Bush Gives Mideast Peace a Last Try The Arab-Israeli conflict has not been high on President Bush's agenda until now. A conference in Annapolis, Md., is seen as a "relaunch" of a process meant to move the two sides toward peace.
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Bush Gives Mideast Peace a Last Try

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Bush Gives Mideast Peace a Last Try

Bush Gives Mideast Peace a Last Try

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Annapolis, Maryland, just 30-odd miles east of here, is getting ready for the first Middle East Peace Conference in seven years. The Arab-Israeli conflict has not been high on President Bush's agenda until now. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the administration wants to make substantial progress before Mr. Bush leaves office a little over a year from now.

To discuss the upcoming summit, Ghaith Al-Omari of the New America Foundation is in the studio. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. GHAITH AL-OMARI (Senior Fellow, New America Foundation): Thank you.

HANSEN: And also here from the New America Foundation is Daniel Levy. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. DANIEL LEVY (Director, Middle East Policy Initiative of the American Strategy Program, New America Foundation): Thank you.

HANSEN: This isn't the first time a summit has been tried to make some progress late in an American president's term. President Clinton tried, failed. And when it comes to summits, I guess, we want to ask what works and what doesn't. And I'll start with you, Mr. Levy, because you've actually been an Israeli negotiator. So what works best, what doesn't?

Mr. LEVY: First, to clarify, it's not a negotiating summit. So this isn't Camp David in July of 2000. It's much more akin, in a way, to Madrid. If people remember in late 1991, America has just pursued a successful Gulf War, removing Iraq from Kuwait. And the then-president, Bush, towards the end of his first term, brings together regional parties - Israel and all its neighbors, the Arab states, the Saudis were there at that time as well - and they launched a process.

This, in a way, is a relaunch of a process much more similar to Madrid. There are unlikely to be serious negotiations. This won't be locking people in a room trying to produce an agreement. The question is what happens after Annapolis. Does America really maintain an emphasis on this? Does the president get behind this? Or do you actually see what happened in Madrid? Sixteen years later, we haven't gone much farther.

HANSEN: You're talking about what might happen after Annapolis. But Mr. al-Omari, I want to ask you a little bit about what happens before. What kind of preparation is needed for this kind of meeting to work, and do you think it's been done in this case?

Mr. AL-OMARI: I think the main issue that you need to do before this kind of a conference is to define expectations in a realistic way. Unfortunately, this was the biggest failing in Annapolis. What should have been the success that should have been defined, as simply as Daniel mentioned - launching a credible process, defining a credible process - it has not been done that way. Expectations have been raised unrealistically by the parties. The administration has failed to redefine expectations. Unfortunately, right now, we look like we are back-pedaling.

HANSEN: The president - the American President Bush is going to be quite active at this conference. He's going to kick it off with a speech. He has three meetings, being called negotiating sessions, planned with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. How important is the president's involvement? Is it enough? Is it - or is it too little too late?

Mr. AL-OMARI: It's - for me, it's not too little too late. If you look at the Clinton administration, they really started their peace effort in July just four months before the elections. So we have plenty of time. But presidential participation, and especially now, is essential for two reasons.

First of all, it gets the kind of gravitas that is needed for the process. The secretary of state has obviously a lot of weight internationally, but not as much of the president. But more importantly, there have been a lot of talk that the president is not supporting the secretary. There have been a lot of talks that the president is simply giving - or keeping at arm's length from the secretary. His participation right now will remove all doubt. I will make it clear that the secretary speaks in his name.

Mr. LEVY: It's not just, though, about the president being involved. I think what kind of involvement is crucial here. Thus far, when the president has taken a position - he made a well-remembered speech in 2002, he exchanged letters with the Israeli prime minister in 2004, those interventions - let me be generous - have not been overwhelmingly helpful thus far. So it's not just the president being involved. It's will he be involved in a constructive, realistic, not dogmatic way.

The president - and this may surprise people - during his term, his seven years almost in office, has never stepped foot, not in Israel and not in the Palestinian territories. Nor at any of the frontline, if I call them that states - Syria, Lebanon - in none of those places.

HANSEN: And why do you think the summit is happening now?

Mr. LEVY: There is a narrative that this is a new opportunity as clarity on the Palestinian's side, the division between the West Bank and Gaza, the good guys and the bad guys, if you like. There's a desire to show a united front regionally, especially, I would say, in the face of Iran. It's unfortunately difficult to really see this is an opportunity. In fact, many people would say the only opportunity here is that the Americans are getting involved. The only changes taking place is with America.

It may have been far more opportune when Abbas first replaced Arafat. It may have been far more opportune when Olmert became prime minister, when the Palestinian had the unity government, not division. Those were probably real opportunities. This is a somewhat artificial construction, although it's good and it's important that we're back in the game of negotiating.

Mr. AL-OMARI: Ironically, things are - one, they are more difficult on the ground now than they were a few years ago. And politically or substantively, they're easier, unlike when we were negotiators, when we had to come up with the solution from scratch. Right now, the contours or the permanent peace deal within Palestinians and Israelis looks like is known. Through leaks that happened after Camp David and Taba, through informal peace initiatives like the Geneva Initiative, through books that had been written, we know what the options are. Reaching them politically and agreeing to them politically might still be hard but at least we can bypass that phase of negotiation and jump straight to the endgame of making the necessary political decisions.

HANSEN: Is that construction still in place given the Iraq War and given the emergence of Iran? Those are things that have changed.

Mr. AL-OMARI: These are things that changed the regional, political setting and have, in some ways, made reaching a peace deal even more urgent. But the substance of the peace deal - what do you do with Jerusalem, with the refugees, with the territory, with borders? These are things that have not changed. These are things that - I believe, that the solutions that we reached a few years ago are still valid. What you mentioned, the regional context, has made reaching peace more urgent, has made this administration more focused on reaching peace because they realize that ultimately, to deal with Iran, to confront to stabilize the region, Palestine Israel is the key factor. It's not democratization that would grow stability. It's not Iraq that will grow stability. It's the resolving the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mr. LEVY: What it boils down to to my mind is, is America now connecting the dots in the region in a different way? Thus far, it's been support a law to crack there, try democratization somewhere else, deploy your army in another place, isolate a significant actor and just don't talk to them, and that's left a really ugly picture on the page.

If there is an appreciation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution matters to America because it's such a gift to one's adversaries, it's such a fantastic recruiting tool for jihadists. It so undermines America's allies. It has this regional effect and I would, of course, argue as an Israeli that the end result conflict is a disaster for Israel. Occupation has been a disaster for Israel as its settlements. If that's the realization with which America goes into this conference, that's the real opportunity. That changes the dynamic. That will change the way the Arabs view this and create a real moment.

HANSEN: Ghaith Al-Omari and Daniel Levy are both senior fellows at the New America Foundation here in Washington. Thank you both for coming in.

Mr. LEVY: Thank you.

Mr. AL-OMARI: Thank you.

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