Israel-Palestine Talks Must Be Inclusive, Urge US Graybeards

To succeed, next month’s Israeli-Palestinian conference here should establish and endorse the contours of a permanent peace accord and secure the participation of Arab states that do not currently recognize Israel, including Syria, according to a letter sent Wednesday to President George W. Bush from a bipartisan group of eight former top US policy-makers.

The conference should also be used to launch Israeli-Syrian peace talks and lay the groundwork for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, the first step toward engaging Hamas, which controls Gaza, in the larger peace effort, according to the letter, which was signed by the national security advisers to former US presidents, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, among others.

In order to be credible to Arab participants, however, the conference, which is currently scheduled to take place Nov. 15 in Annapolis, Maryland, Israel must commit itself to a freeze on all settlement expansion, according to the letter, which was also signed by former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chair with former Secretary of State James Baker of the Iraq Study Group.

"It is impossible to conduct a serious discussion on ending the occupation while settlement construction proceeds apace," the letter stated. "Efforts also should focus on alleviating the situation in Gaza and allowing the resumption of its economic life."

Gaza, which has been controlled by Hamas since its forces routed Fatah fighters loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party from the territory last June, has been subject to a crippling Israeli- and US-led economic embargo that has permitted only humanitarian supplies to reach its 1.3 million residents.

The letter comes amid intensified exchanges between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in advance of next month’s conference, and follows the publication late last month of another letter from five former senior US diplomats with lengthy service in the Middle East. It urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to intensify her own mediation efforts to ensure a successful outcome.

That letter called on Washington to offer its own "bridging proposals" and make far more use of the "Quartet’s" new special envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to narrow differences between the two sides in the run-up to the meeting. It also urged the administration to take steps to draw potential spoilers, notably Hamas and Syria, into an expanded peace process that should include a series of follow-up meetings.

Both letters stressed that any final communiqué coming out of the November conference should include mutually agreed understandings between Israel and the Palestinians on five key issues that are considered central to any final settlement that would be reached between them. Those understandings should then be enshrined in a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

They include the creation of two states based on the 1967 Green Line with minor, reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications through one-to-one land swaps; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both the Israeli and Palestinians states, with Jewish neighborhoods to fall under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty; and with special arrangements for the Old City guaranteeing unimpeded access by each community to their holy places.

The two letters also called for mutually agreed understandings on the Palestinian refugee problem, including financial compensation and resettlement assistance for those refugees who cannot or do not want to live in a new Palestinian state; and on the creation of security mechanisms that that would address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.

"Because failure risks devastating consequences in the region and beyond, it is critically important that the conference succeed," according to Wednesday’s letter, which was co-sponsored by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the New America Foundation (NAF), and the US/Middle East Project.

While the administration is unlikely to object to any of these understandings, many analysts doubt its willingness to push hard on the two parties, particularly Israel, to make the necessary compromises.

Many of the same analysts believe the administration may be actively opposed to the two letters’ other recommendations, particularly their call to end Washington’s efforts to isolate Syria and Hamas, which are seen by the administration’s hawks as part of an extremist, Iranian-led radical alliance determined to oust the region’s "moderate", pro-US regimes and destroy Israel.

While Wednesday’s letter praised the Bush administration’s decision to invite Syria to Annapolis, it added that Washington should follow up with "genuine engagement" with Damascus, a recommendation also made by the Iraq Study Group, which Bush has steadfastly resisted.

"A breakthrough on this track could profoundly alter the regional landscape," the letter said. "At a minimum, the conference should launch Israeli-Syrian talks under international auspices."

As for Hamas, both letters called for a reversal of US policy. "We believe that a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation," the Wednesday letter asserted, suggesting that it could be conducted indirectly through the UN and Blair. "Promoting a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point," it added.

"If Syria or Hamas is ostracized, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically," the letter warned. "This could take the shape of escalating violence from the West Bank or from Gaza, either of which would overwhelm any political achievement, increase the political cost of compromises for both sides and negate Israel’s willingness or capacity to relax security restrictions."

In addition to these steps, the same letter stressed the necessity for agreement in Annapolis on implementing "concrete steps" to improve conditions on the ground, including a comprehensive cease-fire in both the West Bank and Gaza, an exchange of prisoners, prevention of arms smuggling, dismantling of illegal Israeli outposts, and ensuring greater Palestinian freedom of movement.

"Of utmost importance," it added, was to freeze Israeli settlement expansion and improving the economic situation in Gaza.

Other signers of Wednesday’s letter included Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve; former US Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker; former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy, Theodore Sorenson; and former UN Ambassador and Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering.

"The administration is finally showing some political will to move on Middle East peacemaking," noted Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator currently with NAF. "It must now combine that with political skill to achieve positive results, and a good place to start would be listening to wise and experienced counsel."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.