November 4, 2008 | WebMemo on Middle East
On November 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to travel to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Egypt in another effort to reinvigorate the stalemated Arab-Israeli peace talks. While in the region she will meet with senior government officials from each of these nations, along with senior officials from the other members of the "Quartet"-the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.
Together with the United States, these members proposed the "Road Map" for peace in 2003 and have helped mediate subsequent peace negotiations. Rice is unlikely to score a diplomatic breakthrough on the trip because the regional environment, Palestinian political situation, and Israeli political situation are not conducive to forging an agreement. Rather than rushing to patch together an unsustainable final agreement, Rice should temper her ambitions and seek incremental progress on a framework agreement that can keep the faltering peace process alive for the next Administration.
U.S. Engagement Is Not Enough
Rice has made 19 visits to the Middle East in the last two years, including eight visits to the region since the November 27, 2007, Annapolis conference set a wildly ambitious goal of reaching a final status agreement creating a Palestinian state existing side by side in peace with Israel by the end of 2008. Despite Rice's best efforts, Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain far apart on core issues regarding borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees.
The sad truth is that conditions are not ripe for an agreement, regardless of how much time Rice spends shuttling around the Middle East:
Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's caretaker government, hamstrung by scandals, nor President Mahmoud Abbas's shaky Palestinian Authority is in a position to make major concessions. Little progress is likely until after Israel's February elections at the earliest.
Given the adverse situation and poor prospects for negotiating a diplomatic breakthrough, Rice should avoid attempting to do too much too fast in her remaining weeks in office. Such an approach would only feed unrealistic expectations that could boil over into another explosion of violence, as happened after the Clinton Administration's failed Camp David summit in 2000. Instead, Rice should:
Rice should lower expectations and adopt a more realistic policy in pressing for progress on peace negotiations. Rather than rush a final settlement that will be dead on arrival due to Hamas's ability to block implementation of any agreement, Washington should pursue step-by-step diplomacy to forge an interim understanding that can keep the negotiations alive for the next Administration. A flawed agreement would be worse than no agreement at all.
James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.