas, are talking in a more moderate tone. Given the public exhaustion with the intifada, Hamas leaders may view political involvement, rather than violence, as the way to preserve their role among Palestinians.

Israeli domestic politics also needs time to sort itself out. Will Sharon want, or be able, to abandon hard-liners in his Likud Party and move in lockstep with the Labor Party? Will he succeed in crafting some other kind of majority coalition?

Clearly, as promising as present omens are, a great deal must be attained before anyone should sit down to discuss a grand bargain. Rice's trip to the region and Bush's invitations to Sharon and Abbas may be good ideas. But they shouldn't be oversold. Patience, not peace talks, is what the Middle East needs right now. Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State, only on BusinessWeek Online


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