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The Great Mideast Pretenders

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 19, 2007

For years cynical statesmen have played a game of make-believe with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: From podiums in Europe or at the United Nations, they announce that their top priority henceforth will be promoting a "comprehensive settlement," brokered by the "international community." That Israelis and Palestinians may be nowhere near ready for such a deal doesn't concern them. Their interest is not the actual Middle East but political constituencies at home, or perhaps oil-rich Arab governments, for which the mere words "Palestinian state" are something of a talisman.

By now we've learned not to pay much attention when the prime minister of Spain or the U.N. secretary general makes one of those declarations. But there's a new wrinkle in the make-believe gambit: It's been taken up, in seeming desperation, by a couple of people who nominally wield enormous influence in the region -- that is, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Since the beginning of the year, Rice has been proclaiming her commitment to promoting an Israeli-Palestinian "political horizon," which is her newly coined synonym for a comprehensive settlement. She's promised to haunt Jerusalem and Ramallah this year; she will be there again this week. Aides describe her as poring over the "peace process" files of previous administrations, in a dramatic reversal of the Bush administration's previous hands-off policy.

Olmert, for his part, has suddenly begun suggesting an Israeli interest in the Arab peace initiative, a plan originally put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 that offers Israel normal relations with Arab states if it settles with the Palestinians. Israel originally dismissed the initiative because it calls for withdrawal to its 1967 borders and the return of Palestinian refugees. Yet last week Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, were talking about the "positive elements" in the plan as well as the potential for "negotiations with the Palestinians on its basis," as Olmert put it.

After meeting with Livni in Washington, Rice said, "I think very favorably about the idea" that the Arab League would re-endorse the initiative, as it is expected to do at a meeting in Riyadh at the end of the month.

So what's this all about? Could Israel really be preparing to accept the Arab initiative as a prelude to full-blown peace negotiations with the likes of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states? Will Rice, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hammer out the terms of a permanent settlement, so that Abbas can use the prospect of statehood to vanquish uncompromising rivals from Hamas?

In fact, hardly anyone expects these things to happen. As Israelis, especially, know all too well, conditions are anything but ripe. Both Abbas and Olmert are terribly weak; Olmert's popularity rating is in the single digits. Abbas has just been pressured by Hamas into accepting a "unity" government whose platform endorses continuing "resistance" -- i.e., violence -- against Israel.

Hamas has been busy in recent months building bunkers and stockpiling anti-tank weapons in the Gaza Strip, in imitation of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Despite a cease-fire, crude rockets are being fired at southern Israeli cities every day. Israeli military commanders are pressing for action, and even political leaders seem to believe a new war like that of last summer is all but inevitable.

Rice's aides insist that she's serious about her diplomacy. Yet it's hard to resist the notion that it's mainly aimed at an audience of one: Saudi King Abdullah, for whom Palestinian statehood is a deeply felt cause. Rice has been leaning heavily on Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Abdullah's national security chief and an intimate of the Bush family, to organize Arab resistance against Iran. Bandar was in Washington again last week, simultaneously with Livni. Talking up the Saudi initiative pleases the king, whom Rice needs to keep happy. For Olmert it offers the double advantage of helping his American allies and titillating Israelis with the possibility of a breakthrough in relations with Arab states.

You might think that talking about the parameters of peace can't do any harm. But history shows that it can. President Clinton's push for a peace deal at the end of his presidency raised expectations that, when dashed, helped produce the bloody Israeli-Palestinian warfare that followed. Some Israeli officials fear a repeat: When nothing comes of the Saudi initiative or Rice's political horizon, Hamas will have the justification it needs to launch the war-in-waiting in Gaza.

There's also the opportunity cost. Instead of talking about final borders and refugees, Olmert, Abbas and Rice might usefully be cutting deals that would ease conditions for average Palestinians in Gaza, release prisoners on both sides, solidify the cease-fire -- and maybe head off that war. Isn't that better than make-believe?

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