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Twenty Years After Madrid, Israel-Palestinian Peace Prospects Bleak

Mitchell Plitnick

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 2011 (IPS) - Veteran U.S. diplomats and scholars who have worked for decades on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have grown increasingly pessimistic about the continued viability of the U.S.- sponsored “peace process” and the two-state solution that was presumed to be its goal.

“Things look as bleak today as they did before Madrid,” said former Secretary of State James Baker at a major gathering in Washington this week, in a reference to the landmark Middle East conference in the Spanish capital exactly 20 years ago this week. “The peace process is not dead, but it is on life support.”

“What is lacking is leadership and political will and, regrettably, (that lack) is on the part of the United States, and that has been the case in both Republican and Democratic administrations,” Baker told the audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace which, along with Baker’s Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, co-sponsored the conference, entitled “Twenty Years After Madrid”.

The long list of notable presenters, including a video interview with former President George H.W. Bush, gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of the conference, the first major summit that brought together Arab and Israeli leaders for face-to-face discussions and helped lay the basis for the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) two years later.

Bush and Baker led the effort to assemble the 1991 Madrid conference, which followed the first Gulf War in which a U.S.-led military coalition that included key Arab states successfully routed Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

The conference, which the Bush administration pressured Israel to attend over the strong objections of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, was seen as a quid pro quo for Arab support for the U.S. war. Its intent was to build links between Israel and its Arab neighbours while establishing a forum that could begin to address Palestinian grievances against Israel.

“The Madrid conference laid down the framework for the peace process,” Bush said in his videotaped interview. “Peace can only come from direct negotiations, compromise and give and take. We showed that the United States could be an honest broker.”

Bush, who is recognised as the last U.S. president who could legitimately claim to having been an honest broker in the conflict, acknowledged that the momentum and goodwill generated by the Madrid conference have long since been lost.

“We are Israel’s best friends, but we cannot be Israel’s attorney,” noted Aaron David Miller in an implicit criticism of Washington’s role in overseeing the peace process for most of the past 20 years. Miller served six secretaries of state as a top Middle East “peace- processer” between 1988 and 2003 and is now based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here.

A panel consisting of Miller, former U.S. Aambassadors to Israel Samuel Lewis and Daniel Kurtzer, as well as Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, expressed the general view of the conferees when they unanimously agreed that the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is the only feasible option for settling the conflict, but one that may soon cease to be viable.

“There is no one-state solution; the choice is between two states and continued chaos,” Lewis said. “It’s not dead yet, but continued (Israeli) settlement growth jeopardises it.”

“Palestinians have already accepted the principle of land swaps to accommodate major Israeli settlement blocs,” said Kurtzer. “But if (settlements) keep expanding, the swaps may be too large for either side to make a deal.”

Telhami, whose annual surveys of Arab opinion enjoy a considerable following here, wondered if it was not already too late for the two- state solution. “Both Israeli and Arab majorities don’t believe (the two-state solution) will happen,” he said. “But they also don’t think there can be any other resolution, so they continue to support two states.”

In recent months, the PLO, led by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, has begun to press its case for statehood at the United Nations, and on Monday its application for membership as a state was approved by the governing board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

While most of the speakers agreed that this strategy, which is strongly opposed by Israel and the administration of President Barack Obama, was risky, a senior PLO official, Nabil Sha’ath, defended the move and questioned what he characterised as a double standard in Washington’s response.

“At Madrid, we Palestinians felt for the first time that the United States is there, will stay the course, and will equalise the great disparity of power (between the Palestinians and Israel), which is necessary for negotiations between two such unequal parties,” Sha’ath said.

“Today’s problem is that settlements expand with no consequences to Israel, but when we seek UNESCO membership, our funding is threatened. This was something the U.S. made clear would not happen at Madrid,” he said.

“You can’t negotiate land for peace when that land is being taken away,” Sha’ath went on. “It requires real resolve and leadership, and the coming (U.S. presidential) elections will make that very difficult for the next year,” he noted.

“(Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu has decided to build more settlements in that year, while we will continue to maintain security, prevent a return to violence, maintain our recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders, and also work to secure recognition from the international community. What’s wrong with that?”

The 2012 presidential elections in the U.S. came up repeatedly during the day, and with it came questions about the extent to which domestic politics influence U.S. foreign policy. As Baker put it, “Nothing will happen until after the 2012 elections. Domestic politics is a reality for both parties (Democrat and Republican), and there is no chance for a breakthrough on peace for the next year.”

Shibley Telhami said he saw a desperate need for stronger presidential leadership on the issue.

“Congress will be on autopilot, following the lead of the pro-Israel Lobby until the president makes the case that (the current policy is not in) the national interest,” he said. “For the president to do that, it requires a lot of effort, and he may not do it when he has higher priorities.”

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who helped broker the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt under President Jimmy Carter, was more direct about the influence of domestic politics and Congress on U.S. Mideast policy.

“Absolutely, there is too much influence in Congress (on the part of the pro-Israel lobby),” he said. “The president has the most (option) in the foreign policy arena, provided he asserts it. Otherwise, the void will be filled by Congress and lobbying groups.”

“The president must lead on this issue and recent presidents haven’t. At Camp David we made it clear that the United States would be more critical of whichever side blocks the agreement. We told the Israelis not to push the envelope on this, that we were serious about this stance. Is that abandoning Israel? No, it’s doing Israel a service. That’s what we need to do and are not doing. That is leadership.”

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